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How Power Has Transformed Womens Tennis



ON THE DAY BEFORE
Wimbledon started, when the club grounds had not yet opened to the public, Justine Henin, the diminutive Belgian tennis great, stepped onto practice court No. 3, then still an emerald patch of unspoiled grass. The sun had just come out after several cloudy days, and all around, players, their coaches and families, yammering in various languages, exchanged greetings like veteran bunkmates on the first day at summer camp. Not Henin. Having unretired last year as suddenly as she quit 16 months earlier — saying she had got all she wanted from the sport — she remained absorbed with her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, in their warm-up routine.

She began exchanging ground strokes, forehands and backhands, slowly then harder, with a hitting partner, one of the men that the top women hire to practice with, a tall, powerful young Briton, Scott Sears, who missed a few shots, apologized and began to sweat. Henin missed nothing, ever. Most eyes now turned toward her, drawn by the silence of the practice, which was interrupted only when Rodriguez, to whom Henin kept turning for assurance, issued a gentle “marche” every once in a while.

In Henin, the line between an expression of vulnerability and a devouring stare of slightly sour competitiveness can be fuzzy. Venus and Serena Williams, the game’s longtime dominant sisters, tend to look more abstracted, in a world closed onto themselves. Until they’re threatened. Then the array of weapons — the fist pumps, the drive to win, the sheer, overwhelming athleticism — emerge. Henin, “the sister of no mercy,” as she is called, is a more elegant player but no less unrelentingly obsessed with crushing her opponents.

Finished, she gathered up her belongings, leaving Sears in a pool of sweat, then walked off, head down so as not to catch anyone’s eye, trying to preserve, it seemed, like breath on glass, the focus she had on court. Even practicing, she made an argument for promoters who claim that women’s tennis has never been better off.

 

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