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The only thing standing between Justine Henin and her return to the top of tennis -- a comeback the likes of which we haven't seen in four whole months now! -- is Serena Williams.
That's a pretty big obstacle. A lot bigger than the one that faced Kim Clijsters, the other Belgian comeback kid, who made a triumphant return to tennis after a sabbatical of almost three years last summer. Clijsters hit a few balls, won a few matches, and the next thing we knew, she was the U.S. Open champion. But she won her title over first-time Grand Slam finalist Caroline Wozniacki, who's no Serena.
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When Henin and Williams meet in the Australian Open women's singles final, they'll be resuming a rivalry that was left deliciously (or annoyingly) hanging. Serena leads the head-to-head 7-6, although she was lucky to win No. 7. In that one, she crushed Justine 6-2, 6-0 in Miami in the spring of 2008. But that was shortly before the troubled, fatigued Henin decided to "retire" from tennis.
Before that, though, Henin had won their last three matches (all in 2007), losing just one set along the way. Henin's fans undoubtedly consider that a great omen and happily toss out Serena's last win as unrepresentative. But it's not as though those three wins Henin notched in 2007 were typical, either. That was Henin's career year.
The more relevant stat may be wins by surface. Henin is 4-1 against Williams on clay, and Williams leads 4-1 on hard courts -- the surface on which they'll soon meet. That definitely tilts the table back toward Serena.
From what we've seen in the past few weeks, Henin's game is virtually unchanged. She is still as deadly as a viper from anywhere on the court, especially with the backhand. She's still bold and quick and willing to approach the net to finish points. But she still has a fair-to-middling serve, and the number of times she has had to catch an errant toss in her past six matches tells you that she feels tentative and insecure about her ability to deliver a serve that doesn't leave her at the mercy of the returner.
The women's game is all about the return these days, partly because so few women have the raw material required for developing a great serve. Henin falls into that camp, but Williams doesn't. She has a terrific serve to go with her fearless, deadly return, and that helps explain why she has been able to handle Henin on hard courts since the very inception of their rivalry. Justine's lone win over Serena on a hard court was at the U.S. Open in that magical year of 2007.
The ability to hurt an opponent with the serve, as well as punish her with the return, is about as deadly a combination as you can create in tennis. And Serena has made the most of that one-two punch in Australia. Let's remember that there's no real strategic or tactical way to take away someone's serve -- or at least not the serve of someone like Serena. She can bring the heat like no other woman.
Of course, you can't predict how a player will serve on a given day, so all bets are off if the match becomes a track meet. But you have to like Henin's chances in a rallying and shot-making contest; she can conjure up breathtaking winners from anywhere on the court and has the nimble feet and slight build that enable her to run all day.
If Serena can win the battle of the first touch (the serve and return), she may yet prove that the WTA results of the past two years haven't been entirely irrelevant. She has made plenty of statements in the past, but with Clijsters and Henin back (and very close to the top), this would be the one with the greatest resonance.