The moment Justine Henin realised her tennis career wasn’t finished came this past June, when the Belgian watched Roger Federer finally win the French Open trophy, the one Grand Slam title he was missing.
His triumph reignited a passion that had been dormant inside her.
In an interview with The Associated Press at her central Florida training site, Henin said she wouldn’t be returning to tennis if she didn’t believe she could win Wimbledon and complete her own career Grand Slam - as soon as next year.
“I started to say, ‘Well, I missed Wimbledon,”’ Henin told the AP. “That moment was something, I don’t know, something came over me. It’s a dream. I don’t know if it will come true, but I like to dream. I dreamt about it a lot.”
Her return to tennis has come as fast as her departure.
Henin rocked the tennis world by suddenly, stunningly walking away in May 2008, becoming the first woman to retire while ranked No. 1.
Henin said she stopped playing because she needed to realise she could do more than just play tennis. She also said she was exhausted and didn’t enjoy the sport, which had consumed her life for as long as she could remember.
“It took me a while to realise that it’s not just about hitting a tennis ball,” she said. “At 5 years old, there’s no way you can know that tennis is what you want. Now it’s something that I choose to do.
“I didn’t retire for personal reasons. I have no secrets that the fact that I retired was because I was tired. I’m returning because it’s the passion that I give to what I do again. It’s the fact that I can push my limits, and that I can give people a dream. The relationship with the people - that’s what I missed the most.”
Henin’s attitude has changed in the nearly year and a half since she left the spotlight.
She got her first dog soon after retiring. Deuce, a small dog with shaggy black hair, is now 14 months old and hardly ever leaves her side. She plans to make Deuce a regular on tour.
Smiling again, Henin said Deuce gave her a companion at a time when she needed one the most.
“She really changed my life,” Henin said.
Perhaps most shocking, Henin said she didn’t pick up a racket or play any sports - not even go for a run - for nearly a year. She spent most of that time reading, had some spot appearances on Belgian television and travelled as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
The only reminder of tennis was the scar on her right knee, from surgery in October 2008. Henin said her knee is completely healthy again.
Henin and her long-time coach, Carlos Rodriguez, said her game is about 60 per cent of what it was, but feel she has plenty of time to train. Both believe the drive to win Wimbledon has Henin more motivated than ever.
“That really helped her decide to come back,” Rodriguez said. “She has something to shoot for, something to keep her focused.” One thing that Henin said has “nothing to do” with her return is Kim Clijsters.
Henin’s fellow Belgian made a stunning comeback from retirement by winning the U.S. Open in September. While Henin and her coach both said Clijsters’ return didn’t spark Henin, Rodriguez says it gives Henin reason to believe she can return to top form.
“Justine has something to point to that shows it is not impossible,” he said.
Henin went through several trying periods in her career and personal life, including when she was off the tour for months at a time while dealing with health issues. And later when she was splitting from her husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne.
But she always came back strong.
She covered the court as well as anyone, and her one-handed backhand - which John McEnroe called the prettiest shot in tennis - didn’t seem to have lost any of its zip during a practice session. The only thing missing was the roar of the crowd that usually follows her winners and her punctuating scream “Allez!” while pumping her fist.
But that will come. She’ll make her return to the WTA Tour at the Brisbane International in January, two weeks ahead of her comeback to Grand Slam tennis at the Australian Open.
The 27-year-old Henin does not have a protected ranking. She has been granted wild-card entries for the main draws at Brisbane and the Australian Open. But it’s later in the season, at Wimbledon, where she hopes to make her mark again.
Winning at the All England Club is a goal she truly believes is reachable. “If it wasn’t realistic, I probably wouldn’t have started to play tennis,” she said. “Probably it’s ambitious. But if I thought I had no chance, I would have stayed home.”