Debilitating virus forced Henin-Hardenne to adjust

"I will never be the same again – but maybe I will be better."
– Justine Henin-Hardenne

Imagine that you are among the most distinguished members of your profession – be it marketing, corporate finance, teaching or law – and suddenly, a cataclysmic event forces you to abandon some of the very strengths that made you so successful.

How would you respond? Could you change? Would you have the mental toughness to give in, without giving up?

This is the slippery slope that confronts Justine Henin-Hardenne just days before she steps on the red clay of Roland Garros and into the tennis tournament she cherishes more than any other.

Age 21 provided a critical turning point in Henin-Hardenne's life, but not in the typical rites of passage. Last year, a devastating strain of the cytomegalo virus divided her complicated and very public life into two distinct phases: before virus, and after virus.

By winning the 2004 Australian Open, Henin-Hardenne had captured a rare three of four Grand Slam titles. Then, in April, the virus invaded.

She fell precipitously in rank from her position as the world's No. 1. And there were times during her seven-month sabbatical that, frankly, she didn't much care. There were fall days when she slept 18 hours and couldn't manage much more than a walk around her house in Marloie, Belgium. After a numbing series of appointments and tests, doctors warned her that rest was the only cure.

Faced, finally, with no choice, Henin-Hardenne tempered her magnificent drive. The fierce 5-foot-5, 125-pound woman, who willed her relatively diminutive body to the top of the tennis ladder, now does what she must to survive.

"Justine just cannot afford to play as many tournaments as some of the other girls because the warning from the doctors was quite clear," her longtime coach, Carlos Rodriguez, told Barry Flatman of the Sunday Times of London last week. "If she plays too much and becomes overly fatigued, there is a distinct chance of an even stronger virus taking hold, and the consequences could be even more serious."

She didn't play a match this year until late March, yet Henin-Hardenne has rebuilt herself into a top player – perhaps the top player. After three consecutive titles, in Charleston, Warsaw and Berlin, she is the clear favorite when the French Open begins Monday.

"Before the illness, she was like a robot," Rodriguez told The Times. "She wanted to play as much as possible. Even when we had a week off from competing, she always wanted to practice that little bit more. Say we put in three hours on the court, she wanted to do four and was never really happy to finish.

"From now on, Justine will rest as many weeks as she plays or trains, and that just has to be a fact of life."

Starting over

Stroke victims sometimes have to learn how to walk again. Some victims of brain trauma have to be retrained to read. Henin-Hardenne, at the height of her game, has been forced to rethink her entire approach to tennis.

Previously, she was content to play several yards behind the baseline in the yawning confines of Court Philippe Chatrier, the world's largest clay court. Her fitness, consistency and determination allowed her to retrieve balls until her opponents grew tired and lost focus.

She no longer has that luxury. Long points, once the objective, are now the enemy.

Rodriguez and Henin-Hardenne have worked hard to construct a taut, more aggressive game. In her 6-2, 6-4 semifinal victory over Maria Sharapova in Berlin, Henin-Hardenne actually served and volleyed on occasion. Rodriguez has been pressing her to increase the power of her serve and visit the net on a more regular basis. In short, she needs to exhibit a new sense of urgency on the court – and more restraint in her training and scheduling. Efficiency is now the prized commodity.

"Usually, it's the coach who is pushing the athlete to do more and more," ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said. "Carlos Rodriguez has to pull in the reins on himself and Justine, too. He's been warned he's the enforcer. So far, it seems like it's working.

"Going in, she's got to be the favorite at the French."

In retrospect, that's almost impossible to fathom.

Just when Henin-Hardenne was throwing off the effects of the virus at the end of 2004, she suffered a major setback during the holidays. She fractured her kneecap in a routine conditioning drill, which forced her to miss the Australian Open in January. She didn't play a WTA match until late March, at the Nasdaq-100 in Key Biscayne, Fla.

"I lost a lot of confidence," she said after her first match in seven months, a straight-sets win over Abigail Spears. "There were days I couldn't get up. That's been very hard. It's been ups and downs. Mentally, it was very, very difficult."

After three relatively easy matches in South Florida, Henin-Hardenne ran into Sharapova in the quarterfinals and lost 6-1, 6-7 (6), 6-2.

She hasn't lost since.

Henin-Hardenne defeated Elena Dementieva in the final at Charleston, then two weeks later handled Svetlana Kuznetsova for the Warsaw title. When she started another run the following week in Berlin, Rodriguez began to grow nervous. It was worse after she played two three-set matches in the same day because of rain. Sure enough, Henin-Hardenne won her third straight clay tournament, defeating another Russian, Nadia Petrova, in the final – her fourth three-set match of the week.

Henin-Hardenne is 20-1 this season. Still, those 21 matches were played in a span of 47 days – the last 11 in an exhaustingly narrow window of 14 days.

"I'm tired after all this tennis," Henin-Hardenne said after winning in Berlin. "On the clay I can organize my game and have found a good balance between aggression and patience. I know everyone will be talking about Paris; it is a tournament that is special for me, but right now I want some rest and not to answer any questions for a while."

For nearly a week, Henin-Hardenne rested with husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne in their new Monte Carlo apartment. Now she's on the grounds at Roland Garros, practicing at the venue she first visited with her mother when she was a young girl growing up in Belgium.

Her hopes of holding aloft the French Open trophy once again are reasonable. While Henin-Hardenne's resilience has been remarkable, the rest of the women's field is a muddled mess. Kim Clijsters, who made her own comeback earlier this year after a serious wrist injury, winning 19-of-20 matches, is likely to miss this Grand Slam after straining a knee ligament in Berlin. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have been plagued by more injuries, inconsistency and, sometimes, a perceived lack of interest. After a breakthrough season, the Russians have faltered – and Sharapova, whose game works wonderfully at Wimbledon, does not seem ready to dominate on clay. Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo has tied herself in knots trying to win the French Open, but to this point, it has eluded her. American Lindsay Davenport has played well this year, but on the cusp of her 29th birthday, can she win seven straight matches on clay?

That leaves Henin-Hardenne as the most likely unlikely champion. Yet, if and when she starts advancing through the next two weeks, Rodriguez might start to feel queasy again.

"I think Justine has achieved a little bit too much, too soon in her rehabilitation," Rodriguez told the Sunday Times. "I wasn't expecting her to win two titles and then win through to another final. However, her greatest quality is that she is a fighter – that's why she's out there on the court. And she always possesses the ability to surprise even those who know her well."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.