Commentary

Can Henin blunt stronger Serena?

Updated: January 30, 2010, 2:08 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Tennis was the furthest thing from Justine Henin's mind this time a year ago.

Henin visited Congo as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, drumming home the importance of vaccinations. She enters Saturday's Australian Open final with a new perspective, so winning an eighth major would be a "bonus."

"Of course, it's an opportunity, and I see it as something great," said Henin, who ended her 20-month hiatus this month.

"But I also know it's not my whole life. There's something else than that. If I can get another Grand Slam title, I will take it."

Standing in the diminutive Belgian's way, and imposingly, is Serena Williams, gunning for a 12th major and her second in a row in Melbourne. Even Williams has marveled at Henin's return and sojourn to the finale, labeling it "amazing." The two have ample respect for each other, bypassing an ill-tempered semifinal at the 2003 French Open.

"I'm getting geared up," Williams told reporters. "I feel like I have one more match to go, and that's it, I'm done, the tournament is over."

There were suggestions, and you can understand why, that Henin might need a little more time to click than the first comeback Belgian, Kim Clijsters. Clijsters' game is simplistic, based on power and movement. Clijsters outclassed Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals, well before Serena's tirade, and completed her Belgian fairy tale by downing Danish defender Caroline Wozniacki.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Nicolas Luttiau/Presse Sports/US PresswireTop-seeded Serena Williams is seeking her fifth Australian Open title.

Henin's game is more complex and varied, and the 27-year-old faced a trickier path to the second weekend than Clijsters.

When crunch time arrived, though, against Elena Dementieva in the second round, Alisa Kleybanova in the third and Yanina Wickmayer in the fourth, a champion's will surfaced. Henin saved a set point against Dementieva with a fine winner and impressively thwarted three set points against Wickmayer. If Henin had faltered on any, she is probably back in Europe by now.

"It's her mentality that gets her through," her physiotherapist, Marc Grosjean, said.

Sounds like someone else, eh?

Henin trails Williams 7-6 in their head-to-heads and didn't want to revisit their last encounter in Miami two years ago. Williams, almost invincible at the Sony Ericsson Open, dropped a miserly two games.

Henin has much better memories of their previous three clashes, when she was victorious on clay, grass and hard courts. Just as encouraging for Henin, her thigh is much better, which might make up for the fact that her sleep patterns are still off.

What is Henin's game plan?

"I'm not going to talk too much about that here," Henin said. "I know I'll have to be aggressive generally and use my qualities. I have the determination and ambition. But I think it's going to be really mental. I mean, the one who will want it more will win, probably."

Serving better is pivotal. In the semifinals and quarterfinals, her first-serve percentage didn't top 51.

And if it comes down to a mental battle, Williams, 28, looks pretty good. Rallying from match points down en route to the titles in 2003 and 2005, and escaping against Nadia Petrova in 2007, Williams proved her mettle in Wednesday's quarterfinal against Victoria Azarenka.

Williams was just teasing the seventh seed when trailing by a set and 4-0.

"It's impressive the way she does it," Azarenka told reporters.

Williams met more resistance in the semifinals, up against China's Li Na, who is armed with a potent two-handed backhand. Williams edged Li in two tiebreakers, serving huge and covering massive ground on the baseline despite the strapping on her right thigh and left calf.

Williams got more court time Friday (with her wrist taped), defending her doubles title with sister Venus. Evidenced at Wimbledon in 2009, Williams can play loads and show no ill effects.

"We've run out of tape and been borrowing tape from everyone," said Serena, who is one Slam shy of matching pioneer Billie Jean King. "It's quite hilarious."

Ominously for Henin, Williams is 5-1 in Grand Slam finals when Venus isn't her opponent.

Prediction: Williams in three.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.