Henin-Hardenne faces tough road back to No. 1

Justine Henin-Hardenne is the ultimate perfectionist, a competitor who despises losing and is extremely hard on herself after defeats. She partly blames that attitude for her burnout and the resulting virus that kept her in bed on and off last year.

"It's very hard. I always thought I might be able to [take losses easier], but you never really change your personality," Henin-Hardenne told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "You can improve, but you never change. Everyone knows me, I want to do everything well. I'm not very patient.

"When I lost my mom, I thought I would be better, not being as hard on myself, but I never changed. You can work on it, but you never change completely."

It's almost a year to date that Henin-Hardenne, 22, first got sick, just after she had ran through the draw at Indian Wells without dropping a set and looked all the part of a truly dominant player. She had won three of the last four Grand Slams -- 2003 French Open, the 2003 U.S. Open and the 2004 Australian Open.

She returns this week to the Nasdaq-100 in Key Biscayne, Fla., where she'll make her debut against the winner of Wednesday's match between Samantha Stosur and Abigail Spears. The fifth largest tournament of the season, it will be the first time Henin-Hardenne, countrywoman Kim Clijsters, the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova have played together since Wimbledon '03.

In 2004, Henin-Hardenne began pulling out of tournaments left and right with an upper respiratory illness, which was later diagnosed as cytomegalovirus. She spent a fair portion of April and May in bed and in doctor's offices, trying to discover why her illness wouldn't go away. Looking sickly and mentally drained, she made an ill-fated attempt to defend her Roland Garros title and was upset in the second round by journeywoman Tathiana Garbin.

Henin-Hardenne went back to bed but got up again to compete in the Olympics. Winning gold was her dream. She fought back from 1-5 down in the third set against French Open champion Anastasia Myskina in the semis and blew out Amelie Mauresmo in the final. Henin-Hardenne's joy was obvious, but so was her exhaustion. At the U.S. Open, she looked nothing like the player who had exhausted Jennifer Capriati in a three-set classic in the '04 semis and bullied Clijsters in the final. Henin-Hardenne was scalded by Nadia Petrova in the round of 16.

So Henin-Hardenne took the rest of the year off to recover and planned on returning to defend her Austrialan Open crown. Instead, she injured her knee and felt the virus creep up on her again. She hasn't been heard from until this week, and it's obvious she wasn't having too much fun during her time off.

"It's very difficult this kind of situation, what I had to go through the last few months was terribly hard," she said. "It's easier to deal with an injury because it's very certain how to address it. The illness was much more complicated. But now I'm ready to come back."

But is she really ready to return and take the tour by storm? Ironically, Clijsters -- Henin-Hardenne's former Fed Cup teammate and one-time friend who she'll now barely say hello to because of a 2003 spat where she felt that Clijsters wrongly accused her of faking a medical timeout -- was injured around the same time Henin-Hardenne became ill. Clijsters missed an almost identical amount of time, returning last week to triumph at Indian Wells in glorious fashion.

During her year off, Clijsters spent numerous weeks having a ball; spending time with her family, making new friends and discovering the meaning of life off court. But there were other days when she was completely flustered, practicing with a wrist cast but not knowing whether she would ever be able to return. She called those sessions pointless and frustrating. Henin-Hardenne knows the feeling very well.

"Some days I felt good and I was doing other things with family, friends and my husband [Pierre-Yves] and then the next day I feel awful because that's not the life I wanted," Henin-Hardenne said. "I want to play tennis because it's such a big part of my life. I really enjoyed some of my time off, but the other days were so hard. I couldn't watch tennis on TV because it was too frustrating for me."

Henin-Hardenne said she does take some inspiration from Clijsters' comeback, but says you cannot compare a wrist injury to a virus.

"It's really different situation," she said. "What she did was great. You'll always find your level eventually. We never forget how to play tennis and Kim proved that. But it's been harder for other players. We are all different. We live different."

Henin-Hardenne was referring to Serena and Venus Williams, both of whom struggled to get their form back. After taking eight and half months off to nurse a knee injury, Serena returned at the Nasdaq-100 Open last year and won the tournament. Then she didn't grab another title for six months. She really didn't begin playing like herself until the 2005 Australian Open, where she won her seventh major crown.

Venus never completely recovered and last won a title in Warsaw in April. Two weeks ago, she re-injured her abdomen.

Before the injuries and illness, they shared some heated rivalries.
Because she is such an intense person, Henin-Hardenne has few friends on tour. Recall that in '03, Henin-Hardenne stunned Serena in a highly controversial semifinal at Roland Garros where accusations of cheating and unsportmanslike conduct flew back and forth. At the time, 5-foot-5 Henin-Hardenne proved to be the only player with enough on-court talent and attitude to face down Serena, who had just won four Grand Slams in a row (her much ballyhooed "Serena Slam").

Serena got revenge on Henin-Hardenne in the Wimbledon semifinals and ended up winning the tournament by defeating Venus, who tore an abdominal muscle in defeating Clijsters in the other dramatic three-set semifinal. It seemed like the United States vs. Belgium rivalry would keep fans on their seats for years to come.

But Venus missed the second half of the year with the injury and Serena wasted her knee a few weeks later. The Belgians dominated the tour, the Williamses sat on the sidelines and fans went looking for new rivalries. When the Belgians went off, the Russians rose and three new Slam champs were crowned -- Myskina at the French, Sharapova at Wimbledon and Svetlana Kuznetsova at the U.S. Open.

Henin-Hardenne felt left out in the cold. Like Clijsters and Serena, Henin-Hardenne will not be satisfied being another member of the pack.

"I have ambitions," she said. "I did some very good things in the past. I want to be a champion again. I want more titles and victories because I love winning. I'm a competitor. I go on court to win every match. I remember the feelings when I won Grand Slams and I want those feelings again."

Henin-Hardenne says she's 100-percent healthy and put herself to the test with her trainer, Pat Etcheberry, during the past couple weeks, running in the sand and hitting the weight room. She's in the same quarter of the draw with big hitters Vera Zvonareva, Alicia Molik and Sharapova.

"We all know practice is one thing and competition is something else," she said. "The matches are more complicated, with pressure of playing and having real opponents. When I play I'll know what I have to do and what my real level is. I need to find my rhythm and confidence. When I was sick, I lost confidence in myself and I know have to build something for myself at this tournament."

Clijsters and Serena said they never really lost their confidence, only their match toughness. It was clear last year that Serena was doubting herself on some big points. Although Clijsters won Indian Wells, she did fall to her nemesis Venus at Antwerp in her first tournament back, not going for the corners with her forehand when she needed to. Even Clijsters coach, Marc Dehous, concedes that none of the players Clijsters has the most trouble with played the tournament, so she still has some big steps to take.

"Kim's style matches up well against players like Maria and Lindsay [Davenport], for whatever reason, she has problems with Justine's variety and the way Venus serves against her," Dehous said. "Serena's always tough for everybody."

If all the elite players stay healthy, this should be one of the most exciting years in women's tennis history. There's never been a year when you could legitimately say that eight players have a good shot at the year-end No. 1; 2005 is different with proven winners: No. 1 Davenport, No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 3 Sharapova, No. 4 Serena, No. 6 Myskina, No. 7 Kuznetsova, Henin-Hardenne and No. 38 Clijsters

"It's going to be really competitive," Henin-Hardenne said. "We can't say that there will be one player who will be the top. I think a lot of players can win. It's going to be really interesting."

With her ranking having fallen to No. 40 -- although she's using the protected seeding -- because of the illness and injury, Henin-Hardenne doesn't think she'll have enough time to end 2005 at No. 1. But that won't stop her from saying it's within sight in a year's time. Henin-Hardenne is still bold and promises she's won't pull any punches.

"I want it as soon as I can, that's for sure," she said. "Every tournament is a goal. I know what helped me become No. 1 before, it's the victories and winning, winning, winning. I'm going to try to that again."

Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.