Countdown to the French Open: Henin-Hardenne the grand dame

Justine Henin-Hardenne has beaten serious health problems to reclaim her place as one of the game's most ferocious competitors. As she prepared to regain her title in Paris, she talked to Paul Newman

For someone whose competitive spirit has regularly driven her to her sickbed, Justine Henin-Hardenne can look upon tennis with a surprising degree of detachment. The 23-year-old Belgian will no doubt defend her French Open crown here in Paris next week with all the endeavour and determination that have made her such a formidable opponent, but she is hoping that a new sense of realism will help avoid the health problems that have dogged her in the past.

"I love playing and I know the expectations of me," Henin-Hardenne said. "At the same time there's more to life than tennis. There's what I call my real life, my home life, which is what I'll be concentrating on in a few years' time. You only have one chance and you can't play with your health. I'm starting to understand that a little bit more."

Recovery from injury and illness is a recurring theme in Henin-Hardenne's career, with her victory at Roland Garros last year the climax of one of the most remarkable comebacks in tennis. Having swept all before her in 2003 - she won the French and US Open titles, became world No 1 and reached the semi-finals or better of 18 of the 19 tournaments she played - and begun 2004 by winning the Australian Open, the Belgian went down with cytomegalovirus, a draining illness which sometimes left her so lifeless that she could not even get out of bed.

Henin-Hardenne played only intermittently over the next 15 months - in the middle of it all, remarkably, she won gold at the Athens Olympics, defeating Amélie Mauresmo in the final - but she astonished even those closest to her with her spring campaign last year.

Returning in March after a seven-month lay-off, she won 24 matches in a row to take clay-court titles in Charleston, Warsaw, Berlin and Paris. It was no surprise, however, that the exertions again took their toll as an exhausted Henin-Hardenne was knocked out by Eleni Daniilidou in the first round at Wimbledon.

The rest of 2005 was severely disrupted by a hamstring strain and she was also suffering from a shoulder injury by the time the Australian Open came round. She still managed to reach the final, against Mauresmo, but at 6-1, 2-0 down she tearfully announced that she could not go on because her stomach had reacted badly to the drugs she had taken to cope with her shoulder.

"For two weeks I had to take anti-inflammatories and that killed me," she said. "I had to double the dose the last few days because it was so painful." Most of the sympathy, however, was reserved not for Henin-Hardenne but for Mauresmo, on the grounds that the premature finish had spoilt the Frenchwoman's moment of glory as she finally won her first Grand Slam title. Henin-Hardenne's motives were called into question, though the Belgian's only regret is that she carried on for as long as she did; her stomach problems were to trouble her for weeks to come.

"I'm upset with myself that I didn't call anyone when I was feeling unwell the night before the match," Henin-Hardenne recalled. "I was in a lot of pain and I should have done something. I should at least have called my coach and told him that I wasn't well. But that's my personality. I think there have been plenty of times in the past when I've been suffering but haven't said anything. Believe me: when I say that I'm in a lot of pain then I'm in a lot of pain.

"I should probably have never walked on to the court. It could have been dangerous for me. It's not good to play around with your health. You have only one life. I can't stop people thinking whatever they think about me, but I know the way I am and I'm totally comfortable with the fact that I retired before the end. I understand that it was a Grand Slam final and that Amélie might have been disappointed, but you can't afford to think about those issues. You have to think about yourself."

The experience has renewed Henin-Hardenne's commitment to take more care of herself. She believes that by training hard in an attempt to compensate for her comparatively slight physique she may have pushed herself too far. Similarly, she recognises the need to limit her tournament appearances.

"In 2003 I played more than 90 matches. That's a lot. I'm not as tall and as strong as the other players. I have to be 200 per cent right physically if I want to compete. I have to push myself a lot, to work harder than the others. The difference now is that I've tried to be a bit smarter than I was in the past. I give myself more time to recover. My training programme is still very hard, but I'm careful with it.

"The work that I did in the last three or four years gave me everything - my Grand Slam victories, my gold medal, my No 1 ranking, everything. But now you have to take another step. You have to look at it afresh. You have to think about exactly what you want: am I going to play for two more years or five or six or seven? That's a question I asked myself at the end of last year. I decided that I wanted to be on the tour for at least a couple more years. And if I want to be as strong a competitor as I have been in the past then I have to take care of my body and maybe do a little less hard work."

Henin-Hardenne took a short break after Australia and immediately beat Maria Sharapova in the Dubai final to claim the 25th title of her career. Since then her performances have been mixed. She fell at the first hurdle in Miami, was a semi-finalist at Indian Wells and Charleston and lost in the Berlin final to Nadia Petrova, the Sony Ericsson WTA tour's most improved player. However, victories in Berlin over Svetlana Kuznetsova and Mauresmo, the world No 1, give encouragement that she can successfully defend her crown here.

The current world No 5 has won six of her last eight matches against Kim Clijsters, three of the last four against Mauresmo, four of the last five against Petrova and Mary Pierce and four and five in a row against Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport. The Williams sisters consistently got the better of her in the past, though it is three years since she has played either Venus or Serena.

Yesterday's draw lined up Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 champion here, and Petrova as Henin-Hardenne's most dangerous opponents en route to the last four. In the semi-finals she is scheduled to meet Clijsters, although Martina Hingis could prove a major hurdle for Henin-Hardenne's fellow Belgian in the previous round.

Henin-Hardenne beat Hingis on the former world No 1's return in Australia earlier this year and has watched her progress with admiration. "I'm sure it's good for the game," she said. "She did so much for the women's tour before she stopped playing. She dominated for such a long time and it's fascinating to see how she's doing. She's lost none of the ability that made her so successful before and even if the game is more powerful now and the rallies are getting longer and longer she's clearly got used to that very quickly. She has the motivation. You can see that."

Henin-Hardenne's supremacy is all the more creditable considering that the women's tour is dominated by hard courts, on which the power of the big-hitters can prove decisive. Blessed with an exquisite single-handed backhand, which John McEnroe described as the best shot in tennis, she is a ferociously competitive baseline scrambler who never knows when she is beaten.

Such a style, however, places huge demands on the body and Henin-Hardenne agrees that she could help herself by shortening rallies. "That's what my coach dreams about," she smiled.

Admitting that the pressures of a Grand Slam tournament keep her awake at night, Henin-Hardenne also acknowledges that she needs to loosen up.

"It's a tough life, with all the attention focused on you, and you can lose a lot of energy just thinking about the pressure," she said. "When you look at Lindsay Davenport I think you see the benefits that you can gain from being that bit more relaxed. She's 29 and is very cool and very quiet. I think that's why she's been able to stay at the top for so long. I like to think that's the way that I'll develop, though that's maybe something for the future."

Weighing up the Grand Slams: Henin-Hardenne on the four top tournaments

Of all the players currently active on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour (not including Serena Williams, who has not played since the Australian Open in January), only Switzerland's former world No 1 Martina Hingis can equal Justine Henin-Hardenne's record of victories in three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a runner-up spot at the fourth

* Australian Open: Won 2004

"I love Melbourne. It's the start of the year and it feels like you're starting out on something new again. You can get drained as the year goes on but at this stage you feel fresh and keen to play. It's also a time when you meet up with people you haven't seen for a while. The heat can be tough, but the roof has changed things a bit. The crowd are very good-natured and the whole atmosphere is very relaxed."

* French Open: Won 2003 and 2005

"It's the tournament where I've had most success, though it's also somewhere I've done badly. The crowd can play a big part. When they get behind you the support is fantastic, but they can also give some players a hard time. I generally feel pretty well prepared by the time I get to Paris. You have several weeks to play on clay and by the time you get to Roland Garros you generally feel comfortable with the surface."

* Wimbledon: Finalist 2001

"If you do well in Paris it can be very tough to take that over into Wimbledon. There's just so little time to get used to playing on grass again. Wimbledon is a beautiful location and you get a real sense of history there. The crowd are definitely the most polite of all the Grand Slam events. They're very knowledgeable and very well behaved. Sometimes you can hardly believe how polite they are."

* US Open: Won 2003

"I think a lot of us find New York the toughest of all the Grand Slams. By that time we're starting to feel pretty tired. We've been playing pretty well non-stop for nine months. The conditions can also be tough. It can be hot, but the humidity is the hardest thing to deal with. The crowd are very boisterous and you have to work hard to concentrate."

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