PARIS (AP) — Ensconced in retirement a year ago, Justine Henin attended the French Open as a spectator, watching other players go through the physical and mental duress of tennis.
Back then, she insisted Monday, "I never thought, 'Well, I'll be on this court again.'"
Yet there Henin was, on the red clay of the main stadium at Roland Garros, competing in the tournament for the first time since 2007 — and in so many ways, it was as if the four-time champion never had been away.
That trademark white baseball cap. The same, fluid backhand and an assortment of other just-the-right-angle shots. Those cries of "Allez!" piercing the air.
Oh, and a victory, Henin's 22nd in a row at the French Open. The Belgian also stretched her streak to 37 consecutive sets won at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament by beating 81st-ranked Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria 6-4, 6-3 Monday.
"When I woke up, and before walking on the court, I didn't know really what to expect and how I was going to deal with my emotions," the 27-year-old Henin said. "It's my tournament."
She certainly did make it her own before deciding in 2008, right before the start of that year's French Open, to walk away from the game, saying she no longer felt the necessary fire burning inside. Henin won titles at Roland Garros in 2003 and 2005-07, which is why she is considered a favorite for the 2010 title, even though she is seeded only 22nd. Seedings are based on rankings, and her standing is limited to points she has accumulated since returning to the tour at the start of the season.
Whatever the numbers say, Pironkova was suitably impressed by Henin's play.
They had met three times before, all before Henin's hiatus, and Pironkova provided this assessment: "I wouldn't say there is much of a difference."
Told of her opponent's take, Henin rolled her eyes.
Even though she reached the final at the Australian Open in her first major event since returning to the tour, and even though she clearly is still among the tour's top players, Henin is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"The way (back) is still very long," she said. "I'm probably less consistent now than I was at the end of my career, in terms of keeping the intensity all the time."
Henin explained that she views 2010 as "a year of transition." Next year, she said, is when she figures to really be back at the height of her powers.
The 20 months she spent away from the tour gave her time to pursue other endeavors and to think about tennis' role in her life.
As a UNICEF ambassador, she spent time in war-ravaged Congo. She went to rural Cambodia for a vaccination campaign for mothers and babies. She also filmed a reality TV show in Belgium.
"I wouldn't say I've changed, but I realized and I understood a lot of things (about) myself, and it's very rich to come back with all the things I know that I didn't know two years ago or three years ago," Henin said Monday. "And just to be away from the courts helped me trust myself without my tennis racket."
With her racket in her right hand Monday, and her feet scurrying across her favorite court in the world, Henin did deal with some hitches Monday.
She lost three games in a row during one stretch, and was a point from falling behind 4-2 in the second set. But winning 10 points in a row solved that problem, and then she also took the last six points of the match, punctuating points with fist pumps and smiles.
Much as she might have enjoyed her time away, Henin clearly was pleased to return.
Asked if it's possible the break improved her tennis game, Henin smiled.
"I don't know if it makes me a better player," she replied. "I just feel happier. That's probably the most important thing."