The Pizazz Is Back With Henin Returning

The worst kept secret is finally official. Justine Henin is returning to tennis. The seven-time grand slam champion announced her intentions earlier today.

“Justine Henin is one of the great champions in the history of women’s tennis, and we, along with millions of her fans around the glob, are thrilled with her announcement today,” said Tour CEO Stacey Allaster. “Justine was that rare athlete who decided to step away from the game at the height of her powers, and no doubt she will be a force to be reckoned with from the get go. Her career was marked by so many amazing moments, and a new chapter begins today.”

One of the biggest reasons for her return to a sport she once was on top of ranked first over a year ago when the gritty Belgian called it quits is because she’s never won Wimbledon. The only major that’s eluded her from achieving a career grand slam.

“It is a dream of mine,” the 27 year-old Henin said who lost twice in finals (2001, 2006) while also coming close in a 2007 semifinal loss to runner-up Marion Bartoli. “I want to work to get it. I make it a priority.”

“I can see her winning it,” long-time coach Carlos Rodriguez told RTL-TVI network. “This fourth title, it is one of the reasons for coming back.”

During her impressive WTA career, Henin’s captured one Australian Open (2004), four French (2003, 2005-07) amd two U.S. Opens (2003, 2007) while totaling 41 singles titles, taking her place among the best. Pretty amazing stuff considering her small frame that lists her under 5-6 at 126 pounds.

On a tour dominated by heavy hitters Serena and Venus Williams along with Maria Sharapova, the feisty Henin proved her mettle by being able to go toe to toe with her bigger competition. Thanks to a solid forehand along with her signature one-handed backhand which is easily one of the best in the game, Henin has proven size doesn’t matter as much as heart to win. Along with her speed, she’s been able to come up with great angles keeping points alive while also faring well during exchanges, making for fun tennis.

Indeed, there’s plenty to admire about one of a handful of players who defeated both Williams sisters en route to winning a slam. Something her one year younger countrywoman Kim Clijsters accomplished in a successful comeback following a two and a half year break, finishing it off by besting Caroline Wozniacki for her second U.S. Open.

“Subconsciously, it might have had an impact,” Henin admitted of seeing what Clijsters accomplished in just her third event. “But it certainly was not the most important reason.”

“The last 15 months, I’ve been able to recharge the batteries, emotionally as well.”

During her time away, she became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador focusing her attention on finding cures for struggling children in Congo, Cambodia and Denmark. Certainly admirable work from a player who made history by becoming the first ever No.1 to retire, stunning the tennis world following some early exits prior to defense of Roland Garros.

That included a three set defeat to current No.1 Russian Dinara Safina in Berlin. At the time, Safina was ranked outside the top 10. It turned out to be Henin’s final match. She seemed fairly certain a return wouldn’t happen. But as so often happens in sports, the burning desire to compete never goes away.

“A flame I thought was extinguished forever suddenly lit up again,” she pointed out on a TV appearance while also noting a desire to play at the 2012 London Summer Games. Henin won gold in singles in 2004 at Athens.

“Adrenaline is part of my life, my existence. It is in my character.”

That character is ready to be tested with her scheduling exhibitions in Charleroi, Belgium and Dubai as preparation before returning to compete down under in next year’s first slam, the Australian Open.

“The fire within burns again. I want to come back in January.”

If she still has it and there’s no reason to believe she won’t, the WTA just got a lot better. With both Clijsters and Henin back along with emerging 19 year-old Dane Wozniacki and soon to be 18 year-old American phenom Melanie Oudin plus Svetlana Kuznetsova, it looks like Serena and Venus will have plenty of competition in the future.

So, while Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva continue to struggle for that elusive slam, it promises to be much more challenging. Especially if Sharapova returns to form. Keep a close eye on talented Bulgarian Victoria Azarenka who has a big enough game to make a dent. Ditto for 20 year-old German sensation Sabine Lisicki who made a surprise quarter run at Wimbledon that included wins over Kuznetsova and Wozniacki.

Can Yanina Wickmayer carry forward her surprise semifinal Open appearance? Will the Ana Ivanovic that won a French and made it to No.1 ever return? What about talented Russians like Nadia Petrova or Vera Zvonareva? Can they ever get over the hump?

The women’s game just improved leaps and bounds. The pizazz is back.

Nadal/Gonzalez Suspended Along with Fans

A really good men’s quarter between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Gonzalez was suspended due to incoming rain. The entertaining match to take on previous winner Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis had already been stopped twice and apparently, reports of more rain made it impossible to complete before disappointed Ashe spectators who patiently waited it out.

What they did at least get were two high quality sets in which neither player broke with Nadal leading 7-6 (4), 3-2 in a second set tiebreaker. Despite a visit from the trainer along with a three-minute injury timeout to treat his strained abdominal muscle, the gritty No.3 seeded Spaniard was in front thanks to fighting off two set points in the 12th game of the opening set- getting a little help from Gonzalez who had a soft 92 mph second serve but misfired a return forehand.

The set went to a tiebreak where Nadal proved to be more consistent playing superb defense while Gonzalez self-destructed contributing a few of his 18 unforced errors including a wild forehand to give the six-time grand slam winner the set.

That’s when an ailing Rafa was visited by the trainer before action continued. Neither player changed their strategy much in a gunslinger second set where Gonzalez continued to pound away against the counter punching Nadal whose defense made it increasingly tough for the 11th seeded Chilean to find any momentum.

The first rain delay came at two all lasting exactly an hour. When they returned, it looked like they might get the rest of the set in which included three huge saves by Gonzalez to get out of trouble in the 10th game. He fought off three set points delivering with a pair of service winners and a monstrous forehand into an open court. Two more big forehands down the line allowed him to hold for five all.

Each then held to force another breaker. Unlike the first one which Gonzalez fell behind in 1-4, he and Nadal exchanged mini-breaks thanks to great defense forcing errors to make it 2-3. But with Gonzalez ready to serve, a few drops came making wild conditions which already included swirling winds impossible to continue.

The players first sat in their chairs hopeful it would pass but eventually went back to the locker room thanks to another rain delay.

As the clock struck midnight, returning fans clapped expecting the players to return to a dried court ready to do battle. Unfortunately, veteran chair umpire Pascal Maria delivered the bad news to some jeers and “Ohhhh’s and Awwww’s.”

Who could blame them? If only the USTA had enough common sense to plan ahead. Would it have really hurt to move the two doubles matches to Louis Armstrong?

What they could’ve done was keep the mixed doubles championship on Ashe while asking the Williams sisters to play on Armstrong due to the weather forecast. While that might not have been too popular a decision, at least it would’ve made sense with the popular Serena and Venus Williams playing a women’s doubles semifinal they prevailed in the old stadium so the men could at least get the final quarterfinal in.

Now, the winner will have to play consecutive days and potentially three which could really be a disadvantage the rest of the weekend. Had they been more prepared, it also wouldn’t have been such an inconvenience for fans who paid hard earned money to see a high quality match.

What happens now? They’re screwed because as Maria sadly announced, Session 22 was considered complete. On the official U.S. Open site, the following message reads:

We are currently planning to play the Friday day session # 23 as scheduled. Due to weather, we recommend you continue to check USOpen.org for weather and scheduling updates.

The big question is what does this do to the two women’s semis scheduled for later today with Caroline Wozniacki taking on Yanina Wickmayer while Serena battles Kim Clijsters. Originally, the first match between the ninth seeded Wozniacki and unseeded Wickmayer is supposed to go off at 12:30 today with the battle of champions to follow.

Why not move the ladies back allowing Gonzalez and Nadal to complete their match on Ashe? It all depends on the weather which while not expected to be as bad, could be sketchy with possible rain.

Complicating matters is that the men’s doubles final between fourth seeded Lukas Dlouhy/Leander Paes and third seeds Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles was supposed to be played on Ashe at approximately 3:30 PM.

If you go by the emergency schedule, they list Nadal-Gonzalez not before 2 PM with a possible relocation to Armstrong. Apparently, that option is also available for Wozniacki-Wickmayer and the doubles championship.

It wouldn’t be fair to move the ladies to Armstrong as each has earned their place on center stage at Ashe. Something they’d never consider for Williams-Clijsters.

Shouldn’t the guys get theirs in as early as possible due to having to go on Super Saturday against a more rested Del Potro? One would think so. But that’s the dilemma facing the USTA due to CBS. With three networks covering the final grand slam, this shouldn’t be such an issue. But thanks to CBS who has exclusive rights the rest of the event including the women’s semis and men’s doubles final slotted between 12:30-6 PM, it’s a dicey situation for viewers.

Unless you have high speed internet access, you’re likely to get the shaft in terms of missing either the Nadal-Gonzalez conclusion or Wozniacki-Wickmayer which definitely isn’t fair.

Oh. CBS will do the best job possible moving between venues to update. But it kinda sucks if you’re a hardcore tennis fan.

These two weeks have been kind to New York with last night the first rain interrupted session. You almost never can make it through one slam without at least one of these situations arising.

We just wish the USTA had done a better job planning with the biggest weekend ahead.

Match Notes:

Gonzalez drops first set in tiebreak to Nadal 7-6 (4).

-Gonzalez hit big striking more than double winners (16-7) while also serving 5 aces to keep serve during tight set.

-But Nadal saved 2 set points with one huge Gonzalez forehand return netted on a 92 MPH 2nd serve.

-In tiebreak, Rafa took a 4-1 lead thanks to more consistency. Gonzalez miscues including a wild forehand handed him the set. Nadal made just four errors while Fernando committed 18.

-At end of set, trainer visited Nadal treating his injured abdominal muscle.

2nd Set

-Nadal and Gonzalez on serve 2 all when rain suspends play for first time all tournament.

-1 hour rain delay

-No breaks of serve

-10th game gusts fly up blowing things around and Gonzo stops to watch trying to stay in set. Nadal then plays amazing D getting to possible winners drawing an errant overhead for 0-30. Double hands Nadal 2 set points. 2 service winners save them.

-3rd set point on long backhand in memorable 10th game. On set point after great Gonzo save, tennis ball blows onto court for let. Weird. On let, Gonzo shows heart with forehand winner into open court saving another pumping self up. Gonzalez then wins challenge for forehand winner on line. Another cross court forehand gives him big hold.

-Nadal holds at love for 6-5 putting pressure on Fernando, who holds easily for another breaker.

-Rafa plays great defense forcing long forehand to earn mini-break for 2-1.

-Gonzo comes back drawing Nadal backhand miss to earn mini back for 2-2.

-At 3-2 Nadal, rain drops suspend play again and players go to locker room after waiting to see if it would stop.

-Over an hour delay again as they ready court with tiebreak on serve with Gonzalez to serve 2-3.

-With reports of more rain as the court was dry and ready to go with fans who stayed excited, play is officially suspended ending Session No.22 to the dismay of those who stuck around, throwing a wrinkle into Friday’s Session 23 that includes both women’s semis and the men’s doubles final.

US Open Preview

The time has finally come. Yes. Happy Birthday Andy Roddick! Hopefully for you, this year’s U.S. Open will be extra special. Especially after that memorable five-set Wimbledon classic with Roger Federer.

Can the just turned 27 year-old American overcome heartache to win his second Open and first major since 2003 when he was No.1 in the world? Under Larry Stefanki, he’s playing the best tennis of his career due to better fitness which has allowed him to stay in points and show off an improved backhand along with a better net game.

Can he, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic or the sizzling Juan Martin Del Potro put an end to Federer’s reign in Flushing? Is Rafael Nadal healthy enough to make a run and complete the career grand slam? How will Marat Safin’s final slam of a topsy turvy career go?

All this along with whether Serena Williams can continue her renewed dominance with a third major and fourth in five will get kick started later today at Arthur Ashe Stadium.  Who will come out on top? Let’s take a look at the candidates from each field:
Will Serena repeat or can Elena Dementieva finally win a slam?

Will Serena repeat or can Elena Dementieva finally win a slam?
Women

(2) S. Williams-In fine form this year, the younger Williams is aiming for a repeat and all systems look go with a routine draw that has no serious threats until the quarters where she’ll likely see either Vera Zvonareva (7) or 10th seeded Italian Flavia Pennetta. Samantha Stosur and Daniela Hantuchova might be fourth round opponents and vet Sybille Bammer a third round probable. She upset Serena a couple of weeks ago in a tuneup but this is a slam. So, expect her to be fired up with a shot to reclaim No.1.

(4) Elena Dementieva-The 27 year-old Russian is the best WTA player to never win a slam. She’s a former runner-up who’s one of the most consistent performers. Lena’s reached the semis in four of her last five majors including last year in Queens before falling to finalist Jelena Jankovic. Her draw won’t be easy with former champion Maria Sharapova in Round 3. The winner likely will see either Nadia Petrova (13) or Jie Zheng (21) in the Round of 16. Figure another former winner Svetlana Kuznetsova (6) to be standing in the way in the quarters unless 19 year-old New Haven champ Caroline Wozniacki (9) can ride her solid form under the limelight.

(5) Jelena Jankovic-The Serb is in the same section as No.1 ranked Dinara Safina. Thing is we like Jankovic’s chances a little better because she’s finally playing better. Indeed, the former top rated woman has had a rough year at slams making the fourth round twice and bowing out in the first week at Wimbledon. But she finally seems over her slump in time for her favorite slam where she’s made deep runs three straight years. Outside of German phenom Sabine Lisicki (23) or struggling Ana Ivanovic (11), she should have a clear path to the final eight where Safina should be waiting. If Safina can’t get through Alisa Kleybanova early, shame shame.

Kim Clijsters-Perhaps the most intriguing story is the return of the former 2005 winner. And the Belgian is in the toughest draw which features No.3 Venus Williams along with several other hardcourt threats including Victoria Azarenka (8), Marion Bartoli (14), Li Na (18) and Australia comeback story Jelena Dokic. Indeed, it’s a top heavy draw with potential upsets. On paper, Venus is favorite with no serious threat until the second week. But who will she face in the Round of 16? Clijsters will have to deal with Bartoli in the second round with the winner possibly facing Dokic depending if she’s recovered from an injury. Knowing how supportive New Yorkers are, expect Clijsters to get tons of love pushing her through to a dream match-up against Venus. Most expect the elder Williams to meet Serena in the semis but we like what we’ve seen from Clijsters. Figure either to face Azarenka, who really has no one standing in the way unless feisty Agnieszka Radwanska (12) surprises her.

Semis:

(5) Jankovic vs (4) Dementieva- A rematch of last year which Jankovic won in straights. She also edged Elena recently in a tight three sets. Still, this could be Lena’s time to shine and make another final. We’ll take her.

Clijsters vs (2) S. Williams-If it comes off, it would show off Serena’s power versus Kim’s grit. But Serena should be much fresher allowing her to advance.

2009 U.S. Open Champion (2) Serena Williams, USA-She’s just too tough on the big points. As much as we’d love to see Dementieva get her first slam following up a recent win, it’s hard to bet against the clutch Serena. It will be tight but in straights as the younger Williams rises to the top of the WTA once again.

Player To Watch: Melanie Oudin, USA-The 17 year-old from Atlanta is a future star who made a nice run to Round 4 at Wimbledon ousting Jankovic. She has a good ground game already. Look for her to test Dementieva in Round 2.
Are either Andy Murray or Juan Martin Del Potro ready for primetime at the Open?

Are either Andy Murray or Juan Martin Del Potro ready for primetime at the Open?
Men

(1) Roger Federer-It starts with the new record holder following the amazing final at the All England Club in which he outlasted Roddick despite not being able to break him until the 30th game of the longest final set in championship history. Amazing to think the 28 year-old new father of twins didn’t play his best but showed the mental fortitude he lacked against Rafael Nadal to surpass Pete Sampras. So, can the amazing Swiss Maestro who has it all make it a ridiculous six in a row in NYC? Why not? His section while tricky with potential encounters with Lleyton Hewitt (31) and fading James Blake (21) isn’t bad. The real test shouldn’t come till the quarters where either Robin Soderling (12) or emerging American Sam Querrey (22) should be waiting. Yes. We’re discounting Nikolai Davydenko (8) whose game has slipped. Either way, we don’t see Feds being seriously threatened.

(5) Andy Roddick-Is this the year the new Andy wins a second Open in front of his biggest fans? He’s clearly improved and most notably, his head seems clearer since marrying SI swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker. Perhaps settling down was the right move for tennis’ A-Rod. Could anyone do better than her? Next. The real question is is he ready to deliver? A lot of positives came out of his crushing defeat including a ton of support. He really won a lot of people over. His play has been solid since even though he lost to Del Potro twice. Roddick will be tested in a tricky section that includes nemesis Djokovic in another potential quarter showdown preempted by either Fernando Verdasco (10) or German vet Tommy Haas (20). Even Dmitry Tursunov could prove tough in Round 2. So, they didn’t do him any favors. Assuming Djokovic gets through Ivan Ljubicic, Russian Igor Andreev (29) poses the only challenge in Rd.3. It would be an upset if Roddick-Djokovic II didn’t happen. All eyes will be watching.

(3) Rafael Nadal-It’s true Nadal isn’t 100 percent but did look decent in a couple of warmups. Even though he fell to both Del Potro and Djokovic, Rafa needed the matches to prepare for the Open. People forget that he made it all the way to the semis last year before Murray eliminated him. Assuming he gets through dangerous opening round foe Richard Gasquet who’s fresh off suspension for alleged cocaine use, figure Nadal to be a tough out. Especially in a reasonable draw which shouldn’t get hard until he sees either Gael Monfils (13) or David Ferrer (18) in the Round of 16. Indeed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s (7) half is more challenging with Jarkko Nieminen in Round 2 and either Fernando Gonzalez (11) or Tomas Berdych (17) in Rd.4. Tsonga has a big game but we’re unsure if he’s ready to go far here. Figure Nadal to face Gonzalez or Berdych for a spot in the Final Four.

(2) Andy Murray-No Brit has won a major since Fred Perry. If you think about it, Murray’s not a true one because he’s Scot. But he represents London’s hope and has a big enough game to win here. He made the final last year before a bad call cost him a realistic chance against Federer. Since a disappointing Wimbledon semi loss to Roddick, Murray hasn’t played a ton. There are two schools of thought. Either he wanted a chance to recup to be fresh or the lack of match play could hurt. We’ll know early on when big serving Latvian Ernests Gulbis tests him in the first round. He might see big server Ivo Karlovic (27) in the third round. Karlovic gets the winner of comebacking Taylor Dent-Feliciano Lopez. Murray should have little trouble until the Round of 16 versus either Croat Marin Cilic (16) or Stan Wawrinka (19). Wawrinka is a steady player but doesn’t pose as much of a threat as the big hitting Cilic many picked for a breakout season. He’s made four fourth round appearances in slams and made Rd.3 in his Open debut last year.

(6) Juan Martin Del Potro-It’d be wrong to just include Murray as the only contender in such a deep part of the draw. So, we broke it up due in large part to Del Potro who’s one of the best hardcourt players on the ATP. He is hot coming in winning in D.C. over Roddick while falling short versus Murray in Montreal. Fittingly, they could be pitted against each other in a great quarterfinal. However, Del Potro could have to deal with former champ Safin, who’s in his final swan song. You just know the 29 year-old two-time slam winner wants to go out with a bang. Don’t underestimate him in Round 2 against Del Potro. Early in these slams, anything can happen which Djokovic knows only too well from his Wimbledon 2008 exit which saw Safin make a run to the semis before Feds ousted him. That’s the beauty of Marat. Assuming Del Potro gets through, big server Mardy Fish could pose a test in Round 3 if healthy. And either Gilles Simon (9) or Juan Carlos Ferrero (24) should be lurking in the Round of 16. Want an early match to catch? Ferrero against Magician Fabrice Santoro should be a treat.

Semis:

(5) Roddick vs (1) Federer-The anticipated rematch comes down after Andy exacts revenge on Djokovic, who hasn’t been as consistent this year. Roddick is focused and more than ever believes he can win. We saw that belief against a player who’s dominated him. Look what it took Federer to beat him on grass. Figure this to be intense with a few breakers. We’ll take Andy to avenge Wimbledon finally overcoming his biggest obstacle.

(3) Nadal vs (2) Murray-Honestly, it was very difficult to pick against Del Potro because of how well he’s playing. But we feel Murray has just enough versatility to pull out a quarter and setup a semi rematch. It’s hard to bet against Rafa against the same opponent but this is clearly Murray’s best surface and by this point, figure Nadal to show some strain. We’ll take Murray to advance to a second consecutive final in four sets.

2009 U.S. Open Champion (5) Andy Roddick, USA-The long drought ends for American men with its best player meeting every challenge. It will be very tough because of who he has to go through. But he says he doesn’t feel as much pressure and we believe him. That Wimbledon loss gave him new perspective and might be the best thing for his career. He really deserved better that day. It showed he could compete with the best. People forget that he also showed a lot in beating Murray too. Only we see this final being even tougher. It just might go the distance.

Player To Watch: Sam Querrey, USA-The 21 year-old from San Fran is playing well adding more to his game than just a serve with improved groundstrokes that got him to the final in New Haven before losing to Verdasco. Was it wise to play this week? We’ll see. All we know is he’s capable of making a run and showing that America does have a bright future. He made the fourth round last year before Nadal ousted him in four. Also keep an eye on Donald Young, who again made the main draw and plays baseliner Tommy Robredo.

Women’s Doubles Pick: Samantha Stosur/Rennae Stubbs AUS (3) over Serena Williams/Venus Williams USA (4)

Men’s Doubles Pick: Bob Bryan/Mike Bryan USA (1) over Mahesh Bhupati IND/Mark Knowles BAH (3)