Henin angling for spectacular return to Paris
Paris: Two years after Justine Henin stunned the sport by announcing her retirement at the age of 25 on the eve of her French Open defence, the Belgian is back and eager to show Roland Garros what it has been missing.
Before Henin`s self-enforced break, she reigned supreme on Parisian clay, winning the title on four out of the five previous years and she is already being tipped to sweep all before her over the next two weeks.
Svetlana Kuznetsova won the tournament last year, beating Dinara Safina in a mediocre final, while Ana Ivanovic claimed the title the year before. Worthy champions as they were, neither came anywhere close to emulating the tennis conjured by Henin.
There are few better sights in tennis than the Belgian in full flow. At 5-ft-5ins (1.65m), there is not much of her but she prowls the court like an old-fashioned gunslinger, thrashing clean winners and producing angles that defy mathematical explanation.
However, since returning to the Tour in January she has been steady rather than spectacular -- not quite the impact that compatriot Kim Clijsters enjoyed when winning the U.S. Open last year after coming out of retirement.
Serena Williams stood between her and the Australian Open title at the start of the year -- proof that not all Belgian women can take a lengthy career time-out and return directly to pocket a grand slam title.
Henin won her first title since returning last month on clay in Stuttgart yet bailed out in the first round of Madrid a week later and her game is not quite back to the level she was at in 2007 when she spent all but seven weeks ranked world number one.
Perhaps she is still feeling her way back, but the familiar surrounds of Roland Garros, where she enjoys great support, will make her very hard to beat once she gets moving, according to twice former champion Martina Navratilova.
"Even though Justine has been away for a couple of years from the French she has played enough matches now this year and has proven herself," Navratilova said in a conference call.
"She has to be one of the favourites for the title. There is no doubt about that. Nobody has really come through in a dominating fashion leading up to the tournament."
"She must like her chances pretty well on this stuff. I mean, it is like coming home for her. She knows exactly how to play on it. There is no doubt with her movement. She grew up on this stuff. She is right at home sliding."
With so much focus on the return of Henin, it is easy to overlook the fact that sisters Serena and Venus Williams sit at the top of the rankings.
Serena has been troubled by a left knee injury since beating Henin in Melbourne and admitted last week she is struggling for sharpness as she returns to the city where she has a house.
For the first time for a while it is older sister Venus who could pose the biggest threat here, having not been past the fourth round since losing in the 2002 final.
With her 30th birthday just around the corner she might not get many more chances.
"I feel like I`m playing well, I feel confident in my game," Venus, who has reached four finals this year, said in Madrid where she lost to Frenchwoman Aravane Rezai in the final.
With Denmark`s third-ranked Caroline Wozniacki troubled by an ankle injury in the build-up, former world number one Dinara Safina yet to really recover from a back injury, Clijsters already ruled out and Kuznetsova just struggling for form, the stage is set for Henin.
"It`s been very interesting the last few months and I have learned a lot of things and generally it`s been pretty positive for myself," Henin said. "I feel I took the right decision to come back and it`s been very exciting for me."