This is getting confusing. We've just spent two years hearing that Venus and Serena Williams did it the right way all along. They took time off, developed off-court interests and played only when they were healthy. The result was that even as two other Grand Slam champions, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, burned out and quit the game in their mid-20s, Venus and Serena continued to pad their major-title totals after more than a decade on the road.
That piece of now-conventional wisdom may be in the process of being overturned. Clijsters has come back after two years away, and in just her third tournament she beat both of the Williamses on her way to winning the U.S. Open. Now, her countrywoman Henin says she's ready to do the same thing.
Henin is the more accomplished of the Belgians -- she owns seven majors to Clijsters' two. Henin is remembered as the most versatile of modern WTA players, but she was also known as a "finely tuned engine" that could misfire at any time. At 5-foot-6, she had to take risks and hit all-out to hang with her bigger rivals. Sometimes those risks didn't pay off, and it may be a while before the engine finds its top gear.
But success will come sooner or later. Does anyone think Henin can't handle the current No. 1, Dinara Safina? Henin won their first five meetings without dropping a set; her loss to Safina in Berlin in 2008 was one of the triggers for her to call it quits in the first place -- you could almost hear her saying, "If I can't beat the likes of Dinara Safina ..." Henin isn't coming back to take those kinds of defeats again. And though she never completely dominated the sport, she was a steady winner, taking home at least one Slam each season from 2003 to '07. Chances are, now that she's hungry again, she'll start a new streak in 2009.
If she does, what will we say? That it was the Belgians, rather than the Williamses, who had it right all along? That the way to get the most out of your career is to go hard, burn out, say you're retiring, and come back stronger once you get bored? No -- but what we should do is stop insisting that the Williamses have been helped by their "off-court interests." The reason Venus and Serena succeeded is that they've conducted their careers on their terms at all times, from skipping the juniors to concentrating on Slams rather than rankings. If Henin follows Clijsters back onto the Grand Slam podium, the Belgians will have done the same thing, even if their own strategy for success -- retire, unretire -- came about by accident. There is no "right way" to become a WTA champion, and there is no one role model for how to manage your career.
What's important is that the return of Henin is good news for everyone in tennis. The press gets a story and the WTA gets a star back. Best of all, young players on the way up get to see a woman who, from her flyaway one-handed backhand to her inside-out forehand, can do it all on the court. That's what being a role model in tennis is all about.