Henin keeps low profile during emotional Belgian buildup

Updated on Feb 13, 2008 10:05 PM IST
The Belgian is playing at home at a WTA event for the first time in five years, beginning in the second round on Thursday at the Diamond Games.
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AFP | By, Antwerp

Justine Henin has taken a page from the playbook of fellow world number one Roger Federer, preparing for one of the most emotionally important weeks of her career in virtual isolation.

The Belgian is playing at home at a WTA event for the first time in five years, beginning in the second round on Thursday at the Diamond Games.

She has shied away from the elite central city hotel for players, taking her own five-star accommodation away from the other competitors.

And as usual, the 25-year-old is keeping her own counsel with longtime coach and trusted mentor Carlos Rodriguez, much as Federer relies on girlfriend Mirka.

Tournament officials expect an opening-match sellout of 13,000 eager fans who will watch their heroine face Bulgarian qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova at what is the final edition of the event.

Due to a massive revamp of the women's calendar from 2009, the tournament has been dropped, its famed diamond racket awarded to the winner of three editions soon to become just a pleasant memory for Amelie Mauresmo, the last to win it in 2007.

The low-key Henin has been keeping to herself and her team, working out at the Sportpaleis in between sponsor appearances and contractual obligations.

But the sideshow will be forgotten on Thursday as the Belgian salutes her home public. "This is a gift for some of the things that have happened to me over the last few years," she said.

Outside of Fed Cup, Henin is playing at home as a professional for only the third time, after last appearing in 2003.

Her goal besides testing a knee injury this week is to try and make her 2008 memorable by aiming for both Wimbledon and Beijing Olympic success.

"Winning in Athens gave me so much pleasure," said the 2004 gold medallist. "The Olympics is very high for me this season."

She added: "Wimbledon is also a goal, it's the only Grand Slam that I haven't won. There's a lot of pressure, but we will see.

"This week is a real challenge and I like challenges. Everybody expects me to last well into the weekend. Thursday will be really special."

Henin is competing for the first time in more than three weeks after going out at the Australian Open against Maria Sharapova in the quarter-finals, bothered by a knee injury which prevented her from training until little more than a week ago.

Previously, she had not lost since Wimbledon last summer against Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli.

Also hoping for success indoors this week is Russian second seed Anna Chakvetadze, winner of the Paris Indoors last weekend.

It was the seventh title in a row for the 20-year-old who stands sixth in the world.

Like Henin and most of the rest of the game's elite, Chakvetadze is also keen to do well in Beijing.

"The Olympics are really important for me. After the French Open I know if I've made the team, we have so many Russian players.

"Of course I want to go to Bejing. I don't see the Olympic Games as something for the individual sportsman, but as an opportunity to win a medal for your country."

The second seed begins on Thursday against Swede Sofia Arvidsson.

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