Henin back Justin time for a women's game lacking depth

RUSSIA'S NADIA Petrova was the first to register. She was the second seed at the recent Brisbane International but she was also the first player to face Justin Henin as the Belgian returned to the game following a retirement which lasted just 18 months. That match signalled the end of her tournament and the return of one of the best players of her generation.

"Henin is playing better tennis than before she retired," she said. It was an ominous statement given the Belgian's haul of seven grand slam titles and her previous position as the World No.1. Of the current players, only Serena Williams, with 11 titles, can better her.

"Yes, I feel better today than when I retired. Better emotionally, mentally, better with myself and that makes a big difference," concurred Henin, who confessed that she "needs tennis". "It's something I have found out about myself. I wasn't sure whether I truly needed it before or whether it was something I've just always done but after nearly two years of seeing things through different eyes, I know it's something I must have in my life. I am someone who needs competition, who cannot sit back and relax and just watch others."

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In her time out the game she set up academies, did some work for UNICEF and took time out to attend major events as a spectator, the way she had as a youngster with her mother on a trip to Roland Garros to watch her idol Steffi Graf. It was that trip which gave her the incentive to make it in the game. And watching others achieve was all it took to get her competitive juices flowing yet again. It's not a comeback, she says, it's her second career, a second chance to win at Wimbledon (the only slam title to thus far elude her) and an opportunity to really enjoy the winning.

"I am somebody that has to set myself a goal and achieve. Perhaps the one I have set myself now, to go back and try and get to the position where I was before with so many tough opponents around and new girls far younger than me, is the toughest one of all. But it's something I need to do."

But perhaps it won't be that tough. In a women's game which still lacks strength and depth, her fellow Belgian, Kim Clijsters, returned to the game last year after her own sabbatical and, in just her third tournament back, won the US Open. It was only Clijsters who denied Henin victory in her return tournament, beating her in a very closely contested final. But it wasn't just the sublime tennis in that match that forced everyone to sit up and take notice, it was the intensity of the contest and the way it fluctuated back and forth.

"I think with the level that we both played we are both capable of getting back into the top 10," said Clijsters after that Brisbane final. "The level was so high and it's fun to play in a big match when you are both playing good tennis. I think we set the bar very high for the rest of the year."

The message was clear: the Belgian pair are back and they are serious about regaining their status at the high end of the rankings. And, more importantly, vying for the major titles.

The first of the year is up for grabs in Melbourne, where the Australian Open gets under way this week. Last year the title was won by Serena Williams, and was the start of a season in which one or both of the American sisters made it through to three of the four slam finals. They are likely to face stiffer competition this year with the return of Clijsters and, now, Henin.

The latter returned to training just five months ago and, having stripped back her game in a bid to conserve more energy on court, she claims she is still a work in progress. It is Henin's serve which has seen the greatest changes and she would certainly have preferred another competitive work-out for it between Brisbane and the year's first major.

But she knows better than most what is required to sustain herself physically and mentally throughout the two-week slams. She won the Australian Open in 2004 and would love to add another. It may be a bit too big an ask in just her second competition back on the tour but there will be few big wagers against her. She says she is mentally in a far better place than when she quit the game in May 2008. Then she had personal problems, yet, on court, she was still one of the toughest competitors. Free of those demons, that mental toughness could go a very long way to compensating for any competitive rustiness and how the women's game should be thankful for that.