Justine Henin capped her remarkable comeback by storming into the Australian Open final on Thursday where she will meet the imposing Serena Williams gunning for her fifth title.
The tenacious Henin is playing her first Grand Slam since coming out of an 18-month retirement and kept her historic run going with a 6-1, 6-0 demolition of unseeded Chinese Zheng Jie.
Williams also had to negotiate Chinese opposition and was made to work hard by 16th seed Li Na before grinding her down 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/1) under a hot sun on the Rod Laver Arena to set up an enticing decider on Saturday.
Fifth seeded Andy Murray faces 14th seeded Croat Marin Cilic in the first men’s semifinal later on Thursday, while world number one Roger Federer takes on French 10th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday.
Ever since she announced her return to tennis the talk has been about whether Henin could emulate Belgian compatriot Kim Clijsters, who won last year’s US Open on her own comeback.
And the former world number one has lived up to expectations after being handed a wildcard by organisers.
She destroyed Zheng as she stayed on track to add to her seven Grand Slam titles, including the 2004 Australian Open.
“The dream continues. I am going to play the number one and defending champion,” said the 27-year-old, who became the first wildcard to reach the final here.
“I wasn’t sure about what I would feel on the court and how things would go. I have just enjoyed my tennis and taken it step by step. I can’t wait for the final now, it is an amazing feeling.”
Asked if she seriously expected to get this far, she revealed she was quietly confident, having booked a flight out for next Sunday before the start of the tournament.
“I was curious about how things would go and I’m very happy to come back like this,” she said.
Henin has negotiated some tough opposition to get this far, including fifth seed Elena Dementieva, 19th seed Nadia Petrova and talented Belgian Yanina Wickmayer.
But the biggest test of her comeback will come in the form of Williams, who is angling for a 12th Grand Slam title to put her alongside Billie Jean King.
She saw off Li in just over two hours, with the rising Chinese star saving four match points before a delighted Williams clinched the win with an ace.
“I am happy I was able to pull it out, it was really close,” said Williams.
“I wasn’t at my best today, but I’m still here which is shocking and I’m just going to do whatever I can to stay.”
The world number one, who came back from the brink of defeat in a gruelling quarter-final against Victoria Azarenka, is also hoping to become the first player to successfully defend her title since American Jennifer Capriati in 2002.
But Williams was made to fight hard against a determined Li, who was not overawed playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal.
She pushed Williams all the way and learned a lot from playing such a high-profile game.
“I lost the match and I was a little bit sad to be stopped in the semifinal, but I played good tennis today,” said Li.
“I think that I have to practise much, much more, particularly my serve.” — AFP