Henin deflects return questions

BRUSSELS -- Justine Henin is now a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and says there are more important things to discuss than tennis.

Still, wherever she goes, the question persists: Is she coming back to the game she once ruled?

Henin had insisted she was done. Now she's not talking about the subject. And that seems to raise the tantalizing possibility of the return of another Belgian tennis star.

On Thursday, at UNICEF headquarters, she tried to keep her news conference focused on tetanus vaccinations for mothers and babies in developing nations. No matter. The question was sent her way again like a volley across the net.

"We are here to discuss child mortality in the world, a subject matter which is important enough to center on this today," she said.

Henin won seven majors, including the French Open four times. Last year, she jolted the tennis world by announcing her retirement while ranked No. 1. In May, she said the sport had left her with so much pain that a return was unthinkable.

Yet she was seen training recently, apparently for a small exhibition tournament in Charleroi, one she has played regularly during the December winter break.

Some wonder if the exhibition will send the 27-year-old player on the path followed by Kim Clijsters. After retiring two years ago, Clijsters played an exhibition at Wimbledon this spring to test the new retractable roof. It got her competitive fire burning again. Clijsters, now a mother, returned to the tour last month and will play in the U.S Open semifinals Friday.

Henin also pulled out of a theater commitment, fueling rumors she needed time for tennis practice.

On Thursday, she deflected such inquiries. Four months ago, she said competitive tennis is "truly a page that has been turned."

She was asked about Clijsters' surge and the surprising run of teen Yanina Wickmayer, landing two Belgians in the Open semifinals.

"It is magnificent, that is evident," Henin said. "But understand that I am here in my role as ambassador."

Over the past months, Henin has traveled to Congo, Cambodia and Denmark to learn more about child vaccinations and how it affects survival for hundreds of thousands of poor mothers and babies around the world. Her face will become the face of the UNICEF tetanus campaign this fall.

"I have been able to discover so many things in my life after tennis," she said. "You live in a bubble and in leaving it, you ask plenty of questions on plenty of issues."

And others keep asking questions of her. Certainly, it would not be too late for a comeback. As the 26-year-old Clijsters proved, returning to the top on short notice is indeed possible.