Henin flexes her muscle in the desert

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - No longer JH-H, the great Justine Henin recently returned to work, and with only three tournaments to her credit she already has a pair of titles under the '07 belt.

The gritty Belgian skipped January's Australian Open while trying to sort out her personal life, a life which apparently no longer includes her husband of four-plus years, Pierre-Yves Hardenne. Henin decided against making the trip to Melbourne while she was in the midst of separating from Hardenne, whom she married in November of 2002.

But Henin seems unfazed by her personal turmoil on the tennis court, where she just corralled back-to-back titles in the Middle East -- in Dubai and Doha -- to complete a rare "Gulf Double." In her first tournament of the year, last month in Paris, a rusty Henin was stunned by rising Czech Lucie Safarova in the semis, but she quickly got her act together following that big upset.

In Doha, the Belgian stud topped Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final, improving to a laughable 14-1 lifetime against the sturdy Russian. Henin also topped Kuznetsova in the semifinals in Dubai a week earlier and handled the Russian star in last year's French Open finale.

"It's a great feeling," Henin said. "I'm very proud to have won here and now I'm getting my confidence back after the break. It is amazing to have won this tournament, and this victory gives me a lot of confidence."

Apparently the key word here is confidence?

Justine Henin
Henin is off to a fast 10-1 start this year, including a pair of titles in the Middle East.
In the quarterfinals in Doha, the "Desert Queen" Henin fought off a match point before sneaking past dangerous Swiss lefthander Patty Schnyder.

Henin is now 10-1 overall this season, including a current eight-match winning streak, and a combined 22-1 lifetime in the Middle East, including a perfect 16-0 mark in Dubai, where she's titled in four of the last five years. Her only loss in that region came at the hands of the capable Kuznetsova in the Doha semis three years ago.

The former world No. 1 Henin is very close to regaining the top spot in the WTA rankings, as she trails U.S. Open champion Maria Sharapova by a mere 33 points on the list (3,824-3,791).

The 24-year-old Henin is the reigning French Open champ and was last year's runner-up at Wimbledon (Amelie Mauresmo), the U.S. Open (Sharapova) and Aussie Open (Mauresmo). She appeared in four straight Grand Slam finals before missing this year's Oz Open.

With all due respect to Sharapova, Mauresmo and Serena Williams, the five-time Grand Slam titlist Henin, when healthy, has to be considered the best player on the women's tour. Two weeks ago in Dubai, the diminutive Belgian took out Mauresmo in the blockbuster final there and she also bested Mauresmo in last year's season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships finale in Madrid to avenge the setbacks at Wimbledon and Melbourne.

The two-time year-end No. 1 Henin's career title tally is now up to 31, including a pair of wins this year, and her prize money just eclipsed the $14 million mark thanks to a $222,000 windfall in Doha. And if you include her 2004 Olympic gold medal, the only major championship that has eluded "Juju" is Wimbledon, where she's a two-time runner-up. Her 31 championships rank Henin 15th on the women's all-time titles list. She was tied with American Tracy Austin before last week, and Spaniard Conchita Martinez (33) is the next woman in her sights. Henin's countrymate Kim Clijsters and American Venus Williams would then be next on the list, at 34 championships apiece.

FYI, the all-time singles titles leader is the legendary Martina Navratilova, with an unbelievable 167.

And the sweet-swinging Henin's 10th on the all-time money list, which is led by another legend of the game, Steffi Graf ($21.895 million).

The two-time International Tennis Federation (ITF) world champion Henin will shoot for a third straight and fourth overall Roland Garros title in a few months. The nine-time Grand Slam finalist has appeared in half of the last 16 major title bouts, and her chances of landing in another one in June are pretty darn good.

The high-flying Belgian has won 70 of her last 79 tennis matches, which includes her awesome 60-8 record from last season.

As far as her chances at Wimbledon are concerned, you'd have to think that they're pretty good too. She's a two-time runner-up at the All England Club, where Mauresmo got the best of her last year and Venus topped the Belgian in 2001.

By the way, the future Hall-of-Famer Henin (rest) is skipping the big-time event at Indian Wells over the next two weeks. Indian Wells will also have to do without big draws like Mauresmo (surfing), Clijsters (lack of interest) and Serena (boycott) and Venus (boycott). The sisters had a "falling out" with the tournament a few years back.

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Scott Riley
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