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Henin-Mauresmo rivalry fading before our eyes

1/17/2008 - Tennis
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

MELBOURNE -- They're on the same side of the draw and can't meet in the championship match here. That's probably a good thing for Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo, who don't need to rehash the letdown both felt when Henin withdrew due to illness in the second set of the Australian Open final two years ago.

They've long since moved on, although in the past year, they've moved in completely different directions. World No. 1 Henin is on cruise control, having won all 30 of her matches since last year's Wimbledon semifinal. The 18th-seeded Mauresmo fell out of the top 10 for the first time in seven years last fall and took a real cruise to get away.

"I needed some time off," Mauresmo said Wednesday after she labored to a 6-4, 7-6 (5) win over No. 85 Yaroslava Shvedova of Russia to advance to the third round. "I needed to spend some time for myself and really quality time to figure out what I really want for the -- first for the rest of that season, but then for the future, as well. Make sure I really, you know, rest.

"I went on a boat on the Mediterranean Sea and not doing really anything special but just relaxing. That was it."

Both have some heavy seas to sail if they're to meet in the semis. Henin has an alarmingly dominant-looking, newly confident Maria Sharapova in her quarter, and if Mauresmo has trouble closing out Shvedova, what are her chances against Serena Williams?

Yet the thought of another Henin-Mauresmo prize fight is appealing, if only because their history is so rich and their sustained rivalry so rare in the women's game today.

Henin has won eight of their 14 matches; all but two have been played in the semifinal or final of a tournament. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about their record is that surface doesn't much matter. Henin leads 5-4 on hard court and 2-1 on clay and they've split their two meetings on grass.

Mauresmo said she devoted considerable thought to how much effort she wanted to invest in this season. It's an understandable preoccupation. She's in her 15th year as a pro, she'll turn 29 this year, and she achieved a career ambition and defied the doubters by beating Henin to win Wimbledon six months after their anticlimax in Australia.

Last year wasn't exactly a sign from above that she should continue. Mauresmo had to stop playing abruptly last March to have an emergency appendectomy. She missed two months and pushed herself to come back in time for the French Open in May, where neither the surface nor the nationalistic pressure has ever suited her.

Her best and most dramatic match in 2007 was a loss to -- naturally -- Henin, in the finals on grass at Eastbourne in England. Mauresmo exited Wimbledon in the fourth round, played Fed Cup the next week and then had to take another two months off with a strained groin muscle. The same injury flared up again last week, forcing her to withdraw from the tune-up event in Sydney.

Wednesday's match turned into a mild nightmare for Mauresmo when Shvedova clawed back from a 5-1 deficit in the second set to force a tiebreaker and fended off nine match points while both women struggled with their serves.

Mauresmo's next opponent is a local, sort of, from the other side of the island -- the delightfully happy-to-be-here No. 78 Casey Dellacqua, who took down 15th seed Patty Schnyder and regaled reporters with a description of buying three-for-$30 shirts at Target before Nike opened its closet for her. Henin will face 25th seed Francesca Schiavone of Italy, who has never beaten her in six tries.

There's no doubt about Henin's motivation. She missed the Aussie last year while dealing with her divorce and didn't even watch it on television. Although Wimbledon remains her elusive white whale, she said she'd like a repeat of her winning performance here in 2004.

She revealed another facet of her desire, oddly enough, in a conversation about the daytime glare on the new blue courts at Melbourne Park. Henin likes to play early matches, when the sun is high, but said even her trademark baseball cap wasn't enough to shield her eyes Wednesday.

"When you wear contact lenses, your eyes are more sensitive to light," she said. "I dream of having [laser] surgery on my eyes, but I'm going to wait until my career is over, because there are always risks."

Good on her for safeguarding a precious asset, although it does seem like Henin is seeing the ball pretty well these days. By contrast, Mauresmo spoke Wednesday of trying to find her confidence as if it were a set of misplaced car keys. "If I had an answer, I would have managed things better," she said of the attenuated end of her match.

It would be a shame if these two never met on a big stage again, if only because the old dichotomy of the likeable Mauresmo and the aloof Henin has evaporated. As soon as Henin hit her personal stride, it let all of us focus on the great matchup and the ever-fascinating physics that play out when power meets finesse.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.