Commentary

Henin says she won't return to tennis

Updated: May 28, 2009, 1:02 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Justine HeninSteve Mitchell/US PresswireJustine Henin plans to begin playing exhibition matches later this year.

PARIS -- Justine Henin still attracts a crowd. Looking thinner and blonder than she did when she retired a year ago, Henin stepped into a small clearing in the forest of television cameras, boom mikes and still cameras in the corporate hospitality "village" at Roland Garros and ducked her head slightly at the commotion.

The photographers were in full red carpet mode. "Zhoo-Steen! Over here! Over here!" they called out, elbowing each other for position. Henin smiled obligingly until it looked as if her face would freeze up.

"You haven't changed," she said pleasantly.

Champagne-sipping VIPs wandered by, stopped, gawked and pulled out their own point-and-shoots to record the moment. "Tennis misses her," said French federation president Gilbert Ysern.

They named a "street" after Henin here in the club where the well-heeled gather for lunch and drinks by invitation only. That may not have the same ring of finality associated with American sports rituals like retiring a jersey number or hanging a banner from the rafters, but now that she's part of the French Open infrastructure, doesn't that preclude a comeback?

As Henin took a two-minute walk from the center court where she won four titles, the sounds of competition echoed around her -- balls struck, polite applause, the flat intonations of chair umpires announcing the scores in her native language. But she maintains she doesn't miss that sound track and won't change her mind like her longtime foil and fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, who insisted she was gone for good but then couldn't stay away.

Henin wouldn't take the bait when a reporter asked what she thought of Clijsters' U-turn. She said she wouldn't dream of judging someone else's life but also said she's not surprised that so many retirements in sports are temporary these days.

"I think that this step, to move on, is very hard," Henin said. "I can tell you even if I have a lot of character, it hasn't been that easy for myself either, to, you know, stop tennis and be back in like a normal life. I think not everyone can make this step, and maybe, you know, want to be back because they don't know what to do. You have to discover who you are and to build another life. It's like it's a new birth, you know."

Henin said she has been devoting her time to charity work, her tennis academies in Belgium and Florida, and television work -- including appearances on a popular soap opera and a reality show. She had knee surgery in October and hasn't picked up a racket more than three or four times, but she plans to begin playing exhibitions later this year.

Five different women have held the WTA's No. 1 ranking since Henin abdicated, two without a Grand Slam win on their résumés, which she called "sad." Henin said she hasn't paid close attention to the competitive anarchy but hopes that one of her former rivals makes a stronger case for herself soon; she singled out Dinara Safina as a candidate.

"With the respect I have for all these players, it's true that it's hard apparently in the women's game now to really find a boss and someone that is at the top and that wins a lot of tournaments," Henin said. "I think the tour needs someone, a leader. We don't find this leader for now, but there is a lot of confidence, I guess, that young players are going to come on the tour and push, you know, the older ones.

"It's a new generation now, but it's strange what happens in women's game, and the fact that you never know what's going to happen," she said. "It's interesting."

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

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.