Henin to face Zheng in semifinals

Updated: January 26, 2010, 1:30 AM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Former No. 1-ranked Justine Henin reached the semifinals in her Grand Slam comeback, beating Nadia Petrova 7-6 (3), 7-5 on Tuesday to take out the last seeded player in her half of the Australian Open draw.

Henin, unranked and playing on a wild-card entry at Melbourne Park, will next play Wimbledon semifinalist Zheng Jie, who beat Russia's Maria Kirilenko 6-1, 6-3 to equal her Chinese record for the best run at a major.

Henin went down a break in the second set before finding the range with her powerful groundstrokes and winning seven of the next nine games to finish off No. 19-seeded Petrova.

"I just went for it with my heart. Finally I could make it, and I'm very happy," Henin said. "At the end I played much more aggressive tennis.

"I didn't want to go to the tiebreaker. I wanted to close out the match," she said.

The 27-year-old Belgian beat Petrova on Jan. 4 at the Brisbane International in her first match back on tour after almost 20 months in retirement.

Henin reached the Brisbane final, where she lost in three sets to fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters. It was Clijsters' win at the U.S. Open last September, in the third tournament of a comeback from two years in retirement, which inspired seven-time Grand Slam winner Henin to return to the tour.

Now she's two wins from emulating Clijsters' triumphant Grand Slam comeback.

Henin ended a highly successful run in Melbourne for Petrova, who ousted two reigning major champions on her way to the quarters: Clijsters in the third round and French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth.

Kirilenko had taken out big names in her section, too, starting with her 3-hour, 21-minute first-round win over 2008 champion Maria Sharapova and her fourth-round victory against last year's finalist Dinara Safina, who retired with a back problem.

The 23-year-old Russian was making her debut in the quarterfinals of a major and struggled with what appeared to be a hip or thigh problem. She was no match for Zheng, who was a wild-card entry when she reached the last four at Wimbledon in 2008 to become the first Chinese Grand Slam semifinalist.

Zheng has a career-high No. 15 ranking and also won China's first Grand Slam doubles titles, at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006.

"It's very amazing for me," Zheng said of being the first Chinese player to reach the Australian Open semifinals. She said her victories here in doubles helped.

"I feel this court for me is lucky," she said.

Henin retired suddenly in May 2008 while holding the No. 1 ranking and has not played at a major since losing in the quarterfinals to Sharapova at the 2008 Australian Open. Henin won the title here in 2004 and reached the final in 2006, when she retired with stomach problems against Amelie Mauresmo of France.

The loss to Sharapova confirmed to Henin that she needed a break.

"There was my little voice that was saying to me that I should go away because I needed something else at that time, to breathe differently again without tennis," she said. Since her comeback, her inner feelings have changed, she added: "Little voice that is very positive. Thank you."

Henin's ability to lift her intensity on key points showed against Petrova, who has never gone past the semifinals at a major.

After being forced to a tiebreak in the first set, Henin raced to a 6-1 lead and clinched it, two points later, with one of her classic backhand winners.

In the second set, Henin was trailing 0-3 when she started to climb back. She won the next four games to take a 4-3 lead.

The next four games went on serve to give Henin a 6-5 lead.

Belgian flags waved from the stands and Henin walked out to the baseline pumping her fist, swinging a practice backhand and jogging in place, determined to break Petrova's serve. And she did, to a standing ovation from the crowd.

During the match, Royal Australian Air Force fighter jets roared overhead, canons exploded and helicopters whirred past, all part of the celebrations for Australia Day.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press