Anything Kim can do, Justine will try to do better. Nine days after Kim Clijsters cemented her remarkable comeback by winning the US Open, her great Belgian rival, Justine Henin, announced that she too will be returning to competitive tennis next year. "A flame I thought was extinguished for ever suddenly lit up again," Henin told a Belgian TV audience last night.
Henin's decision comes 16 months after she shocked tennis by quitting less than a fortnight before she was due to defend her French Open title. The only woman ever to retire while No 1 in the world rankings, Henin said at the time that she had achieved her goals and wanted to get on with her life, insisting: "I won't go back on this decision."
However, 16 months later, inspired partly by Clijsters' achievement in winning a Grand Slam title in only her third comeback tournament, Henin said that she had missed tennis too much and would rejoin the women's circuit next year. She plans to play exhibition tournaments in Charleroi and Dubai later this year before returning to the tour in January, when she hopes to play in the Australian Open. Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam title she has never won, will be one of her priorities.
At 27, Henin should have no problem regaining her former fitness levels. Her slight frame has always bucked the trend in an era dominated by size and power. Armed with the best backhand in women's tennis, quick feet and the perfect big-match temperament, she was the game's outstanding player between 2003 and 2007, winning seven Grand Slam titles.
The four-times French Open champion is already back in training, but admitted: "It's hard when you used to be able to do things so well,, to have to start again from the basics with patience, which isn't my greatest quality. I have a lot of work ahead, but day by day I'm finding there are things that are getting better.
"I think that the most difficult thing will be creating the foundations, as I know I have slowed down. I used to be a really, really quick player and that was my main quality, but that will happen soon. I just have to be patient, accept that it will take time and work hard every day."
She added: "It's going well. There's a lot of pleasure on the court and that's the most important thing. I'm getting back all those old feelings."
Henin was always at her best on clay courts and has had a strong emotional attachment to the French Open ever since her mother, who died 14 years ago, took her to Roland Garros when she was 11. "One day I'll be on that court and maybe I'll win," Henin told her mother that day.
Wimbledon runner-up in 2001 and 2006, Henin now has her eyes set on claiming the one jewel missing from her Grand Slam crown. "It's a dream of mine," she said. "I want to work to get it. I make it a priority."
The Belgian's long-time coach, Carlos Rodriguez, who is also coming out of retirement to work with her again, said: "I can see her winning Wimbledon. This fourth title is one of the reasons for coming back."
He added: "The work is going to be a long road. We have to try to cancel out over a year's inactivity – and we have to do that slowly. "
If Clijsters' retirement two years ago was no major surprise – she had had a series of injuries and made no secret of wanting to start a family – Henin's decision came out of the blue. Nevertheless, she has always been unpredictable, having led a turbulent private life.
For years Henin cut off all contact with her father and most male members of her family, without ever explaining why. She wed Pierre-Yves Hardenne in 2002 and changed her surname to Henin-Hardenne, only to change it back again after the marriage broke down.
Thoughtful, serious and sometimes uncomfortable in the media spotlight, Henin used to be the opposite to the ever-smiling and bubbly Clijsters. Since reuniting with her family, however, and particularly since her retirement, she has appeared more relaxed and at ease with herself. A regular on television in Belgium, she has also worked as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
"The last 15 months I've been able to recharge the batteries, emotionally as well," Henin said last night. Did Clijsters' successful comeback play a part in her decision? "Subconsciously, it might have had an impact," she said. "But it certainly wasn't the most important reason."
Henin's return is the latest in a series of remarkable parallels with Clijsters, who is one year younger. They grew up as the best Belgian players of their generation and broke into the world's top 100 in 1999 and the top 10 two years later. Clijsters became world No 1 in August 2003, followed two months later by Henin. The French-speaking Henin has won 12 of their 22 meetings, the Flemish-speaking Clijsters losing to her great rival in all three of their encounters in Grand Slam finals.
Henin was more consistently successful, winning a total of 41 singles titles. Clijsters had won 34, but only one Grand Slam crown, the US Open, until she recaptured the New York title in such dramatic fashion earlier this month. Remarkably, Belgium will now have three women players at the top table, 19-year-old Yanina Wickmayer having made her breakthrough by reaching the US Open semi-finals.
Court of the comeback queens: Women who returned to peak of the game
Born: 1 June 1982, Liege
Highest ranking: 1 (20 Oct 03)
Grand Slams: 7 (Australian Open 2004; French Open 2003, 05, 06, 07; US Open 2003, 07)
Singles titles: 41
Singles win-loss record: 493–107
Career prize money: $19,461,375
Monica seles (left April 1993, returned August 1995)
Had a spell out of the game after being stabbed by a spectator. Won fourth Australian Open upon return.
Jennifer Capriati (retired 1993, returned February 1996)
After five-year break, the American won three Grand Slams.
Martina Hingis (retired 2003, returned 2005)
Came back to tennis for brief spell in which she won three titles before retiring from the game again in 2007 after failing a drugs test.
Kim Clijsters (retired 2007, returned 2009)
Retired to have a baby. Returned to become first unranked female Slam winner at US Open this month.