Toronto, Canada – By Greg Stutchbury
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Justine Henin continued her remarkable return to competitive tennis with a 7-6 7-5 victory over 19th seed Nadia Petrova to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open on Tuesday. The seven-times grand slam winner, playing only her second tournament back after returning from an 18-month retirement, will next meet either China's Zheng Jie or Maria Kirilenko for a place in the final.
"It was difficult to find the energy today and finally I came back in the second set and played much more aggressive tennis and I am very happy," Henin said in a courtside interview.
"It will be a tough match," she said of her last four tie. "Both of them are playing great. We are in a semi-finals of the grand slam and I hope I will be at my best to make another final here in Melbourne."
The 27-year-old Belgian's return to the game would be even more remarkable if it had not so closely mirrored that of compatriot Kim Clijsters, who won last year's U.S. Open in her third tournament back from a two-year layoff.
Henin managed to push Clijsters all the way in a momentous final in Brisbane before the Australian Open began, and produced another vintage performance when she beat fifth seed Elena Dementieva in the second round.
On Tuesday, she again faced another huge challenge in Petrova, who had already knocked out Clijsters and French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova on her way to the quarter-finals.
Henin took a 4-2 lead in the first set when Petrova served three double faults in the one game but, having changed her racket, the Russian managed to fight back and seized the initiative when she broke Henin in the 10th game.
The Russian took a 6-5 lead but Henin held her nerve to send it into a tie-break, which the former world number one won 7-3.
Petrova raced away to an early 3-0 advantage in the second set, only for Henin, punching and counter-punching and setting up winners with pinpoint accuracy and angles, to claw her way back to 3-3, prompting a string of shouts of "allez."
The players then held serve until the final game, when Henin took the initiative with a forehand winner to set up match point, which she converted when a Petrova backhand sailed long.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)