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Henin talks transition, not titles

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Originally published on: 17/06/10 00:00

By Jamie Renton

Roger Federer was the inspiration behind Justine Henin’s return to competitive tennis. That moment – his moment – in June 2009 when he finally touched the Coupe des Mousquetaires and ended a painfully long hunt for the career slam. “Now, I can play in peace for the rest of my career,” said the emotional Swiss at the time.

It struck a chord with the watching Henin. The old fight stirred inside. The Belgian had her own calling, her own career slam to complete. Back came the fire. Wimbledon beckoned.

Twice a defeated finalist at the All England Club in 2001 and 2006 – the world’s greatest tennis tournament remains the only one of the big four at which the seven-time Grand Slam champion hasn’t managed a fairytale ending.

Her return to the game was based around changing that fact, and for all it’s early promise – she got off to a near-perfect start in Australia, making the Brisbane and Australian Open finals – Henin had to wait until April for her first title. The 28-year-old Belgian defeated Sam Stosur for victory in Stuttgart, only for the widely tipped favorite to lose to the Aussie in the fourth round at Roland Garros four weeks later.

A shock, but shocks happen all the time, says Henin, who has banished memories of her premature departure from the French Open to concentrate on her Wimbledon preparations in s’Hertogenbosch this week.

"As soon as my tournament was over, I turned the page,” she said. “I followed the results and watched a few matches… but I was just excited to come back to the grass. It has been three years. Wimbledon is a great tournament. It will be interesting seeing what happens on grass after all of the surprises at the French."

Also interesting, is to note how Henin’s expectations have changed. A final set mauling from the tour’s latest bright spark at the Madrid Open – Henin was bageled by Aravane Rezai in the final set in their first round encounter – shook her very foundation. It removed her aura of invincibility heading into Paris, a tournament that she had dominated to the tune of four previous triumphs. A blip, perhaps?

Perhaps not. The game has moved on in her absence. There are more challengers. The major prizes in the women’s game are no longer solely contended by the Williams sisters and Justine Henin. That elusive Wimbledon title could be more out of reach than ever.

“Justine is not a candidate for victory at Wimbledon," her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, told a Belgian newspaper this week. "She has a chance, but there are girls who have more claim to the title than her. I'd like to be wrong, but she needs more time.

"After [she reached] those two finals in Australia, everyone saw her as the queen again, but I knew it would be more complicated,” he added.

“In Australia, she arrived fresh, without pressure and could count on the element of surprise. Today, that's not the case.”

Henin, it seems, concurs. Talk of a Wimbledon victory in 2010 has fallen by the wayside as the moment of truth draws nearer. Her early optimism has faded. The year that she was supposed to finally lay her hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish has now become a ‘year of transition’.

"A year ago I didn't hit a single ball,” she reminds us. “I had to build myself back up from zero. Even if what I'm achieving right now isn't as much as I want, after six months it's very positive.

“For a year of transition, I'm really positive about the future."

The future, where Henin’s concerned, will see her triumph at SW19. But by her own admission, her game doesn't yet match her ambition. Her career slam could be farther away than ever.

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