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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- These two go way back. They've played a dozen matches over the past nine years. One came out of retirement this season aiming to win the only major that has eluded her. The other, an Olympic gold medalist, doesn't want to quit until she's won her first Grand Slam event. One wears her desire on her sleeve and the other wraps ambition in self-effacing grace. Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva, petite versus statuesque, both arguably more complete players than ever, will meet in the second round of the Sony Ericsson Open on Friday night -- the second time they will have faced off in the early stages of a big tournament since Henin's return in January.
That is a production made possible by the fact Henin is still floating in the draw much as she floats around the court, still officially unranked as of the entry deadline for this event (she's back in the WTA rankings at No. 33 this week). Fans will consider it a treat, but how about the combatants?
"I love this kind of situation because I know I'll have to give my best and to play my best," said Henin, 27, the seven-time Grand Slam champion who ended her hiatus in part because she wanted another crack at a Wimbledon title.
The fifth-seeded Dementieva refused to characterize her draw as a bad roll of the dice. "If you're coming to the tournament and you want to win, you have to beat everyone," she said quietly.
This match will be a sequel to the epic second-rounder the two played in Australia, where Henin prevailed in two tense sets, 7-5, 7-6 (6) in what ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez called the women's match of the season thus far: "They were toe-to-toe the whole way." The win extended Henin's series lead to 10-2 over the Russian. This week, she proclaimed it the best match they've ever played, and said the 28-year-old Dementieva deserves to be in the conversation with Serena Williams as the most consistently dangerous players on the tour.
"I thought she was a much better player when I've played her than when I retired," Henin said. "That's for sure. More consistent. Her serve improved a lot, and in Australia she was at a very high level. She's a fighter. She never gives up. She goes on everything, and with a lot of intensity."
Dementieva admitted Henin walked on the court in Melbourne enveloped with a certain mystique, along with a beefed-up forehand and renewed energy for the game. Fernandez said she sensed past history definitely weighed on Dementieva's shots, making her more tentative on a few key points. "For sure, she's got to overcome that, and see playing [Henin] early as a bigger opportunity, not a disadvantage," Fernandez said.
It would be hard to call the result an upset, but Dementieva said she has since studied the video and is determined to keep recent history from repeating itself.
"To play her again after such a long time was emotional, I guess," Dementieva said. "I just want to have another chance. I think playing her after two years, maybe I didn't know exactly what to expect from her, how much she was ready physically. Now it looks like she's really in good shape and I'm not waiting for any easy points. I want to go on court and fight for every point. I'm not surprised with Justine playing well. I know her very well and she's a great champion. But it was very impressive to see her back after two years not playing. It didn't take her too much time, one tournament, and she was ready to play until the final and win the big thing."
True, but since raising tennis' collective expectations in Australia, Henin's comeback trail hasn't been completely smooth. She rested in February and returned at Indian Wells only to fall in the second round to Argentina's then-37th ranked Gisela Dulko. Henin said afterward that she never found her rhythm and added that the match proved "I have a lot of things to work on."
This week, the Belgian star pointed out that she navigated her way through a tough draw in Australia, then fell down when her path looked less obstructed at Indian Wells. Playing a top-10 player in the second round may not be all bad. "I don't feel lucky or unlucky," she said. "I just feel happy to be back on the courts."