Commentary

Henin's journey begins -- again

Updated: September 23, 2009, 8:27 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

OK, admit it: We're a little burned out on this retirement thing.

We're weary of athletes who absolutely, positively shut the door and then come knocking a month or a year or two or three later, full of pep, happily shrugging off their past malaise. We're a little numb to the whole phenomenon, and who could blame us, especially after having seen Brett Favre and Michael Jordan do it twice, and Lance Armstrong return hungry three years after he said we'd find him at the beach.

The latest to reverse direction is Justine Henin, whose followers have the right to feel a little whipsawed over the past couple of years. Sixteen months after she absolutely, positively left women's tennis, saying she had lost her desire to compete and had nothing left to prove or experience, the 27-year-old Henin is asking for a mulligan.

She acknowledged as much Tuesday when she announced her return on live television in Belgium, saying she intends to play several exhibitions and be in fighting shape for the 2010 Australian Open. Furthermore, Henin said she hopes to play through at least the 2012 Olympics in London, the year she will turn 30. Her longtime coach, Carlos Rodriguez, also will be coming back to guide her.

"It's surprising, because on the 14th of May 2008, I put a definitive end to my career,'' Henin said. "And then, there was a long personal journey. And then the flame I thought was extinguished was relit.''

Henin, so private in some ways, has never been afraid to use intimate language to describe her inner struggles, giving us a vague sense of them without spilling too many details.

Onlookers will try to dissect her motives, putting as much spin on the developments as Henin puts on her backhand slice. Some will say it's an opportunistic move, born of the vacuum at the top of the women's game. Some will say Henin still lusts after Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam she never won. Some will say she thinks the Williams sisters are more beatable than they were a couple of years ago. Some will speculate Henin got fired up when she saw love and success rain down on her rival and compatriot Kim Clijsters, winner of the U.S. Open in her third start out of the comeback gate. (Henin said Tuesday she "admired'' Clijsters' accomplishment but was more affected by Roger Federer's breakthrough win at the French Open and decided in mid-July that she would come back.)

Any and all of the above might be true, or it might be worth as much as the cocktail napkin we write it on. And really, does it matter?

What's certain is that Henin's U-turn is a bit different from some others in the recent past. Clijsters talked about leaving the game and starting a family for months before she did it. Lindsay Davenport was careful never to use the "R" word when she got pregnant. Martina Hingis dipped her toe in the water by playing World Team Tennis for a season.

Henin was No. 1 when she parachuted off the pinnacle barely a week before her favorite tournament, the French Open, with a sore knee, a publicly restored relationship with her once-estranged family and seven Grand Slam titles. She requested her name be removed from the rankings the following week. She then appeared in Paris, reaffirmed her decision and, in a somewhat surreal spectacle, presented the winner's trophy to Ana Ivanovic -- the woman she'd trounced the year before.

The entire turn of events was startling, and more than one analyst thought the retirement wouldn't stick. Still, smoke signals didn't start rising until this summer when, coincidentally or not, Clijsters stepped back on the court in Cincinnati. Henin was scheduled to appear in a theater production; the play was canceled. She ordered a dozen new custom rackets. Rumors flew. Few were surprised.

Instead of parsing what Henin had to say Tuesday, perhaps it's more illuminating to review what she said a few months ago when she returned to Roland Garros once again to have a "street'' named after her -- really a wooden walkway in the VIP village where the well-heeled are wined and dined. She met with the media afterward, and the first question she fielded was, "Justine, you just can't stay away, can you?''

Henin took it in good humor. "No, I can, I promise,'' she said. "It's very emotional for me to come back for sure, but in another way, I feel far away already.''

I chimed in next.

"Apparently your mind is made up then, you have no second thoughts?" I asked.

"No, no,'' Henin said, smiling again.

I pressed on: "We've seen so many retirements in sport that are temporary, where people are changing their minds. Why do you think that is?''

She didn't hesitate. "I think this step, to move on, is very hard. It's very hard for every athlete to be back in the normal life and start a new life,'' Henin said. "I can tell you even if I have a lot of character, it hasn't been that easy for myself either to stop tennis and be back in normal life.''

Young athletes perform such superb acts of will, disciplining their bodies to excel and to push through pain, that we might expect too much of them when it comes to knowing their own minds. They are wired differently from the rest of us, partly because they are born that way and partly because of the bizarre environment in which they make their living.

Henin, an outsized talent in a small package, showed us earlier in her career that she was vulnerable to the most common of human problems -- strife at home, a bad marriage, a lack of resolve on some big occasions. The fact that she now has resuccumbed to the understandable tug of the game that defined her doesn't mean we shouldn't take her or any of her peers seriously when they bow out. Anyone who has returned to an old habit, a former job or an ex-lover should understand that.

The WTA doesn't seem inclined to grant official leaves of absence to its top players, but even if that loophole were available, chances are some athletes still would pull the plug prematurely and then realize there was some electricity left in the line. Absolutes -- wins, losses, results -- are the currency of their lives, and they don't deal well with maybes and doubts and limbo. I was done. Now I'm not. Got a problem with that?

Katrina Adams, the former pro and sage commentator for Tennis Channel, said this summer that she doesn't judge players who change their minds. "They mean what they say at the time they say it,'' she said. "I think the world doesn't know what's going on in these players' lives. We put labels on them without really knowing who they are.''

Henin's departure left the WTA rankings in disarray. The injuries, inconsistency and fragile psyches that afflicted the top 10 in her absence are not her fault, but chances are her return, like that of Clijsters, will be warmly received as an antidote to the ugly no-one-wants-it spectacle that has hurt the game. If she stays healthy, Henin should be a contender for the majors again next year.

It's unlikely the organizers at Roland Garros will take down the sign they put up in Henin's honor this year, which says "Allée Justine Henin." Although an "allée" is a small street, it's pronounced the same way as "allez," the French word for "go" and the exhortation Henin often gave herself midmatch, combined with a little fist pump. She's given herself the green light. If she can recover from her burnout, we ought to try to get over ours, and sit back and enjoy watching her extend her remarkable career. It might be even better than that theater debut she was supposed to make.

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

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.