Henin rediscovering her love of tennis

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By Julian Linden

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Justine Henin has fallen in love with tennis all over again.

Tennis was always the Belgian's first love but her devotion to the game became so overbearing that she had to split from the sport in 2008.

She was still at the top of her game and ranked number one in the world but the relentless grind of playing, training and travel had taken its toll so she just turned her back and walked away.

"I had to forget a little about tennis and just get some air and breathe differently," she told a news conference after beating China's Zheng Jie 6-1 6-0 Thursday to reach the final of the Australian Open.

"Tennis has been my whole life (but) I think there is something else than that. It's more than answers. It's just time to get open to different kinds of things.

"I had different kinds of projects, I met a lot of people.

"The answer I got is that I started to trust myself much more as a person and I realized I could exist without tennis. So that was an important step for me."

Tennis was the last thing on Henin's mind during her break from the game.

She began working as an ambassador for Unicef and starred in her own reality TV show. She travelled to places she had never been, to Cambodia and Congo, far away from the bright lights of New York, London, Paris and Melbourne.

It was a spiritual journey that changed her entire outlook on life.

"I just learned a lot of things and grew up," she said.

"Maybe I'm a little older, more mature because of being away from the tour.

"I got off my bubble. It was really important for me, as I feel more in peace now. That's important."

But as time passed, Henin realized she still missed tennis. Not the glamour or the money but the game itself.

So she decided to make a comeback. She hit the practice courts last year then returned to competition this month, making the final at a warmup event in Brisbane and now in Melbourne Park.

Her fairytale comeback has captured the imagination of tennis fans the world over but Henin admits she was unsure about how she would feel about returning to the court and dealing with cooker-pressure atmosphere of grand slam tennis.

Regardless of whether she wins Saturday's final against Serena Williams or not, she has rediscovered her passion and is loving every minute of it.

"It is a privilege," she said. "At 27 years old, to get all these experiences is just fantastic.

"I think being an athlete, sport is the best school of life. I learned a lot of things, how to push my limits, to get the determination, to know that things are hard when you want to do it.

"I'm still very proud of what I'm doing. That's a good thing."

(Editing by Sonia Oxley)