HT Brunch Cover Story: Mixed doubles with Justine Henin and Yuki Bhambri
When India’s young tennis star Yuki Bhambri meets seven times Grand Slam champion Justine Henin, there is tennis talk, fanboying. and lots of mutual admirationUpdated: Jun 02, 2019 00:29 IST
When an international tennis star comes to town, setting up an interview and photo shoot with her is a no-brainer. When that international tennis star is of the calibre of Justine Henin – seven times Grand Slam champion and a legend in her own right – you need to think a little harder. Couldn’t this opportunity be made better?
It could. Which is why we phoned tennis champion Yuki Bhambri, former world junior No. 1 and first Indian winner of the Australian Open Junior Championship in 2009, to ask if he’d be interested in talking with Justine and learning from her.
“If you saw the freezing conditions I came from, you would be happy to have so much sunshine!” –Justine Henin
No surprise here, Yuki said a resounding yes. “Justine has been an all-time favourite player not just for me, but for my entire family,” Yuki told us. “My parents are also big fans. I remember watching her at the French Open and loved her game. I’m so excited about meeting her face to face and asking for tips!”
Justine would make the perfect mentor for Yuki, I muse, as I wait for her on the perfectly-maintained lawns of The Imperial hotel, right in the heart of Delhi. Though her career spanned less than a decade (she stopped playing professionally while still in her 20s), she was compared with Roger Federer for her mastery of every facet of the game. The legendary Billie Jean King called her “the greatest athlete we have seen,” while Martina Navratilova said this about her potent one-handed backhand: “We’ve got the female Federer, or maybe the guys have the male Justine Henin.”
Winner meets winner
Yuki arrives, so excited that he’s actually nervous. “To watch a legend like her play on the court and then to actually meet her face to face and do a shoot with her… I can’t tell you how lucky I feel right now,” says the six-feet-tall player. “The most important thing I want to learn from Justine is how to acquire those nerves of steel while playing a Grand Slam, and be the number one again and again. Believe me, it requires massive mental and physical strength.”
Justine arrives now, the 5-foot-6 former world No. 1 from Belgium, a dynamo on the field when she played professionally. Apart from her notorious backhand, she possessed a potent forehand that was just as fierce and versatile.
On her maiden visit to India, Justine is in New Delhi as a brand ambassador for the French Open, which she had won four times in five years. She was the chief guest at the Roland-Garros Junior Wild Card Series event in the capital, where the winners of the boys’ and girls’ events qualified for the international finals in Paris, the best way to get a spot in the junior slam events.
“I remember playing a match against Steffi Graf and how I behaved like a fangirl all through the game” – Justine Henin
It’s blazing hot, and the stylist leaps into action so this outdoor shoot can be finished quickly. As she approves and disapproves the clothes we’ve picked out for her, Justine tells us how impressed she was with the young tennis players she’d met the day before.
“There is a lot of potential in India,” she says. “I got a chance to interact with some of the kids and host a clinic for them as well. Some of them are just exceptional to watch and I can very confidently say that there is no dearth of talent in India as far as tennis goes. Some of them might get the wild card to play in the world finals in Paris. It will be an experience of a lifetime; they are not going to get that kind of atmosphere anywhere in the world.”
Sports of life
The photographer signals that the shot is ready, and as we walk on the lush green grass, Justine says she is reminded of the time when most matches were played on grass rather than the clay surfaces that are more prominent now. “Which do you prefer?” asks Yuki. “I was happy when we had a clay season as well as a grass season,” Justine says. “Surfaces are much slower now and we will not see serve and volley any more in the future.”
As the photographer asks Yuki to behave like a fanboy (he doesn’t have to try hard to get that look), Yuki asks Justine about life after retirement.
“I have been playing tennis since the age of five and have given almost 14 years to the game, but it was time to focus on my personal life,” says Justine. “Also, I had injuries which were creating issues for me. That’s something you should definitely pay attention to.”
The youngest of four siblings, Justine was inspired by her older brothers who were into football and tennis. “My brothers were my real idols, I wanted to be like them,” she says. “We had a tennis table at home, and I started playing table tennis when I was four. I used to play football with the boys too, but my parents found that a bit dangerous and enrolled me at a tennis club close to our house. So, from the age of five I started focusing on tennis.”
Justine showed promise as a tennis player, and her parents supported her totally. Her mother, a teacher with limited interest in sport, told her to continue only if she was willing to give 200 per cent to the game. She took her mother’s advice seriously and made her professional debut at the age of 16. By the end of 2000, she ranked among the top 50 players in the world. In 2008, Justine stunned everyone by announcing her retirement. But her love for tennis was so strong that she made a comeback after 16 months, only to retire once and for all after an elbow injury in 2011.
Now aged 37, Justine runs a tennis academy in Belgium for kids keen on learning the game. A firm believer in the saying that ‘sports prepare one for life,’ Justine advises all kids to pick some sport for sure. “Sports build the passion to do something well. It not only helps you get the discipline and the will to do things, it also helps to control emotions and channelise your energy in the right way,” she explains.
The photographer asks Justine to hold her face at a certain angle, while we start getting worried about the increasing temperature. But Justine doesn’t mind the sun at all. “If you saw the freezing conditions I came from, you would be happy to have so much sunshine,” she says. “Thankfully I don’t sweat much, but I guess it’s easier to play a game of tennis than pose for shots with a racquet and several balls!”
As Yuki trots off to the dressing room to change, I ask Justine what advice she would give to young professional players like Yuki.
“I think Yuki is a great young ambassador for the sport,” says Justine. “What he has achieved should be an inspiration for many aspiring tennis players in India. It was a good experience interacting with him and talking tennis. I think he still has a long career and just needs to keep working hard, stay fit and maintain his focus.”
While she doesn’t really follow the careers of Indian players closely, she knows both Leander Paes and Sania Mirza, and has nothing but praise for them.
“I played against Sania in 2011 at the Australian Open and we played a great match that went into three sets. She went on to become a great player in doubles; her partnership with Martina Hingis is commendable,” says Justine. “And Leander has contributed much to popularising tennis in India. He and Mahesh Bhupathi formed a formidable doubles pair on the tour and won many Slams together. Leander, Sania and Yuki are great ambassadors of tennis in India.”
Switch on the fans!
Yuki’s back now, looking dapper in a white shirt and blue trousers. Justine compliments him and he blushes like a teenager. Fanboying over Justine comes easy to him, it seems. But now Yuki wants to know: has Justine ever fangirled over anyone herself?
“The most important thing I want to learn from Justine is how to acquire those nerves of steel while playing a Grand Slam!” –Yuki Bhambri
“I have been a big fan of Steffi Graf all my life,” reveals Justine with a laugh. “I remember playing an exhibition match against her and how I just behaved like a fangirl all through the game. She is a legend of the game with over 20 Grand Slam titles to her name, and will always remain an inspiration for millions of athletes around the world.”
The sun is almost overhead now, and we decide to do the last shoot in the coffee shop. Justine looks as fresh as she did when we began, and tells us how important tennis is to her. “Playing tennis at the highest level has obviously kept me very grounded and now I strive to give back to aspiring tennis players in Belgium through my academy,” she says. “Tennis has made me what I am today and has taught me to keep things simple. I try to bring that bit in my personal life too. My husband Benoit is my biggest support system; he takes care of our two kids as I can’t always be around due to my professional commitments and academy work.”
It’s finally time to leave, but not before I ask Justine what her impression of India has been. “I haven’t been able to go out much due to a tight schedule, but two things that have struck me are the openness and friendly nature of people, and the love for colour especially in Indian women,” laughs Justine.
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From HT Brunch, June 2, 2019
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First Published: Jun 01, 2019 23:56 IST