Commentary

Where did it all go wrong for Henin?

Updated: January 21, 2011, 4:59 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- One Carlos was in good spirits after the biggest upset of the Australian Open thus far. Another wasn't.

Carlos Cuadrado, one of the youngest coaches on the circuit, had just watched his highly talented pupil, Svetlana Kuznetsova, knock off Justine Henin 6-4, 7-6 (8) in the third round. There won't be a thrilling sprint to the final this year for Henin.

Kuznetsova has won two Grand Slam titles but so often underachieved at majors, unable to close out matches at crunch time.

"If I was her, for sure it would give me a lot of confidence," said Cuadrado, 27, a former pro forced to retire early because of injuries. "She played very good. At the end, she got a bit nervous, but we did it."

Minutes later and yards away, near the player cafe, Carlos Rodriguez, a father figure to Henin as well as being her coach, reflected on a performance that featured 41 unforced errors from the seven-time Grand Slam champion. Henin entered the affair with a 16-2 record against the Russian.

Henin, for the first time since hurting her elbow at Wimbledon, sported an adjustable strap in the match. She returned to the circuit at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, this month, having been out most of the past seven months.

Rather than blame the ailment, Rodriguez said Henin was "scared" to play aggressive. She was pinned to the baseline.

"When she moves back, Justine Henin isn't Justine Henin; she's 30 or 40 in the world," Rodriguez said. "We've come a long way, but there's a lot more to do."

Kuznetsova, congratulated by good pal Amelie Mauresmo outside the locker room, used the word "scared" in a different context.

"I wasn't scared at all when I went to the match," Kuznetsova, whose sore foot was acting up by the end of it, told reporters. "I was aggressive and I served better."

Henin's defeat opens up the draw for top seed Caroline Wozniacki, who is seeking her first Grand Slam title. Henin and Wozniacki were due to meet in the quarterfinals, or at least that's what the seedings suggested. Favorite Kim Clijsters won't be shedding any tears, either.

Wozniacki, far from dominant, earlier beat Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-3. The turning point came when Cibulkova, even more diminutive than Henin, missed a sitter at the net at 4-4, deuce on the Wozniacki serve. As expected, she did all the dictating as Wozniacki retrieved.

Wozniacki was far more creative in her postmatch news conference. Tired of getting asked the same questions, she said, she discussed the match, whether she was a worthy No. 1, her next round and much more -- without being prompted.

Henin, in her news conference, tried to pinpoint what went wrong.

Allowed to stay in the match when Kuznetsova froze serving at 5-4 and 6-5, Henin didn't kick it up a notch.

She'll be particularly unhappy about the 11th game of the second set, when she blew a 40-15 advantage. Henin coughed up an ugly unforced error, then, presented with a short forehand and stranded Kuznetsova, lacked penetration on the approach. Kuznetsova duly passed her with a backhand.

Henin courageously saved two match points at 6-4 in the tiebreaker, one with a risky, blistering forehand down the line, but a double fault at 8-8 sealed her fate.

Henin struck nine double faults, including a trio in the tiebreaker, and her forehand let her down. She made 21 unforced errors on that wing, compared to 11 on the backhand.

"I think she hit two or three forehand winners the whole match, even from short balls," Rodriguez said.

He was slightly exaggerating, as Henin struck eight, but only one in the first.

Maybe the elbow was a factor after all.

"I know in what condition I went to the court," Henin said. "It just wasn't easy for me today. It wasn't the best day I've had in my career. I hope next time it's going to be better."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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