- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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Justine Henin will walk onto stadium court at the French Open for her first match next week carrying the familiar, invisible aura of the player to beat. It may feel as though she never left, and in some ways, she didn't.
"She has played enough matches now this year and has proven herself where she has to be one of the favorites for the title,'' two-time French Open winner Martina Navratilova, who will provide analysis of the tournament for Tennis Channel, told reporters on a conference call Monday. "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.''
Like fellow quadruple winner Rafael Nadal, Henin celebrates her birthday (June 1) each year in Paris. She won the championship the past three times she played the tournament, and even though she hasn't competed in the past two editions, she hasn't been completely absent from the grounds.
The movie "Same Time, Next Year" chronicles the decades-long relationship of clandestine lovers who reunite once a year for one precious weekend. Henin, 27, maintained an annual, torrid affair with the rich red clay of Roland Garros that was no secret. Yet, like the couple in the film, Henin seems to be in a distinctly different place in her own personal storyline each time she takes a bow there.
Scenes from the screenplay:
2007: Henin crushes Ana Ivanovic to win her fourth French Open in the past five years and shocks nearly everyone in Philippe Chatrier Stadium with an emotional acknowledgement of her long-estranged brothers, who are in the stands, and her father back in Belgium. "I want to dedicate this victory to my family,'' she said. "I missed you. I want to offer this victory to you. I love you with all my heart.''
2008: On May 14, just 11 days before the tournament is set to begin, Henin makes the bombshell announcement that she is retiring. Her agent, Ken Meyerson, tells ESPN.com she called him beforehand and said: "I've won everything I need to win, I have more money than I can use in three lifetimes, and I don't have the will to play one day more.'' Henin appears in Paris on the tournament's final weekend and, in a surreal scene, presents an elated Ivanovic with the trophy.
2009: Henin visits the grounds at Roland Garros to have a "street" in the VIP village named after her. "It's part of me forever, and this love story between the French Open and me keeps going on,'' she said in a news conference before the informal ceremony. "It's something that started a long time ago in 1992 when I was here to watch that big final, and then I won juniors and then four times.'' She insists she has no second thoughts, but in the same breath admits, "It hasn't been that easy for myself either, to, you know, stop tennis and be back in like a normal life.'' At the end of the same fortnight, she watches Roger Federer win his most coveted title and begins to reconsider her plans.
2010: Take 1. Action.
Henin's results since her return have been erratic: Stellar runs and hard-fought matches followed by early losses. She sprung out of the blocks to reach the Australian Open final only to lose in the second round in her next outing at Indian Wells. Her first post-comeback title in Stuttgart was followed by a complete collapse in the third set of her opening match in Madrid, where she fell 4-6, 7-5, 6-0 to eventual winner Aravane Rezai of France.
Drama, as usual, has abounded. Henin's countrywoman and rival, Kim Clijsters, has beaten her both times they've played this year, once in the final in Brisbane and again in a nail-biter of a semifinal in Miami. Now tied 12-12 in their career series, the interwoven paths of the two Belgians came together again at Fed Cup last month, where Henin broke a pinky finger in a fluke training incident. When Clijsters suffered a far worse injury, tearing a muscle in her foot that will keep her out of the French Open, Henin stepped in and played valiantly in a losing effort.
If the see-saw momentum of her season holds true, Henin, currently ranked No. 23, is due for a déjà vu performance at Roland Garros. Another title there surely would be satisfying, yet also, in the literal sense of the French phrase, it would be been-there-seen-that. Henin made it clear that winning Wimbledon -- the one Grand Slam event that has eluded her -- was one of her chief motivations for picking up a racket again.
ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said Henin's "best chance to win on grass is to first win on clay.''
"Her game is very similar to what it was, though a bit more amped up -- she's looking to play shorter points,'' Carillo said. "When her serve isn't behaving, the points are a little too short. She's been pressing a bit and double-faulting at times, and she's pushing on her return game as well, so we're seeing more unforced errors from her so far this season. But I don't think she's terribly bothered by what she must consider to be 'correct' mistakes.
"I still like her on clay [where] she has, as she says, 'Time to organize my game.' And it would help her to have a big win, a major as she heads into Wimbledon.''
Whatever else was going on in her life, Henin always had Paris, where she stylishly fenced her way through the draw like a female Musketeer. The freshly groomed courts await a sequel.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Justine Henin's affinity for the French Open is no secret. But this year her love affair returns to the court.