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Steve Flink: Henin's New Chapter

9/28/2009 11:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

I never really understood why Justine Henin decided to leave her chosen profession in May of 2008. She was then the best woman tennis player in the world. She was not yet 26. She already had captured seven Grand Slam tournaments, including four French Open titles, two U.S. Open championships, and one triumph at the Australian Open. She had concluded three years as the top ranked female player in the game, had secured a remarkable 41 singles titles since her pro career had commenced in 1999. She had been the ultimate professional in women’s tennis, the player with the finest work ethic, the champion who had given more heart and soul to the sport than any of her adversaries.

And yet, I was convinced she had left tennis without attending to some essential unfinished business. Despite the completeness of her game--- the soundest ground strokes of any woman player, an improved first serve, a growing command of the volley (especially off the backhand side), uncanny court sense and match playing acumen--- Henin had inexplicably decided to retire from tennis without having secured the single highest honor of them all. She had twice put herself within one set of winning Wimbledon, but had lost the 2001 final to Venus Williams and the 2006 title match to Amelie Mauresmo, both in three set encounters. I could not comprehend why she would not want to chase that elusive dream until it was realized. I wondered how she could not play on until she had fittingly completed a career Grand Slam. I found myself baffled and mystified by her departure, which she attributed to competitive burnout.

None of that matters much anymore. Last week, Henin announced her return, saying she would play some exhibitions this fall in anticipation of a full scale return in 2010. That is awfully good news for all of us who love the women’s game. This has not been the best of years for the women. Serena Williams did move into the elite double digit category at the majors, taking the Australian Open in January, winning Wimbledon in July, lifting her total of “Big Four” titles up to 11. Svetlana Kuznetsova captured her second career major at Roland Garros, toppling both Serena Williams and world No. 1 Dinara Safina to record that triumph. Finally, Kim Clijsters was the surprise champion at the U.S. Open.

But while the most prestigious tournaments were a showcase for outstanding competitors who ably rose to those occasions, the fact remained that others who should have been able to achieve much more across the 2009 Grand Slam season. Safina has simply not validated her status as the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Having already lost the 2008 French Open final to Ana Ivanovic, Safina was routed and almost humiliated by Serena Williams, bowing 6-0, 6-3 in the Australian Open final at the start of 2009. She then lost the Roland Garros final to Kuznetsova, overcome once more by the severity of her nerves, overwhelmed again by the need to live up to her deepest ambitions. At Wimbledon, Safina made it to the penultimate round, but garnered only a single game in two sets against Venus Williams. Given one last chance in 2009 to prove to the world that she deserved her No. 1 ranking, Safina was ushered out of the U.S Open in the third round by none other than Petra Kvitova, a player ranked No.72 in the world.

In addition to Safina, 2008 world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic has been highly disappointing this year. In the four majors, Jankovic did not once make it out of the round of 16. Time and again, she was found wanting at the majors, seemingly hoping her opponents would help her out in the tight corners of her biggest contests, allowing timidity to be the enemy of her highest aspirations. Jankovic at her best is one of the most appealing players to watch in all of women’s tennis, a brilliant and creative strategist, a woman who can orchestrate from the back of the court with uncanny precision. But she is stuck in the same unenviable class as Safina; Jankovic remains in search of her first major title.

So Henin could not be making her unexpected return at a better time. Her countrywoman Clijsters already provided a significant boost to the women’s game with her summertime exploits. Clijsters plans to play selectively in 2010, seeking to balance a life between a family and home life, and a rekindled commitment to another stint as an athlete who has been given a second chance to perform again in front of appreciative audiences everywhere she goes. It only stands to reason that Henin was influenced--- at least to some small degree--- by witnessing the triumphant revival of Clijsters. Why would that not be the case?

Henin has clearly demonstrated over the years that she has always been a better player than Clijsters. It was no accident that Henin beat Clijsters in the finals of three Grand Slam events, defeating her old rival at the last hurdle in the 2003 French and U.S. Opens, then succeeding when the two Belgians did battle again at the 2004 Australian Open. Henin always had the capacity to take her game up that extra notch, to open up the court with her spectacular one-handed topspin backhand, to seize command from the middle of the court and control points with her inside-out forehand.

I believe Clijsters has added some dimensions to her game since her comeback. Her forehand is bigger and more dangerous, her first serve has more bite on it, and her second serve is delivered with more depth and a shade more pace. With her greater weight of shot and the same excellent timing and ball control, not to mention her extraordinary foot speed, Clijsters may well be tougher for Henin to defeat when they resume their rivalry next year. Nevertheless, I still expect Henin to hold the upper hand most of the time in her upcoming series with Clijsters. But how will Henin fare against the other leading players?

I think she will do very well. Let’s not forget that in her last full year before departing from tennis--- the 2007 season--- Henin was the dominant force in the sport, winning 10 of the 14 events she played, securing two majors, capturing the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid with a hard fought victory over Maria Sharapova in the final. During that season, she managed to beat Serena Williams at three consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, knocking the American out on the clay in Paris, on grass at Wimbledon, and on hard courts at the U.S. Open.

To be sure, she did lose to Serena 6-2, 6-0 the last time they collided on hard courts in Miami during the spring of 2008. Moreover, Henin was ousted by Safina in her last match on clay. She also bowed out decisively against Sharapova at her last major, in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Australian Open. And yet, all of those losses in the early stages of 2008 must be taken with a grain of salt since Henin was mired in a slump and was not performing up to her customary standards.

The bottom line is that Henin is going to have a window wide open for her remaining pursuits in the game. That window will be available to her from the time she returns next year for at least two and possibly three seasons. She should have a reasonably good chance in that stretch to put Wimbledon into her tournament victory column, to win at least one more French Open, to add an Australian or U.S. Open triumph to her collection. I believe she might well push her total of majors up into double digits, which would fit her stature well. I wish she had not chosen to leave tennis when she did. I realize we might never know what was happening behind the scenes that led her to step aside, and can only make an educated guess that her decision was profoundly personal.

Henin had said when she stepped aside in 2008, “I always based everything on this motivation--- this flame—that was in me. And once I lost that, I lost many, many things.” Now she is speaking differently. A revitalized Henin says, “I’ve been able to recharge my batteries, emotionally as well. The fire burns again. I want to come back in January.”

The game is fortunate to have her back where she belongs, playing tennis in her distinctive manner, going about her business as purposefully as ever, making fans care more about the welfare of the women’s game than they have for a long time. For Justine Henin—who has grown accustomed to achieving on the largest of scales--- that would be no small contribution.

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