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.

Week One US Open Stuff

The first week of the U.S. Open is almost done. Five days are in the books at Flushing Meadows.

We’ve seen our share of upsets on the women’s side while the men have held form setting up some intriguing match-ups this Labor Day weekend.

Here are some observations on what’s been a fun week of tennis in the final grand slam in NYC:

-Kudos to Melanie Oudin for upsetting No.4 seeded Russian Elena Dementieva in a thrilling second round match coming back to win in three sets against one of the WTA’s best. Lena was considered a contender and our pick to reach the final but we knew the 17 year-old Atlanta native would be a tough out. She proved to be too much as the blond haired kid showed mettle beyond her years, proving that her third round Wimbledon conquer of Jelena Jankovic was no fluke.

No doubt Oudin can play and is giving American tennis fans someone new to get excited about aside from the Williams sisters. Can she keep it going tomorrow versus former champ Maria Sharapova who’s only dropped six total games? It will be a tall order but if the three-time slam winner isn’t sharp, things could get interesting. Especially with the New Yorkers pulling for the kid. And we know one thing. They’re great fans who can always give an underdog a lift. Should make for some great watching.

-Loved the Taylor Dent-Ivan Navarro second round epic earlier tonight. This match was easily the best on the men’s side thus far as both players made it a point to get in and finish off points at the net. It made for classic tennis which we know John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors had to appreciate. You just don’t see it enough.

The 28 year-old Dent is an inspirational story having made it back from three back surgeries which at one point had him in a wheelchair wondering if he’d ever get another opportunity to play a game he loves. But the throwback serve-and-volley specialist worked extra hard when told he could comeback getting into great shape. Tonight, the heart and passion was on display as he rallied from a set down to pull out a well earned five set epic taking the final breaker 11-9. That he had to fight off a few match points before chipping a perfect backhand slice pass erupting into celebration at the old Grandstand made it even more special. This was great stuff. Both guys dug deep but a determined Dent won the four-plus hour marathon to the crowd’s delight.

All in all, a pleasure to see with both players combining for 255 times at the net with each winning a high percentage (Navarro-62 percent, Dent-69 percent). Not surprisingly along with 20 aces, Dent finished with 121 total winners compared to his game opponent’s 70. Remarkable numbers. What made it all the more great was how efficient each was. Combine high energy tennis with an electric atmosphere and it was a real treat.

Best part had to be after Dent won. It was his first time back at the Open in four years. Having missed two and a half years, he had to wonder if he’d ever make it back to his favorite grand slam event. At the match’s conclusion, after a handshake, he took the umpire’s microphone and thanked everyone for their support. After a postmatch interview with ESPN’s Pam Schriver, he then pulled a Todd Martin taking two laps around the place slapping everyone five.

Easily one of the coolest things ever. That is what makes this sport so compelling. You could feel the love just coming across the TV.

Can Dent keep it going this weekend? He didn’t exactly get a great reward drawing Andy Murray next. But the No.2 seeded Scot did go four Friday and will certainly need to be better versus a higher quality foe. The game’s best returner pitted against a classic serve and volleyer should make for a nice contrast. Figure it to be a fun watch.

-It’d be easy to get on Jankovic for bowing out early falling in a tight three to Yaroslava Shvedova. Indeed last year’s runner-up has had a rough season at the majors not making one quarterfinal. However, she just lost her grandma and that had to be extremely difficult Thursday. So, let’s cut her a break and send our best wishes.

-Keep an eye on Caroline Wozniacki. The ninth seed from Denmark entered having won in New Haven and has continued to look in top form rolling through the first couple of rounds. She could get a stiff challenge from Romania’s Sorana Cirstea. If the improving 19 year-old looker moves on, Svetlana Kuznetsova might be a fourth round opponent. Interesting considering they recently were hitting partners in Eastbourne earlier this summer as seen here.

-Can’t wait to see that Round of 16 encounter between Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters. Should be a barn burner!

-Can anyone threaten Serena? She’s looking mighty tough. Don’t expect much from Daniela Hantuchova who while a steady hitter just doesn’t have enough in her arsenal.

-Give Nicolas Kiefer plenty of credit for making it a match versus Rafael Nadal tonight. Especially after getting bageled in the first set and down an early break before making things much more interesting taking the second. The third seeded Spaniard looked pretty good running down balls but he can elevate his game a couple of notches and will have to. That anticipated fourth rounder against flying Frenchman Gael Monfils would be fun.

-We like what we’ve seen from Andy Roddick but now it gets more challenging as he’ll see giant American server John Isner later today. If he gets through that, then it’s either Tommy Haas or Fernando Verdasco. So, it sure won’t be easy.

-Some other good matches to check out include emerging Sam Querrey taking on Robin Soderling and James Blake battles Tommy Robredo. There also will be a former final when Roger Federer faces old nemesis Lleyton Hewitt. Can the gritty Aussie vet push the five-time defending champ?

Tomas Berdych also plays Fernando Gonzalez this weekend and Juan Carlos Ferrero takes on Gilles Simon in France versus Spain. It’s interesting to note that for the first time ever in the Open Era, all top 16 men’s seeds remain alive. By weekend’s conclusion with Fall around the corner, some of those will be gone.

One of the best weekends of the year.