12 January 2024 Tweet
Eurosport tennis expert and seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin previewed the 2024 Australian Open.
What is special about the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia?
Australia is special because you have a break before but that’s not that long either, with exhibitions. It’s a new year and season and sometimes you’re concerned if you can start the season well with the first match. You try and combine the confidence you get from victories with your physical preparation. You’re in the sun, a country where people like sport and tennis. Players are happy to see fans again and they’re glad to be back on Tour and seeing their friends on Tour. They feel fresh and it’s the beginning of something again. You’ve worked hard during pre-season and are excited to see things slot into place. The atmosphere is very relaxed in Australia and it’s a place where we feel happy. For me, it’s the best atmosphere to start the season.
How special is playing at the Olympics?
Olympic year is very special and most of the players who have the ambition to well at the Slams at Olympics will take it into consideration. The calendar will always be connected to the ambitions of the players and we’ll see so many different options. Of course, the Olympics is in their mind. It wasn’t the most important goal at the beginning of my career, but then when I lived it and experienced it, and won it during my career, I realised how special it was for me. It will be very special for a lot of players.
Comments on Aryna Sabalenka:
Aryna Sabalenka has become one of the most important players on the Tour. She became number one, couldn’t win the US Open which was disappointment but her consistency against the top players was so important. She has stability, she looks happy on the court. She likes to win and proved herself 12 months ago at a Slam. It’s a huge step. Defending a title is something special. It’ll be the first time for her a new lesson. She can deal with different things and we can’t predict what will happen but I feel she is in control. She is one of the favourites.
Women’s players returning after having a baby:
A comeback is never easy. I went through it after a year and a half almost. I played the final in Australia after I came back after a long break. We have had women who’ve had babies and I admire how much effort it requires to come back physically being a mum. We’re seeing it more and more which is fantastic. They can be a mum a still do their passion, their job, it’s great to see.
Svitolina had success last year and is in good shape. Some prove it’s possible to come back at a certain level. But this is a Grand Slam and globally the level puts pressure on the first few rounds. I’m excited to see Elina come back on the Tour. I’ve worked with her and she’s a nice girl. Women today take the decision to say, I can be a mum and pursue my passion. I admire that because I couldn’t do that. The more we see women come back on the Tour, the better.
Naomi Osaka will be back and we’re not sure about her condition but this is only the beginning for some of them. Disappointment is everywhere in sport. You can win and lose on the court but these women have the experience. The women’s draw will be very exciting.
I wouldn’t say coming back after a baby is easier now but it’s just more usual. It’s not a big deal today, which maybe makes it even more normal. Physically, it’s very hard. My teammate Kim Clijsters came back and won a Slam but not many can do that. Serena wanted to. That motivation and balance with that demanding life of being a mum and top athlete is a challenge.
The state of women’s tennis:
We want a certain kind of consistency. We want women’s players to win a lot. The level is very important. Naomi Osaka was playing so good and could take the lead, Ash Barty too. You need to take some time away in life sometimes though. Last year, the level was very high and we could find great consistency with players - Sabalenka, Swiatek throughout the season. Sometimes I miss more variety in the game. They are hitting the ball very fast now but I miss more tactical aspects; similar to in men’s tennis when the guys try and play so hard and fast. The tactical dimension is a bit more simple now, which is good in a way, but I like to see different personalities and styles of game.
Swiatek for me, if she believes, she can stay long on the Tour. She likes it, wants to perform and will be a personality that will remember. I’m a big fan of Jessica Pegula and her tactical aspect. We always try and analyse from the outside. We want to see her step up and go further however. Sabalenka, Swiatek and Coco Gauff, it will be interesting to see how they can keep improving their game. Coco is fantastic and can keep improving but it’ll depend on different aspects. We count on a few names today - Rybakina, Ons Jabeur too who we hope wins a Grand Slam one day.
Justine Henin is an expert for Warner Bros. Discovery Sports' coverage of the Australian Open in Europe. Coverage starts on discovery+, Eurosport and Eurosport App from Sunday 14 January.