Sport: Henin’s return vital for women’s tennis

Yesterday’s news that 7 times grand slam winner Justine Henin is set to return to the women’s tour from the start of next season may not have been entirely unexpected, but is certainly the latest sensational move to reinvigorate women’s tennis.

Having retired “for good” 18 months ago, citing personal reasons and a lack of willingness to compete, Henin has been working for UNICEF and running her own tennis academy.  During this time, the WTA tour has struggled with Williams domination of the grand slams, a flawed ranking system and inconsistency from many of its top stars.

Henin's combination of power and technique has been sorely missed on the WTA tour

Henin's combination of power and technique has been sorely missed on the WTA tour

Interest in the women’s game has dropped off dramatically in the last few years as a credible opponent for either Venus or Serena Williams has largely failed to emerge, especially in the major events.  Maria Sharapova has been blighted by injury and Ana Ivanovic has suffered a chronic drop in form since her French Open win of 2008; a win which was supposed to make her the WTA’s first $100m superstar.

Aside from that, the likes of Svetlana Kusnetsova, Elena Dementieva and, in particular, world #1 Dinara Safina have all failed to perform on the big stage.  The pressure of being world #1 despite never having won a grand slam is something which has clearly hindered Safina, and has riled some of her opponents, most notably Serena Williams.

Henin’s return to competitive action comes hot on the heels of Kim Clijsters’ sensational winning return to the US Open, where she became the first wildcard to win the title, beating both of the Williams sisters along the way.  The women’s game badly needs credible and consistent challengers to the Williams’ domination, especially at Wimbledon, where Venus and Serena have taken 8 of the last 10 titles between them (only interrupted by Sharapova in 2004 and Amelie Mauresmo in 2006).  Clijsters has proved she is up to the task, and few doubt Henin will be back at the top of the game before long.

Clijsters’ spectacular US Open win proved to be a breath of fresh air into the game during a tournament which has done much to revive interest in tennis globally.  Featuring some breathtaking matches, surprise winners in both the men’s and women’s finals and Serena’s extraordinary outburst at a line judge, the 2009 US Open will go down as one of the greatest grand slams in recent memory.

The return of Justine Henin, who retired aged just 25 and as world #1, gives yet more cause for enthusiasm.  She, as much as anyone, has done much to change the shape of the women’s game and, literally, the shape of female tennis players.

Henin arrived on the international tennis stage during an era where power was not yet the dominant factor in the women’s game; Martina Hingis and Monica Seles were battling it out for domination with a combination of flawless technique and gritty matchplay, but not with the type of power we see on the WTA tour today.  The meteoric rise of Venus and Serena changed the women’s game as they displayed the sort of power which would surely see them win an arm wrestling competition against most of the men’s tour.

Serena displays the kind of power normally seen on the men's tour

Serena displays the kind of power normally seen on the men's tour

Realising this, Henin went about building muscle mass and developed the type of power which proved that, even at a mere 5’6″ tall, she could play the Williams sisters at their own game.  It was an important milestone for the women’s game at a time when many felt that power had replaced grace.  Henin proved that a combination of the two was possible and few could argue that her single-handed backhand was one of the most glorious shots in all of tennis.

Wimbledon remains the target for Henin as the one major tournament to elude her.  She explained this week that her quest for a Wimbledon title is the primary driving force behind her comeback.  Henin will be 28 when Wimbledon comes round next and should be at her peak.  She has, apparently, been training competitively since May this year.  The rest of the tour should be very afraid.

Henin's single-handed backhand is one of the greatest shots in the game

Henin's single-handed backhand is one of the greatest shots in the game

The combacks of Henin and Clijsters may also have two extremely beneficial knock-on effects across the rest of women’s tennis. Firstly, going into the next few grand slams, it will be very hard to choose between Venus, Serena, Clijsters and Henin.  Having four outstanding players at the top of the game will certainly capture press and public attention and should make for some wonderfully unpredictable tournaments.  In addition to this, the likes of Sharapova, Safina and Ivanovic will feel the benefits of diverted attention, allowing them to fly under the radar and away from the glare of media attention, concentrating on their tennis and positioning themselves as the successors to the top four.

The WTA tour has missed both Henin and Clijsters badly and their return serves as a welcome reminder of how exciting women’s tennis can be.  2010 is shaping up to be one of the greatest years of women’s tennis for many years, and it’s all thanks to two plucky Belgians.

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