x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Henin to return to competitive tennis

The former world No 1 targets the Dubai exhibition tournament as part of her comeback from retirement.

Justin Henin says the
Justin Henin says the "fire burns again" little than a week after watching Belgian compatriot Kim Clijsters come out of retirement to win the US Open.

"Anything you can do I can do better", boomed out from the world's top theatres when Annie Get Your Gun was in vogue. Intense but healthy Belgian rivalry brought that memorable musical line to mind in celebrating the curtain going up on a welcome reprise of Juju Get Your Racket. Rumours that Justine Henin was planning a comeback had been gathering pace for the last few weeks. Henin, known as "Juju" by her fans, had shocked everyone by retiring at the peak of her powers as world No 1 in May last year. The emotional sight of Kim Clijsters winning the US Open, barely a month after announcing her return, helped to turn those rumours into an exciting reality. If Clijsters, who described the proposed return of her old rival as "brilliant", can add a second major honour to her collection so swiftly, then 'what is Henin capable of?' was the question going through the minds of those advising the enigmatic player with seven grand-slam titles to her credit. The answer is that a rapid return to the pinnacle of the women's game is more than a fleeting possibility. Henin had the measure of Clijsters when their original careers were in full flow, winning 12 of their 22 WTA Tour confrontations, three of those victories coming in grand slam finals.

Henin will have some catching up to do, though, to depose Clijsters - already up to 17 on the computer - from the top of the world rankings if she is to regain her No 1 status. That stark conclusion does not reflect well on the others in the vanguard of the women's game, particularly the cluster of Eastern Europeans who have occupied the top spot since Henin walked away from the game, frustrated by a succession of injuries and the loss of her desire to compete at the top level for personal reasons. The American Williams sisters are still capable of hitting the heights when they put their minds to it and their impending collisions with the two Belgians in the early part of next year will provide the WTA with another timely boost. Henin, 27, admitted that the triumphant return of Clijsters, 26, had influenced her decision to do the same but maintained that the absence of a Wimbledon title from her career record was the main reason for her about-turn.

"Maybe subconsciously Kim's return influenced me," Henin said in announcing her decision in a live television interview. "But it wasn't the determinant factor. "Roger Federer's victory at Roland Garros [to complete an elusive career grand slam] spoke to me much more because it made me think of a lot of things in relation to Wimbledon." Henin, who won the French Open four times but lost both of her finals at the All England Club, added: "For the first time I really felt that Wimbledon was missing from my list of trophies. Winning Wimbledon is a dream. It's more than an aim, it's really a dream. "I'm giving myself the means to look to achieve great things but will that be enough to win Wimbledon? At the moment I don't have the answer to that. I know I'm going to work for it though." That fulfilment of a career ambition could come in July. Henin's return to grand-slam action, meanwhile, is scheduled for the Australian Open in January.

Before seeking to repeat her Melbourne Park success of 2004, Henin, who has amassed 41 tour titles, is planning to play in two exhibition tournaments - one in her native Belgium and the other in Dubai - although nobody in the UAE would confirm the details. The Legends Rock tournament for veterans of the men's game will not take place in Dubai this year as scheduled in November. The Capitala exhibition in Abu Dhabi, which attracted six of the world's top 10 men in January, is due to go ahead again at the capital's Zayed Sports City at the turn of the year. A guest appearance by Henin would give that highly-successful event added spice.

wjohnson@thenational.ae