More often than not in tennis, rumors turn into truth, and here we have another example. A month ago reports surfaced that former No. 1 Justine Henin, who had abruptly retired in May 2008, was planning a return to tennis. Now, hardly a week after her countrywoman Kim Clijsters stamped her comeback with a US Open title, Henin’s announced that she’s officially back in the ring starting in 2010.
“I was very impatient and I am really happy and deeply moved to be able to announce this evening that I will return to competition very quickly,” Henin said to Belgian RTL-TVI. “It is surprising because on May 14, 2008, I called an end to my career. And then I’ve been down a long personal road. And then the flame has been rekindled, I thought it had been extinguished.”
About the only this surprising is that Henin didn’t make this announcement right after Clijsters had won match point a week ago last Sunday! So I have to give Henin some credit for allowing Kim to get her fair and perhaps final due in the limelight the last week.
If Henin does all the right things and gets herself back into full playing condition there’s no reason she won’t be No. 1 at this time next year. As I’ve said before the WTA is in complete disarray, a “circus” as SI’s SL Price calls the tour. While the level of drama may be peaking, the actual quality play on the women’s circuit was arguably the poorest I’ve ever seen it during the US Open.
At 27 she’s definitely at the end of her playing window, but with seven Slams in her pocket and three year-end No. 1 finishes, her experience will make the difference.
And I think just as Clijsters has done, Henin will follow suit and clean up upon her return. And for me that means at least two Slams next year – The French Open and Wimbledon – and if she stays healthy, plays all four majors plus some lower level events she’ll finish No. 1.
Henin is/was better than Clijsters and she can handle Williams, Serena and Venus, who will likely cut back further on their circuit schedule. The Russians might get her outside of the Slams but in the Slams they proven to have little belief to get the job done. The big wildcard remains Sharapova. If Maria rights her serve she’ll rocket to the top, but without it she’ll continue to struggle.
And if Henin does return to full or near full strength for a couple years, what then of the current players? My guess is Clijsters was lucky to have the US Open because it’s likely her last Slam pre-Henin. Hell, she might just re-retire! The Williams sisters will continue to own Wimbledon while the Australian Open is I think is wide open.
Henin’s return also strikes a blow to the Serbs, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, who can kiss hopes goodbye for any future Slam titles and the much-scrutinized Dinara Safina is going to have a wait a few more years for that elusive first major win. I don’t think the Russian can beat Henin but perhaps with the two Belgians coming back the spotlight will, for her sake, thankfully shift away from Dinara.
Now if you are worried that Henin’s return will end the drama, don’t be. The drama’s not leaving, as long as Justine sticks her to her gameplan of holding up her hand before returning serves, coming down with mysterious stomach ailments during Slam finals, calling out her foes and chasing after ballboys. And that’s just for starters. So I understand you concern but they’ll be plenty of drama to go around.
And one also has to speculate just who else will return? Lindsay Davenport? Martina Hingis? Anastasia Myskina? There’s good money to be had on the WTA tour, money these girls cannot make off the court (quarterfinals at the US Open was $175K). And if the current crop of top players (including Henin and Clijsters) aren’t going to play a full 2010 schedule why not comeback, play a few events, pick up the scraps, get paid and see what happens?
As we watched over and over again at the US Open, women’s tennis is so weak right now that any player with any kind of mental strength is going to carve through the field. For someone like Henin, that should make for easy pickings.
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