Indian Wells brought doubts about the status of the Belgian resurgence in tennis. Had we been too quick, when we expected both Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin to be back, dominating and winning? Clijsters was demolished at the Australian Open and both she and Henin suffered early, surprising loses at the Indian Wells—along with almost every other top player that is.
Miami saw both of them back at their best and by this time, most doubts about their level, fitness and mentality seem to be unjust. Clijsters is back in the top 10 and Henin, having played just four tournaments, is up at number 23.
Before she retired, Henin was the undisputed Queen of Clay. Clay belonged to her almost to the same degree as it belongs to Rafael Nadal on the men's side. Henin was essentially playing like Roger Federer, winning like Nadal. She won four out of five French Open titles from 2003-2007, the exception being 2004 where she was still recovering from a tiresome virus.
This year, Wimbledon remains her top priority as that one elusive Grand Slam title that convinced her to come back from her retirement. But why not earn titles at Rome, Madrid and Paris while preparing? Surely it can't hurt her confidence.
So who's there to challenge the Queen of Clay?
Last year saw Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova splitting the big clay titles between them, often while meeting in the finals. Kuznetsova took Roland Garros, while Safina took Rome and Madrid. Safina hasn't really been the same since and has spent the best part of the last six months suffering from a back injury. She is scheduled to play in Stuttgart, but she remains a big question mark until we see signs of full recovery and early 2009 form.
The other top clay-courter last year, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has looked all but impressive in 2010 and is suffering from shoulder problems which aided Marion Bartoli in her 6-3, 6-0 dispatching of Kuznetsova in Miami. Will the reigning French Open Champion return to form in time? Quite likely. Will she pose a problem to Henin? Not that likely. Henin owns a 16-2 head-to-head record against her. She also leads 5-1 against Safina, but they are from somewhat different generations, so that is not as telling.
Who else is there?
Oh yes, that other Belgian, Kim Clijsters, who has edged Henin in their last two thrilling encounters. Though Clijsters is far from being a novice on clay, she hasn't defeated her countrywoman on that surface but once, that being in 2001. Moreover, when they meet in majors, Henin has always had the edge, apart from a 2002 Australian Open quarterfinal.
This may change though. Mentally, Clijsters seems a much stronger player and much less of a choker. She may turn out to be Henin's fiercest competitor on the red turf. That said, how did that 6-1, 6-0 loss against Nadia Petrova come about? One flawless US Open final against a debutant doesn't prove that the mental toughness is there to stay in the grand matches.
Three down, the rest of the field to challenge.
How about Serena Williams, Elena Dementieva, Jelena Jankovic and the young generation with Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka? Dementieva, Jankovic and the young contenders still need to prove they can win a Slam, though all of them are more than confident on clay. All of them could pose a serious challenge, but would we favour any of them against Henin? Wozniacki came close last week, but once Henin got her game going, she was a level above the world's number two.
As for Serena, clay has never really been her cup of tea with only one French Open title in 2002 followed by six years without clay titles at all.
But if there is one rule in women's tennis, it is this:
Never underestimate Serena Williams.
She is as eager to show the world that she is still the undisputed champ despite the return of the former champions. Is there a better way to prove that than by denying the Queen of Clay her title? Followed by snapping the coveted Wimbledon away from her as well?
Count on Serena to be as motivated as ever to win back-to-back titles at the French Open and Wimbledon, followed by a Calendar Slam at the US Open.
But also count on Henin to be able to withstand and dismiss the attack, just as she did when they met at the 2003 and 2007 French Open.
Aiming at Wimbledon won't prevent her from reclaiming what once belonged to her.