Justine the Nick of Time: Henin Comeback Helps Renew Women's Tennis Excitement

Muhammad Umar JawedCorrespondent ISeptember 22, 2009

Reigniting her competitive flame, Justine Henin is back in the game.

As expected, the former World Number One ended months of speculation by officially announcing today that she will be making a return to tournament tennis.

"I am moved, and very relieved as well, because it is true that I have wanted to share this with the public for a few weeks," Henin told Belgian broadcaster RTL today. "It is a decision which makes me happy. It is a big decision in my life."

The 27-year-old Belgian plans to play two exhibition tournaments in Charleroi and Dubai in the coming months to prepare for her competitive return in 2010. 

While she did not announce a definitive date for her official return, it is quite probable she could play in January of 2010.

Henin, whose Francoise passed away in 1995 after contracting cancer when her daughter was 12 years old, was estranged from her family during the early stages of her career, but ended a seven-year estrangement from her family with an emotional reunion in April of 2007 after her brother David lapsed into a coma suffering serious injuries in a car accident.

When David came out of the coma, he looked into Justine’s eyes marking the first time in seven years the two had seen each other.

Justine’s brothers, David and Thomas and sister Sarah were all on hand when she won the 2007 Roland Garros without surrendering a set.

Henin suggested the personal peace and family unity she's achieved in recent years  — combined with the return of her competitive fire — were factors in her decision to launch a comeback.

"And then I've been down a long personal road," Henin said. "And then the flame has been rekindled, I thought it had been extinguished." 

The announcement that she will resume her career comes 16 months after Henin officially retired, and just nine days after her former rival and Belgian Fed Cup teammate Kim Clijsters captured her second career US Open championship as an unseeded wild card.

In an outstanding 10-year career, Henin captured 41 career tournament titles, including seven Grand Slam singles championships, and earned $19,461,375 in career prize money.

Initially announcing her retirement in May of 2009, Henin made history as the first reigning World Number One to retire while at the top of tennis.

She called it "the end of a wonderful adventure" at the time and spoke of her desire to return to school and pursue other areas of life.

But the owner of the brilliant one-handed backhand said today that she missed the game and the competition. Life away from tennis has give Henin the time to heal from nagging injuries through rest and recovery and she sounded recharged in announcing her plans to return today.

Then there is the allure of taking care of some unfinished business: Wimbledon.

The grass-court Grand Slam is the only major missing from Henin's collection and her long-time coach and surrogate father figure Carlos Rodriguez suggested Henin will be aiming to win.

"We want it (Wimbledon). It's one of the reasons for her return," said Rodriguez.

Henin  spent 117 weeks as the World Number One, sixth on the all-time list, and compiled a 493-107 win-loss record in singles.

The four-time French Open champion finished three seasons as the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour World No. 1 (2003, 2006, 2007).She was only the fifth top five retiree, after Margaret Court in 1977 (No. 5), Chris Evert in 1989 (No. 4), Steffi Graf in 1999 (No. 3), and fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters in 2007 (No. 4).

The 5-foot-5 3/4 Belgian is small in stature, but competed with immense desire, combating bigger, stronger opponents with her flair for finesse and all-court ability.

The news of her return gives the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour another instant infusion of star power.

In Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Clijsters, Henin, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, and Amelie Mauresmo, the Tour now boasts seven women who were former World Number One players and are either present or past Grand Slam champions.

Suddenly, women's tennis, which had been been suffering from an identity crisis with a top-ranked player who has never won a major title, is a whole lot more exciting.

"Justine is one of the great champions in the history of women's tennis, and we, along with millions of her fans around the globe, are thrilled with her announcement today," Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster said.

"Justine is that rare athlete who decided to step away from the game at the height of her powers, and no doubt she will be a force to be reckoned with from the get go.  Her career was marked by so many amazing moments, and a new chapter begins today." 

Henin, who celebrated her 27th birthday on June 1st, is an accomplished all-surface champion and could conceivably return near the peak of her powers.

In 2007, her last full year on the WTA Tour, she was the most dominant player in the game, transitioning between offense and defense with all the ease of a woman downshifting a car.

She posted a 63-4 record and won 10 of the 14 events she entered, including Roland Garros, the U.S. Open and the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid and reached the Wimbledon semifinals.

The Belgian won four French Open titles (2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007) and could have made history this season by becoming the first woman to win four consecutive Roland Garros crowns when she retired in May of 2008.

She won the 2004 Australian Open, the 2003 and 2007 U.S. Open crowns and the gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games. Wimbledon was the only major championship to elude her.

She was runner-up to Venus Williams at the 2001 Wimbledon and the 2006 Wimbledon finalist, falling to Amelie Mauresmo.

"Pound for pound Justine is the greatest player of her generation," said Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Founder and Hall of Famer Billie Jean King. "Justine is an extraordinary player and a special person and a true champion both in tennis and in life."

Prior to announcing her retirement in 2008, Henin posted a 22-4 record. She won two of the first three tournaments she entered — beating Svetlana Kuznetsova, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 to win the Sydney title in her first tournament of the season and crushing Karin Knapp, 6-3, 6-3, to win the Antwerp title in her native Belgium — but since that strong start her trademark tenacity and competitive spirit were lacking.  

Now, Henin believes he has regained the competitive fire, which should make women's tennis more compelling and renew some of the recent classic rivalries.