MELBOURNE, Australia – A refreshed Justine Henin will take the court on Saturday night for her first Grand Slam final meeting with her archrival Serena Williams and the American better hope that her opponent looks more like the Henin of 2008, not the one of 2007, who stomped her in three straight Grand Slam quarterfinals.
The Henin of 2008 was mentally toast. The Henin of 2007 was a dominant player. After Henin retired in May of 2008, Serena began to seize control of the majors again, reaching the Wimbledon final, winning the 2008 US Open, the 2009 Australian Open and 2009 Wimbledon. Had Henin been around in peak form, it's quite possible she would have snared one of those titles, or at least added another French Open crown or two to her total of her seven major titles.
But she decided to take a breather and it sure has paid off. Thursday, she absolutely demolished China's Zheng Jie 6-1, 6-0. After a full 48 hours off after four straight physically draining wins, she strode on court looking like a toddler who was just presented with a new tricycle and sped about the court.
"She just played super," an awed Zheng said. "I hope she can win the Australian title. She looks stronger. Her serve is stronger and she moves faster."
For her part, Serena once again had to sweat and strain in another extremely impressive win, this time a two-hour plus 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) victory over China's Li Na. After needing more than two hours to overcame the big-hitting Victoria Azarenak the day before, Serena was clearly a step slow, but she's become incredibly adept at managing her matches and played two clean tiebreakers, serving huge, returning with precision and rarely erring. "If she want to win the point, just ace," Li noted.
Serena leads her rivalry with Henin 7-6, but the 27-year-old Belgian has won three of their last four matches, including three straight beat downs at the 2007 French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. Serena doesn't want to recall those matches. Serena has outclassed Henin at the majors too, at the 2001 US Open and 2003 Wimbledon. And then there is their most memorable and controversial match at the 2003 French Open, when Henin sent Serena screaming and weeping off the court in a dramatic semifinal victory. It was on that day that Serena accused Henin of "cheating, lying and fabricating" and broke down in tears four times in her press conference after her incredibly painful 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 loss.
Serena was booed viciously, and the hostile crowd cracked the hardened shell that had brought her four consecutive major titles going into the event, which she had nicknamed her "Serena Slam."
She not only was undone by the crowd, but by some gamesmanship on Henin's part. At 4-2 in the final set, the Belgian held up her hand on a Serena first serve and then Serena served it into the net. Serena thought she would get a first serve again, but the umpire didn't see Henin raise her hand and Justine didn't acknowledge what she did. Serena won the point, but her concentration was cooked.
"I know I wasn't at fault in any way, and I guess she was doing everything to win," Serena said when recalling the match a few years ago. "It was a long time ago. So much has happened since '03. It seems like decades ago."
Both women have matured a lot since then and have said that they put that incident behind them, but given that they are two of the most intense players on tour, don't expect them to be conceding calls to each other on Saturday in Melbourne. Serena knows that a revived Henin is capable of not only beating her, but in good health, going after her total of 11 Grand Slam titles. Neither woman will be particularly quiet when they square off on Rod Laver Arena.
"She's a little more calm, but she's also kind of quiet intense," Serena said. "You kind of have to be at the match to see it, how intense she really is. I think it's good. She says 'Allez!' a lot, so I think it's kind of fun."
Fun? It will surely be a good time for fans who will be watching this cage match, but it's unlikely to be a party for Serena or Henin, both whom are emotional people who live and die with their wins and their losses against their great rivals. And for Serena even to admit that someone is a rival means a great deal, as she has often dismissed the concept entirely.
"I definitely think of her as a rival," Serena said. "I think we bring out the best game in each other. I think that we both just play our hearts out. I think that's what creates a good rivalry."
Henin, who says she knows she'll have to be at her absolute best, agrees: "We're both real fighters. We want to win. And I think maybe we helped each other to get better. So it's a good one."
Serena has not always been so gracious to Henin and vice versa.
After she was completely out-classed by Henin 7-6 (3), 6-1 in the 2007 US Open quarterfinals she credited the Belgian with playing better but also said she "made a lot of lucky shots, and I made a lot of errors."
But that was then and this is now and really, much of the final result will lie in execution. Henin has a great sense of what her foe's weaknesses are, and has often played Serena the right way. She stands back far enough to return her first serve and doesn't try to do more than get it back except when it's soft, and then always attacks her second serve. She hammers away at Serena's forehand until she can break it down and most importantly, she almost never serves out wide with her second serves, taking away Serena's much favored down the line returns. She stands inside the baseline as often as she can to try to control the rallies and take away Serena's first strike capabilities.
"What doesn't she do well?," Serena asked.
Henin believes that Serena breaks down more frequently when she's under pressure and she's right, but putting the fierce Williams under consistent pressure is a huge task, especially when Serena is serving well. If Serena thinks deeply about their previous clashes, and doesn't try to repress the memories because she doesn't want to remember her defeats, she'll recall in a positive manner that she owns a 4-1 mark against Henin on hardcourts, the same surface they will play on Saturday night.
The last time they played, in 2008 in Miami, Serena buried her 6-2, 6-0. Despite the Belgian's wide array of shots, Serena can blast through her, especially if she's spotting her big serves all over the box, nailing her returns to unreachable locales, keeping the ball deep in crosscourt rallies and making sure to move forward any time she gets a short ball.
The two have never faced off in Australia, where Serena owns four titles and Henin just one. Rod Laver Arena has really been Serena's house and it's to Henin up to find the key to the front door. It sounds like she's prepared to go visit the locksmith.
"I know I'll have to play a great tennis because Serena in this kind of situation is at her best level all the time," Henin said. "In a Grand Slam final, she produces her best. She is No. 1. I've been No. 1. I want to win another Grand Slam, I'll have to beat the best player of the world. And that's just the biggest challenge I could get."