The Belgian press corps turned out in force for Justine Henin-Hardenne's hour-long practice session at Roland Garros on Wednesday, her last scheduled workout before Thursday's French Open semifinal against Russia's Nadia Petrova.
Their interest was sparked by reports that Henin-Hardenne's recent blood test following a clay-court tuneup in Berlin had raised a caution flag about her health. While there was no evidence that the debilitating cytomegalovirus had returned, according to her longtime coach Carlos Rodriguez, the tests suggested that the former No. 1 would benefit from more rest.
Henin-Hardenne missed most of the 2004 season because of the energy-sapping virus. Since her return, she has vowed not to play more than three consecutive weeks without a break.
Speaking with reporters after Wednesday's practice, Rodriguez said he planned to further pare down Henin-Hardenne's tournament schedule. She will skip the June 13-18 grass-court tuneup in Eastbourne. After Wimbledon -- the only Grand Slam she hasn't won -- she'll take four or five weeks to recuperate. And she won't play more than two North American hard-court tournaments before the U.S. Open -- possibly San Diego (Aug. 1-7) and likely Toronto (Aug 15-21).
But none of the hand-wringing over the Belgian's calendar was apparent to the roughly 150 fans who turned out to watch her practice and wish her a happy 23rd birthday.
Supporters held hand-lettered signs that spelled out, "Bonne Anniversaire, Justine," when she arrived for her noon practice on Court No. 8, holding hands with her husband, Pierre-Yves. She looked relaxed, happy and fit as she stretched, jogged and high-stepped around the court's perimeter to loosen up. With her husband and coach looking on, Henin-Hardenne set to work with a male hitting partner, going through the full range of shots with customary grace and form -- groundstrokes, drop shots, passing shots, volleys, overheads and lobs, following by a series of serves and abbreviated rallies.
"Oh, pardon!" she chirped after firing any shot that was less than perfect.
Belgian TV cameras filmed the full session, while fans snapped photographs and roving bands of Parisian children looked on from the stands, clutching Sharpie pens and autograph pads.
Though seeded 10th in the tournament, Henin-Hardenne is favored to beat the seventh-seeded Petrova, against whom she holds a 6-1 career record. In Thursday's other women's semifinal, 16th seed Elena Likhovtseva takes on Frenchwoman Mary Pierce, the tournament's 2000 champion.