Olympic champion out of the way, Justine Henin moves on to next challenge at Aussie Open

By John Pye, AP
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Justine Henin’s Grand Slam comeback gains momentum

MELBOURNE, Australia — Justine Henin knows how it feels to waste match points and then lose to a fellow Grand Slam champion.

She wasn’t about to make the same mistakes Wednesday, particularly against a player who has long been a contender but hasn’t quite reached the pinnacle in the majors.

Only seven matches into her comeback, Henin held off fifth-ranked Elena Dementieva 7-5, 7-6 (6), winning the last three points of the tiebreaker to clinch a second-round victory at the Australian Open worthy of a final. She ended it on her second match point — 24 minutes after she missed her first chance against the Olympic champion.

Two matches into her comeback and already Henin, who retired in May 2008 while she was ranked No. 1, knows she’s capable of reproducing the form that took her to seven Grand Slam singles titles.

“I lived so much emotion on the court this evening. It was magical,” she said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it, but it was the kind of situation I needed to refind my confidence.”

On the men’s side, Juan Martin del Potro, the 21-year-old Argentine who upset Roger Federer to win last year’s U.S. Open, needed 4 hours, 17 minutes to hold off James Blake 6-4, 6-7 (3), 5-7, 6-3, 10-8.

By contrast, defending champion Rafael Nadal and his potential quarterfinal rival Andy Murray each won in straight sets to reach the third round.

Former No. 1 Andy Roddick also advanced in straights sets, although the American finished his 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci with an expletive-laden rant against Irish chair umpire Fergus Murphy over an interpretation of the rules. He later apologized in a news conference, and via Twitter.

Defending women’s champion Serena Williams, playing her first major since she was fined $82,500 for a profanity-laced tirade against a line judge during her U.S. Open semifinal loss to eventual champion Kim Clijsters, was to play Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic on Thursday.

Her sister Venus was due to face Sybille Bammer of Austria in the preceding match at Hisense Arena.

Following her victory, Henin recalled her loss to fellow Belgian Clijsters in the Brisbane International final less than two weeks ago — in her first tournament action in 20 months. With a quarterfinal against Clijsters on the radar here, Henin put some lessons into play.

“When I missed that (match point), when (Dementieva) came back to 5-all, I thought about Brisbane and the opportunities I got,” Henin said. “Already playing well, and got the opportunity to finish the match and I couldn’t, because my nerves wasn’t probably solid enough.”

After recovering from a set and a break down against Clijsters, Henin got two match points against her old friend and rival. But she’d failed to convert them, and after saving three match points, finally lost a momentum-swinging, three-set final.

“And today I thought it was going to happen again,” she said. “I really thought in the tiebreak I wouldn’t be strong enough. And when I got the opportunities, and the way I finished on serve and volley, I mean, it was the best I could dream of.”

It was Clijsters’ win at the U.S. Open last September which inspired Henin to return. Clijsters won the major only three tournaments into a comeback after two years off the circuit during which she got married and had a baby.

Now they’ve both progressed halfway to a quarterfinal meeting. Both face Russians in the next round, with Henin against No. 27 Alisa Kleybanova and Clijsters, who beat Thai veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn 6-3, 6-3 on Wednesday, facing No. 19 Nadia Petrova.

“I woke up with an enormous desire to win this match, because I wanted to continue my path in Melbourne and it was too early to go home,” Henin said. “I want to continue.”

Petrova is one of several Russian women already in the third round, including French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 2-ranked Dinara Safina — last year’s runner-up — and Maria Kirilenko, who ousted 2008 champion Maria Sharapova in the first round.

The 27-year-old Henin has no ranking in Australia and is playing on a wild card — the same circumstance Clijsters experience at the U.S. Open, only with one less tune up tournament

The capacity crowd was cheering for Henin, gasping at the groundstrokes and her speed.

“The crowd gave me so much. So respectful at the end. It was a special night tonight. That’s why I probably came back on the tour, was to live this kind of matches.”

Dementieva, who beat Serena Williams for the Sydney title last week, was the highest ranked of the five seeded women who were bundled out in the second round.

Yanina Wickmayer, another unseeded Belgian, ousted No. 12 Flavia Pennetta of Italy 7-6 (2), 6-1.

Dementieva, who lost finals at the French and U.S. Opens in 2004, is still searching for her first major title.

“I came here not (just) to pass the second round; I came here to be in the final,” Dementieva said. “You have to be ready facing Justine if you want to win the whole title.”

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