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Hard to figure

Henin-Hardenne inspires contradictory emotions

Posted: Monday July 3, 2006 10:05PM; Updated: Tuesday July 4, 2006 10:33AM
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Justine Henin-Hardenne, who has advanced to the quarterfinals, is three victories away from completing a career Grand Slam.
Justine Henin-Hardenne, who has advanced to the quarterfinals, is three victories away from completing a career Grand Slam.

WIMBLEDON, England -- Once, it was very easy to know what to feel about the woman. Justine Henin-Hardenne was plucky, small, damaged and tough, with a backhand from God and a backstory straight out of Hollywood. She was 12 when her mother, Francoise, died of cancer, but Justine had promised Mom she would win the French Open, and soon enough she was chopping down the bigger girls standing in her way. Soon enough, in fact, she was 19 years old and in her first Grand Slam final, impressing the world with a chilling calm.

"I've always been mature," Henin-Hardenne shrugged back in 2001. "When I was eight or nine, I went to school and had to drive a lot to the tennis and was learning in the car because I didn't have time when I came home for practice. I did everything for tennis. When I lost my mom, it was for sure a big experience in my life, and after that I said, 'OK, tennis is not the most important. There are many other things more important.' So when I'm on the court, I am not so nervous because I say, 'I lost my mom. I prefer I'm not a great champion in tennis, but keeping my mom.'"

This was five years ago, Henin-Hardenne sitting at a table on a swath of grass at the All England Club, the day before she would lose to Venus Williams in the '01 Wimbledon final. It was impossible not to pull for her then, on the verge, because how does one cheer against a girl and a ghost? "When I'm on the court, she's always with me," Henin-Hardenne said. "She watches me; I'm sure of that. She knew I was really ambitious and that I always wanted to be a top player, and she said, 'If you want it, you will be.'"

Now, of course, she is. Henin-Hardenne spent 45 weeks ranked No. 1 in 2003, has won five Grand Slam titles and, as the No. 3 seed at these 2006 Wimbledon championships, is well positioned to complete a career Grand Slam. Yet, she says, in her mind she's no different than the girl of five years ago. She would still trade all her titles to have her mother back.

"My main values remain the same," Henin-Hardenne said after her 6-3, 6-1 win over Daniela Hantuchova. "When someone comes to me and says I didn't change, that I've stayed the same person I was a few years ago, I've won something very precious. It's important that even if you get great success, you remember that tennis is not everything."

The same person? Who can say? Maybe what has happened since revealed the hard edges blurred by sentimentality; maybe it was easy to feel good about Henin-Hardenne because we didn't know enough. Because even as she battled back from serious injury and illness over the last five years, even as she took down more powerful players, Henin-Hardenne complicated things by seemingly being willing to do anything, no matter how graceless, to win.