x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Justine Henin has a point to prove

Though not all comebacks receive a universal thumbs up, the Belgian's return has been universally welcomed.

Justine Henin was spurred on to make a return to professional tennis by the successful comeback of her fellow Belgian Kim Clijster.
Justine Henin was spurred on to make a return to professional tennis by the successful comeback of her fellow Belgian Kim Clijster.

When a pop group comes out of retirement and starts touring again, it is usually a sign of an unexpected tax bill, but in the world of sport it is as likely to be because of unfinished business, burning ambitions as yet unfulfilled. That is certainly the case for Justin Henin, world No 1 when she quit tennis in May 2008, and returning now, she says, because of her desire to win Wimbledon for the first time.

It was the sight, no doubt, of her fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters winning the US Open last month, after returning from maternity leave and long-term shoulder rehab, that gave Henin the final push. Though not all comebacks receive a universal thumbs up, Henin's return has been universally welcomed. After all, she was at the top of her game when she quit, and at only 27 years old there seems no reason why she cannot pick up where she left off.

It will certainly be refreshing to see the Williams sisters challenged at Wimbledon, which they have made their personal fiefdom in recent years, and if Clijsters' form at Flushing Meadow is any guide, the break from the game might just help Henin's challenge. Comebacks, of course, are all the rage this year. Michael Schumacher's quixotic attempt to get back in a Formula One car was foiled only by the frailty of his 40-year-old neck muscles; while in boxing, Floyd Mayweather's return to the ring 21 months after his pitiless destruction of Ricky Hatton was breathtaking, as he brushed Juan Manuel Marquez contemptuously aside.

One of this year's most impressive comebacks, though, has paradoxically been from someone who never went away, Ryan Giggs at Manchester United. The Welshman's impressive contribution to United's rise to the peak of the Premier League has fans dubbing Giggs "the new Ronaldo". At 35 years old, this is little short of a re-birth for Giggs. Not that his importance to his all-conquering team has ever been underestimated by manager Sir Alex Ferguson. While the Portuguese superstar was around, though, and with the years beginning to take their toll on once-blistering pace, you felt Giggs's role might become more peripheral.

Wrong. To borrow from Shakespeare - not a Manchester United fan, it should be said, geographically his team would be Coventry City - age has not withered Giggsy, nor custom staled his infinite variety. There is definitely something romantic about the comeback, especially for those of us whose own better days are well behind us. That is why another tennis player, who picked up a racket again in the early '90s after a gap of eight years, carried all our hopes and dreams when he attempted to revive his career.' For Bjorn Borg, though, there were no happy returns. His comeback match at the Monte Carlo Open in 1991 was a straight sets defeat to an unknown, and 12 further attempts to defeat time's winged chariot over the next two years were similarly in vain - to the disappointment of sentimentalists everywhere.

How we would have loved to have cheered one last hurrah for the ice-cool Swede, who even had the grace to pander to our nostalgia by sticking to his wooden racket. Henin's comeback will be more of a Giggs occasion than a Borg or Schumacher impossible dream. As with the United winger, we know all about Henin's sublime skills, and we are impatient to enjoy them once more on the big stage. Which, frankly, is more than I can say for Duran Duran.

I wonder if England are investing too much hope in Jonny Wilkinson, who is in match- winning form for Toulon in the French league. Wilkinson, who was dropped for Danny Cipriani towards the end of the 2008 Six Nations, now looks to be in pole position for the fly-half spot in the autumn internationals. Surely, though, we cannot expect to see the bone-crunching tackles that were a feature of Wilkinson's performances in the triumphant 2003 World Cup campaign. Former England prop Jeff Probyn thinks not. While Wilkinson is the last player to ever consciously shirk a tackle, Probyn thinks that subconsciously the years of injury will have an effect. One hopes England coach Martin Johnson has a Plan B.

Regular readers will know my views about swimming in the Olympics. I feel there are too many medals handed out for too many similar events. Still, I would not deny Michael Phelps his sense of achievement for trousering a remarkable eight of them at Beijing. That phenomenal haul, though, presents Phelps, still only 24, with an interesting dilemma ahead of the London Olympics. How does he top it, or even equal it? He is fairly certain he cannot, but strangely that has not affected his motivation one jot. The gruelling training routine continues, because it is only in the water that Phelps is happy. On land, he is dangerously clumsy. The swimmer has been banned from running by his coach because he keeps tripping over. It is reminiscent of the film star Esther Williams, who appeared in those swimming spectaculars in the 1930s. As one critic wrote: "Wet, she's a star, dry she ain't."

mkelner@thenational.ae