There were times yesterday when Justine Henin might have cast her mind back three years to her last appearance at the All England Club. The then world No 1 was an overwhelming favourite to win her 2007 semi-final against Marion Bartoli, particularly after coasting through the first set in 22 minutes and breaking serve in the opening game of the second, but melted as quickly as a Belgian chocolate in the Centre Court sunshine. Henin's defeat was one of the most remarkable results in Wimbledon history and her only loss in a 42-match sequence from the start of the French Open to the end of the 2007 season.
Yesterday's match was a second-round encounter out on Court Two, but Henin might just have had a sense of déjà vu. The seven-times Grand Slam champion had won the first set against Germany's Kristina Barrois and was leading 5-1 in the second, only to double-fault on consecutive points as she served for the match for the first time and drop serve again at 5-4.
At 5-5, nevertheless, Henin broke back as Barrois struggled to cope with the quality of her returns. In the following game Henin held serve to love to earn a third-round meeting with Nadia Petrova. "I was in too much of a rush to finish," Henin said afterwards. "My intensity really dropped, but I had a good reaction to a situation I've faced a lot in the past."
Her late meltdown apart, Henin's game looked in good order. Attacking the net does not come naturally to a player who has won four Grand Slam titles on Parisian clay, but Henin's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, always encourages her to come forward on grass. The Belgian can volley beautifully, as she showed with one magnificent backhand winner after Barrois thundered a big forehand down the line.
Having ended her 20-month retirement at the start of this year, Henin won her fourth grass-court title in Holland last week. However Wimbledon, where she was runner-up in both 2001 and 2006, remains the missing jewel from her Grand Slam crown.
"I'm very happy to be here," Henin said. "It's a place I like a lot. Of course, I could never do it in the past, and that remains a dream for me. I just see myself as an outsider this year because this is still a year with ups and downs for me. I don't know how I'm going to deal with playing at very high level."
In the not so recent past teenagers were taking home many of the biggest prizes in the women's game, but Henin is happy to be part of an older group who have enjoyed much success. "Serena and Venus [Williams], Kim [Clijsters] and a lot of other players are playing probably their best tennis maybe a little later," Henin said. "I think it's been a fantastic generation. The new generation is also very good, but hasn't made the difference yet, so experience is probably important for the older players right now.
"It's been a great generation because many players have been very good at the same time and we have pushed each other. I think Serena and Venus brought a lot to the game because they really pushed us to get better physically and mentally."
In the fourth round Henin could meet Clijsters, her fellow Belgian comeback queen. Clijsters, who is playing here for the first time since 2006, made just 13 unforced errors in beating Karolina Sprem 6-3, 6-2.
Venus Williams, the No 2 seed, gave another demonstration of her grass-court excellence when she beat Russia's Ekaterina Makarova 6-0, 6-4. Shahar Peer's recent good run ended when she lost in three sets to Angelique Kerber, while Elena Baltacha's frustration at letting slip a winning position against Petra Martic will have been compounded by the Croat's withdrawal with injury before her match against Bartoli.Reuse content