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Steve Flink: Henin is Revitalized

1/20/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As soon as the Australian Open draw was released late last week, the early round match most eagerly anticipated by one and all in the tennis community was the second round meeting between the seven time Grand Slam tournament winner Justine Henin and No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva. This was a contest we all wanted to see. Had Henin been seeded--- as she surely should have been--- these two highly accomplished players might have collided much later in the tournament, perhaps in the quarterfinals or even the semifinals. But the Australian Open authorities went with the official WTA computer rankings and decided to leave Henin out of the seedings because this is only her second tournament back after being away from the game since May of 2008.

Henin arrived as expected for their second round appointment knowing full well what was at stake. One of them would move on safely and remain in contention for the first major of 2010. The other would be out of the tournament entirely too early, a victim of a terribly unfair draw, and a prisoner of circumstances out of her control. But if it was a cruel fate for Henin and Dementieva to clash so early in the event, the fact remained that the beneficiaries of the situation were the fans. They hoped for a close, hard fought, suspenseful encounter, and the players did not let them down. In the end, Henin’s mindset and quiet ferocity enabled her to stop Dementieva 7-5, 7-6 (6) in a gripping showdown lasting nearly three hours. There may not be a higher quality women’s contest in this entire tournament.

Let’s consider how it all unfolded, and what it took for Henin to win a straight set victory that she could just have easily have lost in two sets. From the outset, both women were pushing each other to the hilt in rally after rally, exploring every inch of the court, keeping their piercing strokes deep, hitting their second serve returns without inhibition. They were setting exceedingly high standards, and neither player could maintain the upper hand for long. The tone was set immediately. Serving at 0-1 in the first set, Henin fought her way through an eight deuce game, saving three break points, surviving despite four double faults to make it to 1-1.

Henin seemed to find her range as she broke the Russian for 2-1, but she lost her serve in the next game. At 3-3, Henin laced her returns commandingly to get the break at love, but once more Dementieva retaliated convincingly, breaking back for 4-4, holding on at the cost of only a single point, and taking a 5-4 lead. Henin had slightly lost the initiative, and Dementieva was matching her stroke for stroke in the top of the line rallies. In the tenth game, Henin found herself in the tensest of territory. Twice she was down set point, but the Belgian demonstrated at those crucial moments that she remains a champion who is at her best under duress. She simply elevated her game and raised her level of aggression when it counted.

The first time she was behind set point, Henin released an excellent forehand approach that kept Dementieva off balance, and the Belgian confidently angled away a backhand volley crosscourt into the clear. On the second, Henin unleashed a gutsy forehand down the line that landed just inside the sideline for a clean winner. She held on gamely for 5-5, but Dementieva surged to a 40-15 lead in the eleventh game. Henin once more displayed her big point prowess. She took the next three points, and then broke for 6-5 by making a delayed approach off the backhand before closing in for a beautifully angled backhand volley winner.

Both players were not ceding any ground. Dementieva saved two set points in the following game, but Henin finally held on by provoking an error from Dementieva with a scorching forehand down the line. Henin had the set, but her control of the match was tenuous. Dementieva surged to a 2-0 lead in the second set before Henin struck back boldly to 2-2. The Russian took the next two games to build a 4-2 lead, but again Henin answered by collecting the next two games to reach 4-4. She then broke through for 5-4, served for the match, reached 30-0 and even made it to match point. Henin squandered that chance to close out the account by uncharacteristically missing a routine forehand down the line. A resourceful and obstinate Dementieva battled back to 5-5.

The drama was not over. Henin broke again for 6-5, but for the second time she could not serve out the match. Both women were vulnerable on serve, but they were returning with gusto and excelling in that department of the game. On they went to a tie-break, and Henin hit a golden patch in the middle of it. She reached 3-3 in that sequence by lacing a deep backhand approach to open up an avenue for a forehand swing volley winner. Then she connected with a service winner down the T for 4-3, and made it to 5-3 by stepping up the pace on her backhand to elicit an error from a hard pressed Dementieva.

Henin was two points away from the triumph, but she lost the next three points, missing a return of serve, double faulting, and sending a wayward backhand into the alley. Now Henin was serving at 5-6 and set point down. She seemed devoid of anxiety. Henin rolled her majestic one-handed topspin backhand crosscourt with such accuracy that Dementieva had to stab the ball back with one hand off her backhand side. Henin moved forward with full conviction, and her daring forehand drive volley crosscourt was a clean winner. It was 6-6.

Dementieva indecisively sliced a backhand into the net on the following point, and Henin was at match point. She did not hesitate in the least. Directing her first serve deep to the backhand, Henin played serve-and-volley, storming in to punch a backhand first volley down the line into an empty space, underlining her supremacy at the end with that audacious move. For the 35th time in 43 net approaches, Henin had succeeded. In her first Grand Slam event since the 2008 Australian Open, Henin showed very few signs of being gone from the game for so long. It was a win well earned a supreme triumph of the will, a victory that reminded all of us just how much we have missed watching Justine Henin go to work on the biggest stages in her profession.

The pace of her comeback has been extraordinary. In her first tournament at Brisbane, she reached the final and lost narrowly to Kim Clijsters in a magnificent contest, rallying nobly from a set and 4-1 down to win 8 games in a row, twice reaching match point in the tenth game of the third set, and finally bowing 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6) by the narrowest of margins. Now she has achieved her first big win by eclipsing Dementieva for the tenth time in twelve career duels. In the ultimate analysis, what separated Henin from Dementieva was her multi-layered game. Henin is so complete and versatile, so creative and majestic with her slice and topspin backhands, so willing to rework other parts of her game, that no one in the world of women’s tennis can match her flexibility or professionalism.

There will be a considerable amount of hard work ahead for this industrious, 27-year-old woman. She will need to bounce back swiftly after her physically taxing and emotionally draining battle with Dementieva. Should she win her next two matches, there would be a likely quarterfinal with Clijsters in Melbourne, and a possible semifinal with Dinara Safina or Jelena Jankovic. But no matter what happens to Henin at this Australian Open, she will undoubtedly accomplish on a large scale over the course of this season. There is no way she won’t win at least one major in 2010, and possibly more. She is still tinkering with her game, shortening the backswing on her forehand, tampering with her service motion, searching to find ways to get to the net more frequently. But she is working assiduously to improve her game.

In Dementieva, Henin was facing one of the premier service returners in the sport. Henin managed to win only 52% of her first serve points, and took only 48% of her second serve points. Those numbers will need to improve, and they surely well. There are isolated moments where her shot selection is not as astute as it once was. But Henin knows what she wants, and understands how to go about getting there. She is the most commendable figure in the women’s game, and was a joy to see her playing with such passion and panache in the early stages of her comeback against someone as formidable as Dementieva.