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Justin Henin exclusive: Naomi Osaka is leader in women's tennis; does Serena Williams still have fire in her belly?

Four-time French Open champion Justine Henin talks exclusively to Sky Sports about why Naomi Osaka can lead women's tennis over the next years; the tennis legend also questions whether Serena Williams still has the fire in her belly to claim an historic 24th Grand Slam as she nears 40

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams

Justine Henin says Naomi Osaka is the leader in women's tennis, but the four-time French Open champion questions whether Serena Williams still has the fire in her belly as she continues to chase an historic 24th Grand Slam title.

Japanese star Osaka has already collected four Grand Slam titles at the age of 23, while her recent 23-match winning streak included victories at Flushing Meadows and Melbourne as she dominated on hard-courts.

She continues to use her social media presence to voice support for social justice issues, while her popularity has risen off the charts.

Seven-time Slam winner Henin has been impressed with the way Osaka has continued to evolve her game on the court and feels she has all the artillery and proficiency to stay at the top of women's tennis for a long time to come.

Belgium's Justine Henin kisses the cup after defeating Serbia's Ana Ivanovic in the women's final match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris.
Image: Henin is a four-time French Open champion - including a hat-trick of wins from 2005-07

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Henin spoke to Sky Sports about what makes Osaka such a special talent

"I'm really much more positive than I was two years ago because that I feel that we have some stability in women's tennis and I think with Osaka we have someone who can really lead the women's game in the next few years," said Henin, who was speaking from her Academy, which is based in Limelette, Belgium.

"When she won her first US Open and Australian Open everything seemed new for her and she took a while to assume her status because when she became number one it was really tough for her. She was really shy and it was complicated.

"As a player I thought she was impressive already but she has improved physically, she's moving really, really fast and she's much better on the court now. The speed and velocity of the forehand is quite amazing. She can do a bit of everything.

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"She has great vision and she has improved mentally. At the Australian Open she saved two match points against Garbine Muguruza.

"Her serve reminds me a bit of Serena Williams who sometimes wasn't playing so well but times when she had to play well she was doing it. Naomi is charismatic and a complete player. She plays fast, she's consistent, and she has physically improved a lot, so I'm very impressed by the level of the game she can reach."

Naomi Osaka of Japan hold her trophy after winning the Women's Singles Final of the 2021 Australian Open on February 20 2021, at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Jason Heidrich/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
Image: Osaka has yet to show she can produce the goods on the dirt. Can she do it at Roland Garros this year?

Whether Osaka can do it on clay is a burning question on everyone's lips. She heads into Roland Garros having fallen early in Madrid and Rome, while her record in Paris does not bode well for her chances of adding to her major haul having failed to go beyond the third round.

Competition is challenging at the top of women's game

Iga Swiatek seen during a photo shoot at Hangar-7, Austria on October 12, 2020 // Markus Berger / Red Bull Content Pool
Image: Iga Swiatek will be defending her French Open women's singles title

Henin has also been impressed with reigning French Open champion, Iga Swiatek and world No 1 Ashleigh Barty.

Poland's Swiatek will turn 20 during this year's Grand Slam and heads into the tournament on a high having swept to victory at the WTA 1000 Internazionali BNL d'Italia. Barty has been in imperious form, having claimed three singles titles this year. She also has previous form in Paris having won her maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 2019.

Australia's Ashleigh Barty celebrates after defeating United States' Shelby Rogers during their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.(AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
Image: Australia's Ashleigh Barty has played consistently high-quality tennis since her return to the circuit after spending a full year at home due to the coronavirus pandemic

Henin said: "Swiatek will be interesting because it looks like she has managed well over the past few months after winning the French Open, but it's going to be the first time she's going to be defending a Grand Slam title so it's going to be a new step for her.

"Ashleigh Barty has been amazing in terms of consistency because she didn't play the second part of last year and she is very stable, so that's amazing.

"Competition is challenging again, but what we missed over the last couple of years has been the consistency. I have the feeling that slowly but surely we are coming back to that and I'm very happy and excited about it."

Can Serena claim that illusive 24th Grand Slam?

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Belgian tennis legend Henin questions whether Serena still has that fire in her belly to win a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title

Henin believes there is a "high percentage" of a chance Williams can finally end her wait for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, which would move her level alongside Margaret Court.

Despite the American former No 1 turning 40 later this year, Henin has been amazed Williams is still competing at the top of the women's game, despite being a mother to her three-year-old daughter, Olympia.

"As she is Serena Williams, I can never close the door and say 'no, she will never make it' because she is so special and she has proved it so many times in the past," two-time Wimbledon finalist Henin, told Sky Sports.

"We have to keep in mind that she has been so consistent, even after having a little girl. She didn't win a Grand Slam but she's been in the final of four Slams and she was in the semi-finals of the US Open last year and Australian Open this year, so she's still there.

"Now to compete in seven matches over two weeks against some players, who are now from the top of the women's game and for me are at another level, the pressure is much higher on her than it was a few years ago.

"I think it's going to be really, really hard also because she is a mum now and emotionally she has changed. She still has that fire in her belly, but is it the same as it was before when there was only tennis in her life? That's also a bit of a question.

"I think she wants to be there. She still has the passion but now she's a mum, she has different things to deal with and that changes life. At nearly 40 to still be there, I admire her a lot, but it's going to be tough."

Mum's the word

Belgium's Justine Henin, left, looking at her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, during a news conference in Limelette, Belgium
Image: Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez is now working at her Academy in Belgium

Henin, who welcomed back her former coach Carlos Rodriguez as the Academy's new Sporting Director, has already retired from tennis twice in her career.

She has gone on to have children only after quitting the game, whereas there has been a trend in recent years for female players to go back to professional tennis, even after giving birth, with Williams being a prime example.

"I think it's a great message that some players have children and then come back to tennis because it doesn't have to be a choice, even if I think it's very difficult, but it's a great message that they are sending," said Henin, who won a hat-trick of French Open titles from 2005-07.

"I wouldn't have been able to do that because it's two lives which you have to give 200 per cent and for me that's hard to combine.

"I admire the women that take the right to do that. I think it's really fantastic. We wouldn't have seen this 10 years ago which shows you how things have moved on."

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