The Rod Laver arena witnessed a scintillating 7-5, 7-6(8-6) win for comeback queen, Justine Henin over World number 5, Elena Dementieva earlier today, which could signify the dawn of a new age for women’s tennis and possibly a coronary for Dementieva’s mother and coach, the omnipresent Vera who was uncomfortable to watch as she appeared to play every single shot for her gutsy daughter.
With US open champion Kim Clijsters and the uber talented former World number one Henin back with a vengeance, the women’s tour has never held so much promise and wide spread appeal. This year’s Australian Open is panning out to be a classic for the WTA, undoubtedly helped by unseeded wild card Henin’s random placement in amongst the top seeds in the mouth watering bottom half of the draw, which provided a second round battle worthy of a final.
In my preview, I debated Dementieva’s mental fortitude which was sorely tested by Henin throughout. However, I do not believe Henin’s victory was down to a lack of fight from the Russian, who displayed admirable gut and determination to push Henin to the brink and back time and time again in this hotly contested second round match, rather it was Henin’s relentless resolution to come forward when playing the big points which caused the upset, marking her out as a true champion.
In her first tournament back in Brisbane, Henin fell at the last hurdle failing to close out the match against fellow Belgian compatriot and current US open champion Kim Clijsters by pressing too hard for victory, displaying a possible chink in her come back preparation.
However, today’s performance quashed any remaining doubt that Henin is ready to compete at the same level at which she left the game 20 months ago. Henin’s coach and mentor Carlos Rodriguez interestingly underestimated his diminutive pupil’s prospects in a recent interview with The Sunday Times prior to the Open, stating cautiously ‘I am not expecting her to be back at her best at the Australian Open or maybe a few months after that’ and expressed his surprise at her reaching the final in Brisbane because ‘she’s not certain about her game yet. Sometimes she’s too defensive, other times she goes on the attack when it is not wise. But those things come with time and matches. So far she has only played five.’
Perhaps this was a psychological tactic to relieve the pressure from Henin’s petite shoulders or a genuine miscalculation by the contemplative coach? Whatever the case may be, Rodriguez must be delighted with her swift progress which has shot her into contention at the Australian Open like a lightning bolt over the Rod Laver arena, illuminating the women’s game with her unique style in comparison to the one dimensional baseliners who have dominated thus far.
Concerns about Henin’s serve, which Rodriguez cleverly modeled on the biomechanics of the Minnesota Viking’s quarterback, American Football star, Brett Favre were magnified in the first set, when Henin threw in 6 double faults. She often had to catch her first throw up which frequently veered disturbingly to the right, suggesting a possible lack of confidence in her new technique. However, by the second set as she got into her stride, those double faults reduced down to just two in a long and hotly contested set, with her first serve percentage at 48% in contrast to Dementieva’s at 65% across the total 2 hours and 50 minutes.
From the offset, the momentum of the match swung from side to side like a ship caught in a storm. In the first set, Dementieva’s depth and relentless pace of shot raged against Henin’s touch and variety resulting in copious break points for the Russian. At 5-4 with two set points for Dementieva, Henin produced a great drop volley to save the first and then constructed a brilliant point, resulting in a forehand approach and backhand volley winner to bring the game back to deuce to save the second. Henin broke back with an audacious drop volley leveling the set at 5 all.
In the following game, Henin matched Dementieva shot for shot by producing deeper and more penetrating ground strokes. A gutsy movement forward with a convincing volley at the net, secured a 6-5 lead. Indeed, it was her intuitive awareness of when to move forward to finish the point which pegged her back level at 30 all in the next game, which she then went on to win with an impressive forehand, hit on the rise, following a powerful first serve at deuce.
Dementieva opened the second set with another difficult hold of serve and followed with what appeared to be the beginnings of an impressive fight back, breaking Henin in the second game. However, with the grace of a ballet dancer Henin passed Dementieva at the net in the next point and went on to force a double fault from the uncharacteristically stoic Russian on break point.
Henin produced a magnificent game, maneuvering the Russian with deft precision around the court at 2-1 down to level the set at 2 all. Dementieva won two games in a row and appeared to have the upper hand as she went 4-2 up in the second. However, the tides turned once again as Henin went for the jugular and won the next three games to go 5-4 up, but lost her first match point in the next service game with a tight forehand into the net. Sensing Henin’s nerves, Dementieva took advantage and secured the break with a punishing backhand down the line.
At 5 all, Henin broke the Russian’s serve once again to set up yet another opportunity to serve out the match. While the crowd’s cheers reached a deafening crescendo, Rodriguez motioned animatedly to Henin radiating positivity and determination, while in contrast Dementieva’s mother and coach looked unnervingly at her daughter and then as if she were praying to the Gods for help.
Rodriguez must have been concerned (even if his face was a picture of confidence) as Henin once again failed to close out the match seemingly straining a quad muscle while serving. An impressive fight back from Dementieva secured the break to take the second set to a mouth watering tie break.
Despite racing to a 3-1 lead, Dementieva succumbed to Henin’s variety of shot and willingness to risk all on the important points (possibly in fear of a punishing third set) and like a true champion won the match on a serve volley; glaringly symbolic of what women’s tennis has been missing since her retirement from the game.
Henin is destined to meet Clijsters in the quarter finals (if they both proceed as predicted) in a repeat of the recent Brisbane final. What another great advert this would be for the women’s game and also as evidence for their inclusion in the proposed Tennis World Cup if the stars contrive to place these brilliant Belgian rivals together once again. Watch this space…