Justine Henin's Return Would Be Great for Women's Tennis

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Justine Henin's Return Would Be Great for Women's Tennis
(Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images)

Very little of the buzz coming out of women’s tennis in the first half of the year was celebratory.

Serena Williams was money when it came to winning majors, but her indifference toward minor events left her outside the No. 1 ranking.

Dinara Safina, by contrast, made the most of the second- and third-tier events, soaking up enough points to stay No. 1, but fell painfully short in the latter rounds of majors.

Serbian stars Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic continued to disappoint, as the latter couldn’t break through in majors, and at times the former couldn’t seem to win matches.

Many longed for the solution to ranking problem, and the possibility of rescue has been seen in numerous sources. Maria Sharapova’s return from a lengthy stay on the DL has been saluted, even if the additions to her haul of majors remain in future tense.

Kim Clijsters' return from a self-imposed exile of two and a half years, followed by winning the US Open in just her third event back, may go down as the feel-good story of 2009.

And now word has it that Justine Henin is coming back. A little more than a week after her countrywoman Clijsters’ New York triumph, the woman whose early retirement created the void we speak of is reportedly going to announce her return to competition today.

Granted, we’ve only heard from “Belgian press” and not the woman herself, but the “Belgian press” was where we originally heard about her shocking retirement plans more than a year ago.

What will the return of the most beautiful backhand in tennis mean for the women’s game? Soon enough we may find out whether or not Clijsters’ success at the Open gave Henin the impetus to return, but it certainly proved that a long layoff may not prevent triumph at a major–in fact, the rest may aid it.

Now Clijsters and Henin may truly have the rivalry expected of them in the early part of this decade. While Henin led their head-to-head series by a slim margin of 12-10, she was 3-0 against Clijsters in Slam finals and 5-2 against her in all Slam matches.

Clijsters was too sweet to win the majors her talent seemed worthy of, and Henin was the ruthless, efficient businesswoman who thrived during the last weekend.

But that was not the Kimmie who returned to action this summer. A too-sweet competitor wouldn’t have shrugged off a 6-0 set against Venus Williams to win in three sets, nor would she have pushed Serena Williams to the brink of defeat (before the younger Williams leapt the rest of the way in).

It would appear that during her time off, Clijsters found that killer instinct she’d been missing. If Henin still has hers, they may produce some classic confrontations in the year to come.

As for the rest of the tour, Maria Sharapova is still a three-time Slam winner. However, each of her Slam wins came more than a year apart, and her injury problems would seem to make her chances of a long stay at No. 1 rather slim.

Svetlana Kuznetsova won a second Slam this year, but may be one of those squeezed out of the winner’s circle should competition stiffen.

For Dinara Safina, the best thing about this development is that it will take attention away from her.

And how about the Williamses? Leading up to 2007, Venus was 7-1 against Henin, whereas Serena was 5-3. In Henin’s career-best 2007 season, though, she defeated the younger Williams in three consecutive majors, stopping her and her older sister in back-to-back rounds at the US Open.

As great a game as Henin has, few would say she’s as naturally gifted as either sister, but in 2007 she proved herself the most serious competitor on the women’s side. Serena has benefited more than anyone in her absence. Will the highest-ranked American be more motivated by her return?

The lean, efficient Belgian’s departure was attributable to injuries and a need to get away from the pressure of the game. If she is returning now, one may be confidant that she has come back to win, and Clijsters’ recent victory ought to have convinced her that she can.

No matter what she achieves, Henin’s return would certainly make the women’s game a lot more interesting in 2010.

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