The WTA Tour marketeers must feel like Christmas has come early. After a desperate struggle to compete with their male counterparts in recent times – they now have not one, but two Belgian legends back to provide a double dose of star quality to the women’s game.
There is good reason to link many of the WTA Tour’s recent problems back to May of last year, when Justine Henin decided to become the first ever reigning world number one to quit the sport. In 16 subsequent months, many pretenders have tried to assume her mantle – but none have done so with anywhere near the same degree of authority.
It’s a pretty tough task to try and follow one of the true greats in the history of women’s tennis. Just look at these numbers: Henin won seven Grand Slam titles – including four in five years on her favoured Parisian clay at Roland Garros.
She spent 117 weeks at number one (sixth in the all-time list) and on three separate occasions, she ended a season as the top ranked woman on the planet. The Belgian led her country to Fed Cup glory in 2001. Three years later, she also won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics. By anyone’s assessment, that’s quite a list of achievements.
It perhaps also explains why Henin then decided to make that shock decision to pack it all in. Yes, she was just 25-years-old – but after nine trophy-laden years on the professional tennis treadmill, Henin wanted to give her battered body a break and try other things.
She created two tennis academies and became a UNICEF ambassador. The comeback questions continued to come, but even six months ago – a year on from her decision to quit – Henin’s mind seemed more made up than ever. She insisted then that she had no plans to return – that for her competitive tennis was: ‘truly a page that has been turned.’
So why the change of heart? Well, as Henin even admits, the fairytale return of her Belgian compatriot Kim Clijsters has probably had a subconscious impact. The US Open champion has shown that a successful comeback is possible.
Henin says that, ‘the fire within burns again’ – presumably greater than ever before as she has witnessed the quality of competition on the WTA Tour in her absence. The chance to dominate the sport once again has ultimately proven too good an opportunity to turn down.
But it goes even deeper than that. Cast your eye again over Henin’s list of achievements and there is one glaring omission: a Wimbledon title. Henin did reach the final at the All England Club before in 2001. But she has never lifted the prestigious Venus Rosewater Dish, and doing that would allow her to complete a career set of Grand Slam titles.
Henin is also probably still haunted by her semi-final loss to Marion Bartoli on the lawns of SW19 two years ago – a match she inexplicably lost from the brink of victory. Now the Belgian will once again have the chance to try and put all that right and finally win the one major title to elude her grasp.
Henin intends to play a couple of exhibition events in Belgium and the United Arab Emirates before the end of this season. The Australian Open in January is her first major return date – although it is probable she will also look to play in one or both of the WTA events before that to step up her preparation.
With so little competitive tennis before Melbourne, the chances of Henin emulating Clijsters’ comeback achievements would seem remote. But it is dangerous to write Henin off for several reasons. For a start, Clijsters has shown it is possible and there is no doubt that Henin will train just as hard to try and get into the same sort of irresistible shape and mind as her fellow Belgian did in New York.
Henin will draw comfort too from the fact that she knows how to win major titles – a quality that very few of the WTA Tour’s current competitors possess. Outside of the Williams sisters, Clijsters and Svetlana Kuznetsova, other former Grand Slam winners are also facing their own battles.
Ana Ivanovic is yet to rekindle the form of her French Open success last year, while Maria Sharapova is still struggling consistency since making her return from long-term injury.
The former world number one also has experience of beating the big names to win the big prizes. Note her victories over both Williams’ sisters to win the 2007 US Open, and her 12-10 career advantage over Clijsters – which includes three victories over her compatriot in Grand Slam finals.
So even if she has a glut of big names standing in her way in Melbourne, don’t dismiss the petite Belgian’s ability to knock them all over and clinch another Grand Slam title.
When she won the US Open, Clijsters re-entered the WTA rankings at 19 to equal the remarkable record of former US Open semi-finalist Andrea Jaeger set 29 years ago. But with Henin’s history – surely that is yet another milestone you wouldn’t bet against her breaking early next year.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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