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The Tennis Phile


January 29, 2010 12:20 PM

Serena vs. Henin - The One Women's Match We All Wanted to See

3986508.jpgWhen Justine Henin's return to the tour became official a few weeks ago leading up to the Australian Open, nearly every tennis fan was hoping that she'd make it to the final to take on her longtime rival Serena Williams. Sure, if the always-sunny Kim Clijsters had made it to the final, it'd be intriguing as well as she's the other big comeback story of the last year. But with so few compelling rivalries in women's tennis, it is utterly fitting that Henin and Serena will battle it out for the championship in Melbourne. After all, do you think fans were clamoring for an Azarenka vs. Wozniacki tussle? Let's be real here, this is the women's version of Nadal v Federer - albeit only about halfway as compelling. The women's tour is thrilled to have this match to promote. It's just too bad that most in the United States will be sound asleep as it doesn't start until 3:30 AM EST.

Before she took her sudden and surprising leave of absence for the tour - she had termed it a retirement at the time but I never doubted she'd come back - Henin was the number one player in the world and at the top of her game. The fact that she has apparently returned to form so quickly is stunning. So often athletes have come back from an extended leave with only mediocre results - including in tennis, i.e. John McEnroe in the 80's - and whispers start about how so-and-so shouldn't tarnish their legacy with only a shadow of their former game to display. But then again Henin is only 27, just a year younger than Serena, so her return to form in a weak women's field should perhaps come as no surprise. A win over Serena would immediately and dramatically alter the rankings and would throw doubt into Serena's capacity to dominate the sport when all her foils are at the ready. 

After the embarrassing and ugly incident during last year's  US Open semifinals when she physically threatened a lines woman (an incident that Serena has not fully owned up to, doing much to discredit her integrity and character along the way) and lost the match with a point penalty, the ever proud  Serena passionately wants to reaffirm her status as the number one player in the world.  There has perhaps been no more fierce a competitor in her sport than the younger Williams sister over the last 11 years (and yes, it is now nearly 11 years since Serena won her first US Open, a testament to the staying power of both sisters) and arguably of all time. The manner in which Serena can will herself to victory even when playing poorly is a sight to behold.

Which is why this match-up is utterly fascinating and an ultimate must-see. For Justine is Serena's equal when it comes to competitive instinct. Their head-to-head stands at Justine winning seven of their thirteen matches. But Serena has won six of their eight matches not contested on clay. Their last meeting was in Miami in 2008 on a fast hard court where Serena dismantled the slender Henin. The way the hard court in Melbourne has played thus far may give Henin some hope. The balls are biting a bit more than usual which should allow Henin that extra short step to get to the powerful missives that Serena will rip from both the backhand and forehand.

But I look for Serena to maintain a focused aggression throughout, capitalizing on coming to the net as often as possible. One of Serena's many strengths is her method of continuing to hit out even when she's in a bad patch of missing shots. She always seems to regain her precision by using her power. And she'll definitely  hit a rough spot or two against Henin but Serena will triumph in three sets.

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