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Aftermath of Henin's retirement still felt

5/14/2009 - Tennis
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

It's been a year since Justine Henin sat down before a room full of reporters outside Brussels, managed a wan smile, picked up a cordless microphone, tilted her chin resolutely and delivered the shocking news that she was retiring from professional tennis at age 25.

That cannon shot left a hole through the heart of the women's game that's still smoking today. Henin took with her the kind of exacta that sports leagues thrive on -- a champion's résumé intertwined with a great personal story that was still evolving. The gap may fill in eventually, but it hasn't yet.

ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said Henin's absence will be felt especially keenly at the upcoming French Open, where her all-court talent was best showcased.

"I miss her excellence," Carillo said. "She was such a ferocious fighter, so well coached, and so technically and tactically adept on that surface. She was so little, and clay brought every other bigger player back to her. The look of women's tennis right now can be so predictable with so much banging away from the baseline. She was a good foil.

"When she showed up at tournaments, she was fit and there to win. You felt like you were in good hands watching her. Obviously she never did win Wimbledon, but she was probably going to figure out how to do that."

Since Henin's retirement after 61 straight weeks on top, the No. 1 ranking has been passed around like a burning-hot relay baton, exchanging hands eight times among five women: Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic (who finished 2008 in the top slot), Serena Williams and the current occupant, Dinara Safina. That wouldn't necessarily be a negative, except that the race for the summit hasn't been terribly suspenseful or engaging one.

Ivanovic and Sharapova have spent a significant amount of that time sidelined with injuries. Two more players in the quintet, Jankovic and Safina, have yet to win a Grand Slam. Jankovic put up some resistance in her first Slam final, last year's U.S. Open, against Williams, but Safina was unable to rise to the occasion in Paris (against Ivanovic) or Melbourne (where Williams drubbed her), losing both in straight sets.

More to the point, there's no compelling rivalry in this bunch. By that, we mean a matchup with continuity, contrasting personalities, and players who want to step on each other's throats when it counts. Henin was party to a few of those. Her duels with fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, France's Amelie Mauresmo and Williams had history, context, tension and texture.

The two Serbians have the potential to weave that kind of tapestry, but of their nine matches so far, only one -- last year's French Open semifinal -- has come in a high-stakes Slam situation. Sharapova and Williams have always looked like interesting combatants on paper, but these heavy hitters have met only seven times total because of their respective hiatuses, and Williams has won the last four dating back to 2004. (Henin and Clijsters, who faced off 22 times, clashed eight times during the 2003 season alone.)

If Sharapova's shoulder heals -- and fans should fervently hope it does -- it would be exciting to see her try to make up some ground.

The best and most dynamic matches in the women's game over the past year, hands down, have been the ones between Serena and her sister Venus. And as breathtaking as that action can be, it's not a rivalry in the true sense, because it feels somehow uncomfortable to choose up sides. The sisters have overcome their initial inability to crank up and slug it out with each other, but have we gotten used to it? Their brilliant, riveting U.S. Open quarterfinal last year was played before a appreciative but subdued crowd unsure of its loyalties.

Still, together the Williamses represent the charisma, chops and clutch hitting in big situations that the women's game so desperately needs. In a recent interview with ESPN.com, Monica Seles said they are one of the reasons she continues to tune in -- at least four times a year.

"Serena and Venus definitely treat Grand Slams differently, you see that," Seles said. "When you see Serena play the Grand Slams, you know she's there with a mission. Same with Venus. My generation treated every tournament like that. It's just different.

"Seems like the girls are always battling an injury, or something's always coming up. Now when I watch tennis, I watch more the Grand Slams because I know so much is on the line there. I hope we'll have a year in women's tennis where you see all the girls playing, and they're all healthy."

This is not to say that the women who would be queen, or the coterie of young challengers just behind them, aren't worthy of respect or are incapable of writing intriguing storylines in the years to come. But for now, the WTA's ship of state is rocking in the swells, waiting for someone to take the helm.

This weekend, almost a year to the day since Henin bowed out, her effervescent adversary Clijsters is ending her maternity leave and stepping back in for an exhibition match on the newly remodeled Wimbledon Centre Court. She will make a much-anticipated full-time return to the WTA circuit in August. The warm reception she's gotten since her announcement is a measure of how much the game currently craves proven warriors.

Henin's last few months on tour, her body and soul depleted by her extraordinary 2007 season, were something less than satisfying. Athletes' retirements seem to be written in pencil rather than carved in stone these days, and speculation commenced almost immediately about when she might come back, but she exhibits no signs of having second thoughts.

She certainly has earned the right to explore life beyond tennis. Perhaps the flowering of Henin's personality in her last full competitive season, which converted many fans from warily respectful to unreservedly admiring, brought along with it a new openness to the world that propelled her off the court. If only Henin had left instructions about how to make full use of the space inside those white rectangles.

"This French Open is going to present a tremendous opportunity for someone," Carillo said. "I'd like to see someone say, 'Why shouldn't it be me? This is my time.' I don't get the sense there's anyone like that right now."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.