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Justine Henin: From Tragedy to Triumph - Mark Ryan

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Genre: Biography. Biography of the tennis player

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      11.10.2011 19:43
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      Should satisfy the fans, but probably won't attract too many newcomers

      While tennis is not one of the sports about which I am passionate, it is nevertheless something I enjoy watching, and the Belgian player Justine Henin (Henin-Hardenne as she was for a while) was someone I usually found good to watch because of her all-round game. There are players who depend very heavily on one stroke, but Henin was someone who excelled in many areas, in a way reminscent of Roger Federer in the men's game. I did have one little personal bias, which was that I think that the one-handed backhand (as practised by Henin) is much more elegant than the thumping two-hander.

      This book's subtitle is From Tragedy to Triumph, which is a rather clunky and unoriginal phrase but can fairly be called accurate. Many sportspeople have tumultuous personal lives, but in Henin's case this reached the point at which she was effectively disowned by her father. This treatment had a lot to do with her marriage (now ended) to Pier-Yves Hardenne, but what's interesting about Mark Ryan's book - something which sets it apart from many biogaphies - is that he does not simply side with Henin on everything, but comes across as understanding of, and often sympathetic towards, her father's position.

      Those parts of the book in which Henin's personal trials are considered are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most interesting and involving sections. And not only her relationship as an adult: her mother Francoise died young as a result of colon cancer, and this (the tragedy of the book's subtitle) is treated movingly and with sensitivity. Ryan writes simply and without much in the way of stylistic adornment, but when dealing with a subject like this I think that's often the best way: allow the plain facts to speak for themselves rather than trying to tell the reader how emotional everything is, something they can see for themselves.

      There is still plenty in the book that is more like the run-of-the-mill sporting biographies. Almost inevitably, the reader does have to wade through rather a lot of detail of the subject's brilliance on the court. Sometimes this goes a little overboard: for example, when on the way to her first Grand Slam title at the 2003 French Open she controversially defeated Serena Williams, the crucial incident (Williams served what she thought was an ace, only to find that Henin had her hand up indicating that she was not ready to receive) is dragged out for probably twice as long as it really needed to be.

      It's a pleasant little book to hold: one of those chunky, A5-ish sized hardbacks that lend themselves quite well to informal reading on trains or in the garden. It doesn't feel as though an enormous budget was set aside for the actual production, and the paper is slightly thin (though this does at least keep the weight down) but I haven't found it falling apart after having been stuffed in a bag a few times. That said, it is not really up to the standard where you would want to display it in a bookcase as a fine and precious gem, and I doubt that this book is ever going to become a keepsake for those not personally connected with Henin.

      I picked up this volume for just a pound - in Poundland, as it happens - and for that price it really is very hard to complain about value for money. It is currently only available new as a paperback, at £8.99 from Amazon, and that may be a little dear for all but committed fans, though there are plenty of second-hand copies on the market for two or three pounds. I think this is a solid three-star book: it's readable and generally quite well written, but for the ordinary reader it doesn't pull you up short with a "wow!" Hardcore tennis fans may go for it a little bit more.

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