Amid the resurgence of Belgian tennis, the retired Justine Henin has gone from confirming she won’t ever come back to competition to refusing to discuss her future.
Henin was asked if she would come back to top tennis. The answer is no longer the definitive “no” it once was. It is now something more like, “Come back and ask me later.”
Last year, Henin shocked the tennis world by announcing her retirement while still ranked No. 1. In May, she complained that the sport had left her with so many physical pains a return was unthinkable.
Yet she was seen training again recently, apparently all for a small exhibition tournament in southern Charleroi, one she has played in regularly during the December winter break.
The questions came that such a tournament could be much like the exhibition tournament Kim Clijsters played at Wimbledon this spring to test the new retractable roof. Those matches made her competitive fire burn again.
She returned to the tour last month, and is playing in the semifinals of the U.S Open on Friday.
Feeding the rumours was that Henin pulled out of a theatre play she had been committed to. Speculation was she needed the time for tennis practice.
As a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, she tried hard to stay focused on Thursday on tetanus vaccinations for mothers and babies in developing nations.
“We are here to discuss child mortality in the world, a subject matter which is important enough to centre on this today,” she said, refusing time and again to elaborate on her tennis future.
When asked to react to Clijsters’ surge and the surprise run of teenager Yanina Wickmayer, which left two Belgians in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, she did no more than say: “It is magnificent, that is evident. But understand that I am here in my role as ambassador.”
She acknowledged that she followed the Grand Slam event only from a distance.
Over the past months, Henin has travelled to Congo, Cambodia and Denmark to learn more about child vaccinations and how it affects survival for hundreds of thousands of poor mothers and babies around the world. Her face will become the face of the UNICEF tetanus campaign this fall.
“I have been able to discover so many things in my life after tennis,” she said. “You live in a bubble and in leaving it you ask plenty of questions on plenty of issues.”
At 27, it would certainly not be too late for a comeback. As Clijsters has proved, breaking back into the top at short notice is far from impossible.