Bittersweet ending for comeback queen Henin

Justine Henin’s loss to Serena Williams in the Australian Open final on Saturday was a bittersweet ending to a fairy-tale run for the Belgian and left her hungry for success in her second career.

“Of course [I’m] disappointed, I mean, when you lose in the final of a grand slam, especially in three sets, and I got a few opportunities that I wasn’t able to take,” an upbeat Henin said after her fighting 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 loss at Rod Laver Arena, her 12th grand-slam final.

“But this feeling of disappointment cannot take advantage on all the things I’ve done in the last few weeks. And it’s just more than what I could expect, I just have to remember that.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of positive things I can think about in a few days. It’s been almost perfect; just the last step, I couldn’t make it.”

The seven-time grand-slam champion arrived in Melbourne an unknown quantity, a wildcard still finding her feet in her second tournament back after an 18-month retirement.

Though she was rated a dangerous floater in the draw, few would have backed the 27-year-old to mow her way through six opponents and have a chance of winning a grand slam in the 12th competitive match of her comeback — Henin, least of all.

“I didn’t know really what to expect. I was ready to live, like I said, the best and the worst,” she said.

“I was curious about what my level would be and how I was going to deal with just the atmosphere on and off the court, how it would feel. I felt I took the right decision, so it’s good enough for me already.”

The Belgian quit the game in May, 2008, disillusioned with the grind of touring and lacking the hunger to strive for grand slam trophies.

She announced her comeback last year, inspired after seeing fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters win the US Open title in her third tournament back after taking two years out to become a mother.

Fitness worries
She arrived in Melbourne with a final appearance at the warm-up Brisbane International, but brought questions over her fitness, and, she admitted, worries about her mental fortitude.

In the Brisbane final, Henin had held two match points over Clijsters. Her failure to land the killer blows haunted her in her opening rounds at Melbourne Park, and she said she thought she had lost the ice-cool composure that had carried her through the big points to seven grand slam titles.

However, her gruelling second-round win over fifth seed Elena Dementieva brought the belief flooding back.

As seeds tumbled and the draw opened up, Henin steadily advanced through the draw, her graceful backhand and tenacious net-rushing delighting crowds jaded with dour baseline battles being waged elsewhere.

Henin, despite herself, began to dream and for a few heady moments at Rod Laver Arena it appeared the dream might come true.

After dropping the first set, Henin stormed back into the match on a wave of crowd support, taking the second set and then prising two break points from Williams when up 1-0 in the third.

The American slammed the door with an ace, however, then mounted a fierce counterattack to break the former world number one twice and seal her 12th grand slam title.

“She’s a real champion. She plays the right shot at the right time … After that, mentally was a little bit harder to stay in the match,” said Henin, who won the title in 2004.

Only the second wildcard to make a women’s grand-slam final, Henin will plunge back into the tour without a ranking — she needs three competitive tournaments to get one — but leaves Melbourne Park with no world number one ambitions.

“I have some goals, of course, but I just don’t want to look too far,” said the Belgian, whose 18-month hiatus saw her trek through Central Africa and star in a reality television show.

“Everything went pretty fast, fast enough already in the last four weeks. It’s just time to calm down and think about the future. But generally, the way I felt in the last few weeks has been fantastic. So I go back with only good things.” – Reuters

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