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Justine's Amazing Comeback
PARIS - Justine Henin-Hardenne's victory at Roland Garros
on Saturday completed a phenomenal comeback by the Belgian, who endured illness and injury for much of the past year and in the process surrendered her No.1 ranking and three Grand Slam titles. Her efforts in Paris and over the past few months is testament to her will to regain her place among the game's elite, having seen her ranking fall to outside the Top 40 earlier this year. Season 2004 was largely a frustrating one for the 23-year-old, having performed so brilliantly in 2003, gaining the Roland Garros and US Open titles and the world No.1 ranking.
Just months after winning the Australian Open title in 2004, the first signs of the energy-sapping cytomegalovirus emerged, a result, says Henin-Hardenne, of constant training over the previous few years. It would ultimately force her off the Tour three times in 2004, and still remains a threat to this day.
Henin-Hardenne ended her first spell off the Tour to defend her 2003 Roland Garros title last May, but her campaign ended in the second round against Italian Tathiana Garbin. It was the joint-earliest loss of a Roland Garros defending champion in the Open Era alongside 1989 champion Arantxa Sanchez's loss in 1990 to Mercedes Paz. That dubious honor was transferred to Anastasia Myskina this year following her first round loss to Maria Sanchez Lorenzo.
After that loss in Paris last year, Henin-Hardenne continued to suffer the effects of the cytomegalovirus, and didn't return until the Athens Olympics in August. It was a triumphant return as she swept to the gold medal, beating Myskina in the semifinals after trailing 5-1 third set and Mauresmo in the final.
In her next event, Henin-Hardenne was again weakened by the virus, and she surrendered her title in the fourth round to Nadia Petrova. It was the last event of the season as she announced she was taking as much time as she needed to fully recover. On September 13, Amelie Mauresmo replaced her as the world No.1.
At its worst, Henin-Hardenne would bed-ridden for all but a few hours each day and she was too tired to perform the most menial of tasks (especially for a world-class athlete), such as driving a car or going for a walk.
The only cure for the ailment was rest, and after a couple of premature returns to competitive tennis her third hiatus was certainly going to be the last, as far as Henin-Hardenne was concerned.
She began training again in November, with her sights set on defending her Australian Open title in January. Just when her career seemed to be back on track, Henin-Hardenne suffered a right knee injury while training in Florida in late December.
She made the trip down under with coach Carlos Rodriguez, but prior to her first match in the Sydney warm-up event she decided her knee wasn't ready for the rigours of tournament play. She returned home to Belgium immediately, unable to defend her Australian Open crown.
Making sure her body was fully fit, Henin-Hardenne didn't return until March at the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami. A fourth round victory over world No.8 Alicia Molik was an encouraging sign, as was her three-set tussle (but ultimate loss) to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals, having saved match point in the second set.
Since that loss, and moving on to clay, Henin-Hardenne has proven invincable, compiling a 24-match, four-title win streak which saw her triumph in Charleston, Warsaw, Berlin and most recently Paris. She has already scored eight Top 10 wins this season, and is now back in the Top 10 herself for the first time since January.
"I was very nervous this morning," said Henin-Hardenne of her emotions before Saturday's final. "I didn't sleep well, as every day before a final of a Grand Slam. But it's an extraordinary feeling. This is the magic of this sport; it's having doubts, not knowing what is going to happen.
"At a certain time of my life, I wasn't able to manage that situation. I thought I would never manage that situation because I thought I was too weak mentally. But I believe I proved several times now that I was at ease at the end of the tournaments."
Roland Garros holds a very special place in Henin-Hardenne's heart. It was there as a young girl she made a promise to her mother, sitting in the stands of Court Central. Just a few years later she would lose her mother to cancer, and she dedicated her first victory in Paris two years ago to her memory.
"I think I play tennis because I love it so much," said Henin-Hardenne. "That's my passion; and for sure my parents helped me at the beginning to come to tennis, and a lot of members in my family were playing.
"But then after that I had pretty hard times in my life. And I think that made me stronger. So I have no idea if it's part of my success, but I wouldn't be the same person with the same personality if I wouldn't have lose my mom pretty early and all these kind of things.
"So it's bad in a way; very sad in a way, but that made me stronger, unfortunately."
With only two more tournaments to defend the rest of the season, don't be surprised if you see Justine Henin-Hardenne's name atop the season-ending rankings. Her No.1 challenge to Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova will most likely take centre stage in the coming months.
Henin-Hardenne has said she's not the same player as she was before her layoffs. She's enjoying herself on-court a lot more, and much more careful in her training off it.
"It's going to be also a key in the next few months," noted Henin-Hardenne. Because everybody knows what happened in the last few months, with the hard work I did in the past, never stopped, keep working all the time. So I think it's been very clear with my coach and my doctors that we won't do the same mistakes in the future. So never play more than three weeks in a row, and take the rest I need when I need it. And that's the main important thing right now. If I'm healthy, I can play, and everybody's happy.
"I enjoy every moment I'm on the court. Every ball I hit, it's with my heart."