MELBOURNE, Australia – One year ago, on this steamy Melbourne night, Justine Henin was in an even hotter place -- the Congo , working for UNICEF.
She could not have imagined then that she would be facing Serena Williams across a tennis net in the final of the Australian Open 12 months later. Asked what surprised her after losing 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, Justine smiled and said, "Well, to be on court today, maybe."
As tales of the unexpected go, Henin and her Belgian compatriot Kim Clijsters have just about re-written the story books. Clijsters came back after producing a daughter to win the U.S. Open and now Henin has made it to the final of her first Grand Slam back on the tour -- and played at a commendably high standard against the world No. 1 and defending champion. It would have been hard to have asked for more.
There were really only a couple of points in it. Henin, striking her forehand as fluently as her brilliant backhand, had reeled off 10 straight points to take the second set from 3-3, and when she easily held serve in the first game of the third, the vast majority of experts watching the drama unfold expected Henin to go and claim the title.
They expected Serena, still strapped up, to tire first and the odds on that happening looked very good when Justine reached two break points against the American serve in the next game. But Serena doesn't understand the word surrender and she unleashed a huge ace and followed it with a drive volley winner that had defiance written all over it.
From that moment on it was the younger Williams, with Venus applauding in the stands, who grabbed hold of the match again and became unstoppable.
Obviously Henin was disappointed but not down-hearted.
"Even this feeling of disappointment cannot take away the advantage of all the things I've done in the last few weeks," she said. "And it's more than I could have expected. I just have to remember that. Even if it's quite soon after the match, I'm sure there will be a lot of positive things I can think about in the next few days. It's been almost perfect. Just the last step -- I couldn't make it."
Henin's reaction is typical. She will just go home and work harder.
"I know I'll have to work harder," she said with steely determination. "And I'm going to do that, for sure. I mean, what I did was just amazing in the last few weeks. Maybe I could have been home after the Dementieva match. But I went all the way to the final. So I keep a lot of good things now."
Henin intends to rest a little before returning to the practice court and expects to return to the WTA tour at the big tournament in Indian Wells, Ca. in March, if not before.