Despite struggles, don't discount Henin's resolve, determination

4/2/2008 - Tennis
Will eschewing Indian Wells to recover mentally and physically pay dividends for Justine Henin in Miami? AP Photo/Yves Logghe

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- This is where Justine Henin's season really began in 2007, even though she struggled for her very breath at times, nearly lost in the third round and let match points slip through her strings in a final she eventually lost to Serena Williams -- one of only four Ls on Henin's ledger in 2007.

Henin opted out of the U.S. clay-court tournaments that followed, went back to Europe to rest and thus was home when her brother's near-fatal car accident was the catalyst for reconciliation with her long-estranged family. She returned to the WTA circuit fortified and pretty much ran the table the rest of the way.

When Henin breezed to the Sydney title in early January, it appeared she wouldn't miss a beat. But she walked onto the court for her Australian Open quarterfinal against Maria Sharapova with ugly black tape outlining her right kneecap and an unhappy expression on her face, as if she could foresee the demolition awaiting her.

She has flown somewhat under radar since then. Wednesday, a reporter suggested that the scenario could be repeating itself, that the Sony Ericsson Open might once again represent the true start of Henin's campaign.

Henin politely disagreed.

"I wouldn't say that, since I've played four tournaments and won two,'' she said, smiling. "Everything is relative.''

Like her counterpart on the men's side, Henin's spectacular 2007 season inflates any hint of vulnerability to the point where it casts a shadow. But while Roger Federer refers to outside expectations as a self-created monster, Henin takes a different tack, recognizing and even embracing her limits -- although not always right away.

Henin said she knew in December she was too exhausted to fully recover during the few weeks she had off. After a divorce, an emotional family reunion and 63-4 season, Henin realized she'd been living on adrenaline and her reserve tanks were empty.

"When you stop and you have time to rest, it's like a counterpunch,'' she said. "I knew exactly what I was in for. Accepting it was another thing.''

Her inflamed knee complicated the situation. Henin pondered surgery, and eventually took a cortisone shot in hopes of being fit enough to play in her home-country event in Antwerp, where she buzzed through a soft field.

Next came Dubai, where she came in as defending champion but lost to Italy's Francesca Schiavone in her second match. Henin felt like she was on the mend but still needed time away from competition, so she skipped Indian Wells and trained at her Monte Carlo base.

"The last four weeks, I worked really hard,'' she said. "The preparation I should have had in December, I only had in the last few weeks because I was ready mentally and physically to do it.

"I was glad I had that time off. I don't plan just for 2008, I plan for two or three seasons.''

Mind over matter sounds great in theory, but Henin has no qualms about taking the opposite approach sometimes and letting her body call the shots. That may be natural given that she's always had to make do with a less formidable physique than her peers. When Henin and the tournament's other top-seven seeds -- Serbians and Williamses and other long-legged creatures -- appeared for their annual joint photo op Wednesday, she looked comparatively tiny in her coral-pink warm-up jacket.

Henin's physique might have discouraged her from sticking with the sport if she hadn't learned it via what she calls "mini-tennis,'' the instructional variety of the game that employs shorter courts, smaller rackets and soft balls to give kids confidence before they move on to the real, and infinitely more frustrating, deal.

She plans to import that tool for use in a new academy in Orlando, scheduled to open this fall, where she'll lend her name and occasional presence, as will her longtime coach Carlos Rodriguez. The blueprint for Sixth Sense, a branch of the tennis club she owns in Belgium, now calls for eight courts, mostly clay. If Henin thinks she has a challenge on her hands with WTA competition, wait until she starts trying to school American kids on that surface.

Henin laughed when the subject was raised, but there is an interesting symbolism to this business venture, which is a stretch out of her comfort zone. She craves order, dislikes noise and prefers things on a small scale and has openly admitted that the United States in general, and New York in particular, make her feel off-kilter and ill at ease. Yet she's won the U.S. Open twice now, and seems to be leaning toward embracing that phobia rather than shrinking from it.

"For me [it is] always a big challenge to play in the states because it's not here that I feel the most comfortable, but much more today than five years ago, that's for sure,'' Henin said.

Meanwhile, Miami isn't exactly sedate and the Sony Ericsson is no mini-event, especially with a formidable, if unpredictable, Serena Williams looming in Henin's quarter. In fact, this is among the most important titles Henin has never won, and it comes at a time of year when she still aches over the anniversary of her mother's death. "It's even more important than usual for me to look at these matches one at a time,'' she said.

Henin said Wednesday she doesn't know yet if her results here will match up with her intentions. But she has shown that it's possible to tame a lot of ogres with her particular combination of prudence and resolve.

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