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Justine Henin aims to regain her French Open crown

French Open
Venue: Roland Garros, Paris Date: 23 May-6 June
Coverage:
BBC red button from 1000 BST and Eurosport; 5 live; streamed on BBC website with live text coverage from 1000 BST. Details of BBC coverage

Justine Henin
Henin has won her last 21 matches at Roland Garros

By Piers Newbery

Rafael Nadal is not the only player heading back to Roland Garros this weekend aiming to restore their aura of invincibility on the Paris dirt.

While the Spaniard hopes to put last year's surprising loss to Robin Soderling behind him, Justine Henin needs to cast her mind back six years to recall her last defeat at Roland Garros.

She has won her last 21 successive matches at the home of clay-court tennis, suffered just one defeat there since 2002, and in the next couple of weeks can become the first woman since Suzanne Lenglen in 1923 to go unbeaten at four successive French Opens.

But the 27-year-old Belgian has not played at Roland Garros since winning her fourth title in 2007, choosing instead to go into retirement rather than defend her crown 12 months later.

It was a move that shocked tennis and the sight of Henin handing over the trophy to the new champion, Ana Ivanovic, on the Court Philippe Chatrier in 2008 hardly softened the blow.

When I saw Roger Federer winning the French Open it brought back the fire that wasn't there any more before

Justine Henin

A player described in glowing terms by the likes of Billie-Jean King, Martina Navaratilova, John McEnroe and just about every tennis legend to hand left a huge gap in the women's game.

But the flowing single-handed backhand that McEnroe has insisted is the best in either the women's or men's games has been back in action this year after Henin ended her 20-month retirement in January.

So can she pick up where she left off at her favourite tournament - the place she fell in love with the game when visiting with her mother as a child and watching her idol Steffi Graff in her pomp?

The bookmakers say 'yes', and by some distance, but that might reveal more about the state of her opponents than Henin's own form.

Henin won the first title of her second career in Stuttgart last month, and the fact that she was on clay (albeit indoors) when she finally got her hands on another trophy suggested she was back in the groove just in time for Paris.

Until then, she had interspersed some typically brilliant performances - notably in reaching the finals in Brisbane and at the Australian Open in her first month back - with some surprising lapses.

"I'm physically exhausted, but I can't be disappointed," Henin said after losing a dramatic Brisbane final to Kim Clijsters.

Ana Ivanovic and Justine Henin
Ivanovic took over from Henin as French Open champion in 2008

"I am proud of what I did on the court today. I left the Tour for 18 months and I can still compete with one of the best players out there."

Reaching the final of the Australian Open a few weeks later was an incredible achievement, perhaps underestimated because her compatriot Kim Clijsters had actually won her first Grand Slam title after coming out of retirement at the US Open in September.

But Clijsters had enjoyed a longer build-up to that event and was at her very best come Flushing Meadows, while Henin was still finding her way back in Australia.

Whether she has now regained top form is open to question but Henin may not need to be at her absolute peak to win again at Roland Garros, as her leading rivals are not exactly firing on all cylinders.

The bookies have Serena Williams installed as a fairly distant second-favourite, primarily because she's Serena.

Since winning the title in 2002 she has never again made it as far as the final, but the 12-time Grand Slam champion has an unrivalled ability to pick up her racquet, shake off any apparent lack of form and fitness and win major titles.

A lack of clay-court pedigree makes Paris the toughest test of the lot for her though, so what of the others?

Defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is in terrible form, Dinara Safina is struggling with a back problem that threatens her career, Maria Sharapova is similarly short of form and fitness, Clijsters is out through injury, Venus Williams is on the rise but rarely shines in Paris, Jelena Jankovic can be brilliant one day and awful the next....

606: DEBATE
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Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka are the two new faces to have broken into the top 10 during Henin's 20-month absence but, in a familiar tale, there are doubts over their fitness and form.

The real threat to Henin might come from an altogether lower profile character.

France's Aravane Rezai claimed a stunning win in Madrid last week - beating Henin, Jankovic and Venus along the way - Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez was an equally surprising winner in Rome, and Aussie Sam Stosur continues to display an unexpected liking for clay.

Ivanovic, the champion only two years ago, has shown signs in recent weeks that her game is flickering back to life after an alarming two-year slump, but a Grand Slam challenge still looks some way off.

Henin has had her own difficulties in recent weeks after breaking the little finger on her left hand while on Fed Cup duty, but the use of a splint did not stop her in Stuttgart.

"Maybe my broken finger brought me luck," she said after that victory. "Life is amazing, when I broke my finger 10 days ago and I heard it was a fracture, I didn't know if I would even be able to come here."

Justine Henin and Serena Williams
Henin lost to Serena in three sets in the Australian Open final

Asked if she thought Henin was ready to regain her Paris crown, Navratilova told a conference call: "Nobody has really come through in a dominating fashion leading up to the tournament and she must like her chances pretty well on this stuff.

"It's like coming home for her. She knows exactly how to play on it, there is no doubt with her movement. She grew up on this stuff and is right at home sliding and getting back into position, so she has got to like her chances."

Henin has admitted that her main target now is to win Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam title that has so far eluded her, but Stuttgart showed that clay is still the surface that fires her passion for the game.

"I never thought I'd be back in Stuttgart a year ago, and especially for it to be on clay now, it means a lot to me," she said.

"When I saw Roger Federer winning the French Open it brought back the fire that wasn't there any more before. It has been a lot of work but I'm ready for it."



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see also
Henin claims title in Stuttgart
02 May 10 |  Tennis
Serena seals fifth Aussie title
30 Jan 10 |  Tennis
Clijsters beats Henin in thriller
09 Jan 10 |  Tennis
Henin registers comeback victory
04 Jan 10 |  Tennis
Henin announces shock retirement
14 May 08 |  Tennis


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