Three years after she carried her tennis bag out of Roland Garros for the last time, Justine Henin made an emotional return yesterday to her favourite stadium in the world.
The 27-year-old Belgian, who won the last of her four French Open titles here in 2007, is five months into her comeback, but always knew that the approaching fortnight was likely to provide her with her most special moments.
"It's a strange feeling, but it's very good," Henin said. "When we were driving last night to Paris, and then this morning coming to the site with my tennis bag, it was just great. To play on this clay court again is something I hadn't expected. It's a great feeling. A lot of great memories and emotions are coming back. This is a place where I lived so many things."
Henin, whose first task on arriving at the stadium was to grab the same dressing-room locker she had used when winning the title in 2007, stunned the sport two years ago when she announced her retirement just 11 days before the start of the French Open, where she had enjoyed her finest moments. It was the first time in the history of tennis that the reigning world No 1 had quit while at the top.
Having announced her comeback last autumn, Henin made a spectacular return by reaching the final of the Australian Open in January. She has since won her first tournament and is back up to No 23 in the world rankings.
With some of her biggest rivals injured, out of form or absent, Henin will be one of the favourites to win when the tournament gets under way here tomorrow. Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Dinara Safina have all been struggling with injuries, Kim Clijsters is not here and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the defending champion, has been looking out of touch.
The draw could have been kinder to Henin, although Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova, the world No 100, should not provide too great a threat in the first round.
Later, potential opponents include Maria Sharapova in the third round, Serena Williams in the quarter-finals and Jelena Jankovic in the semi-finals.
Kuznetsova is in the other half of the draw and could face Wozniacki, the world No 3, in the quarter-finals and Venus Williams, the No 2, in the semi-finals. In the fourth round, Venus is seeded to meet France's Aravane Rezai, who beat her in the final in Madrid last weekend.
Three British women are in the main draw thanks to their world rankings – the first time that has happened here since Jo Durie, Sara Gomer and Monique Javer in 1992 – but two of them have particularly difficult first-round matches.
Elena Baltacha, who is confident of being fit despite having had to pull out of this week's tournament in Strasbourg with a back injury, meets Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska, the world No 8, while Anne Keothavong plays the Italian world No 15, Flavia Pennetta. Katie O'Brien is the Briton with the best chance of making progress, having been drawn against the veteran American Jill Craybas.