Cli­jsters and Henin add a new di­men­sion

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

IN HER Grand Slam come­back, Kim Cli­jsters up­set Ser­ena Wil­liams en route to claim­ing the US Open ti­tle.

Wil­liams was re­ally, re­ally up­set in that semi­fi­nal last Septem­ber and it cost her the match and a record fine.

Four months later, the re­turn of an­other Bel­gian from a pre­ma­ture re­tire­ment has bol­stered the field at the Aus­tralian Open and cre­ated a com­pelling women’s draw in the year’s first Grand Slam tour­na­ment.

Justine Henin, who has won seven Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tles and quit in May 2008 while hold­ing the No. 1 rank­ing, is only one tour­na­ment into her come­back, but is hop­ing to em­u­late Cli­jsters’ suc­cess­ful re­turn to the ma­jors.

Again, Wil­liams is the de­fend­ing cham­pion.

While the men’s cham­pion at Mel­bourne Park is widely ex­pected to come from the group of top five play­ers led by Roger Fed­erer, Rafael Nadal and No­vak Djokovic _ who’ve won the last three Aus­tralian ti­tles _ the list of women’s con­tenders is grow­ing.

The women

Cli­jsters, a for­mer world No1 who mar­ried US bas­ket­ball player Brian Lynch and gave birth to daugh­ter Jada dur­ing two years away from ten­nis, has quickly re­gained her form. She has won two ti­tles in five tour­na­ments, in­clud­ing the up­set of Wil­liams.

Up­set be­ing an un­der­state­ment. It was a pro­fan­ity-laced, fin­ger-point­ing tantrum di­rected at a line judge in a semi­fi­nal loss to Cli­jsters at the US Open that cost Wil­liams a record fine of $82,500. She also faces sus­pen­sion from the US Open if she has any se­ri­ous out­bursts at a ma­jor in the next two years.

Wil­liams, win­ner of 11 Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tles, doesn’t want to talk about that any­more, say­ing af­ter her ar­rival in Aus­tralia that she’d dis­cussed the out­burst enough. Af­ter al­most two months off, it was time to fo­cus on ten­nis.

“No mat­ter what, I have to be at my best, be­cause when­ever I play th­ese young ... ladies,” Wil­liams said, “they’re al­ways at their best.”

Be­sides Cli­jsters and Henin – a seven-time Grand Slam sin­gles cham­pion who re­tired in May 2008 while hold­ing the No. 1 rank­ing – Wil­liams also has Maria Shara­pova to con­tend with.

Shara­pova won the 2008 Aus­tralian Open, but was un­able to de­fend her ti­tle last year af­ter right shoul­der surgery kept her off the tour for al­most 10 months.

Then there’s the other Rus­sians: Sec­ond-seeded Di­nara Sa­fina, a three-time Grand Slam fi­nal­ist who is re­turn­ing from a back in­jury; third-seeded Svet­lana Kuznetsova, the reign­ing French Open cham­pion; and 2008 Olympic gold medal­ist Elena De­men­tieva.

De­spite all the chal­lengers aim­ing for her ti­tle, Wil­liams con­sid­ers her sis­ter Venus, seeded sixth, her main com­pe­ti­tion. They’re seeded to meet in the quar­ter­fi­nals. Ser­ena is 13-10 against her older sib­ling in WTA Tour matches, in­clud­ing vic­to­ries last year in the fi­nals at Wim­ble­don and the sea­son-end­ing tour cham­pi­onship.

When Ser­ena Wil­liams takes the court, how­ever, she be­lieves she’s re­ally only com­pet­ing against her­self.

“You know, I don’t care who I play. When­ever I play some­one they play their best,” she said. “So who­ever I play, they’re go­ing to play like No1 on that day against me for what­ever rea­son.”

Henin won the Aus­tralian ti­tle in 2004. She re­tired with an ab­dom­i­nal strain in the 2006 fi­nal, skipped the 2007 edi­tion and then lost to Shara­pova in the 2008 quar­ter­fi­nals.

Ser­ena Wil­liams, who has won three of the seven ma­jors since then, missed a chance to play Henin this week. The 27-year-old Bel­gian with­drew from the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional with a thigh strain af­ter los­ing the Bris­bane fi­nal to Cli­jsters.

Henin’s re­tur n has raised ex­pec­ta­tions.

“This is go­ing to be one of the great­est events for women’s ten­nis,” Shara­pova said. “The come­backs are great story lines. ... As far as ri­val­ries, I’m sure we can cre­ate some this year.”

Henin has been on the mend, prac­tic­ing this week in Mel­bourne to give her sore left leg a work­out.

Af­ter the Bris­bane fi­nal, she said she was ex­hausted, but en­cour­aged by her ef­forts. She’d ral­lied from a set and a break down, then wasted two match points in a dra­matic, see­saw­ing en­counter that Cli­jsters won 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6).

“I’m so proud of what we did on the court,” Henin said. “I didn’t play a tour­na­ment in 18 months and I’ve been able to com­pete with re­ally one of the best play­ers in the world. It was a drama from the beginning to the end.”

Cli­jsters agreed the Bel­gian pair “set the bar pretty high for our­selves for the rest of the year.”

The men

The ri­val­ries in the men’s draw are al­ready es­tab­lished.

Fed­erer fin­ished his last match in Mel­bourne Park in tears af­ter a five-set fi­nal loss to Nadal cost him a chance of equal­ing Pete Sam­pras’ record of 14 ca­reer Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tles.

In the wake of that de­feat, he won his first French Open ti­tle to equal Sam­pras’ mark and com­plete a ca­reer Grand Slam of all four ma­jors. He went on to add to the Grand Slam record and re­gain the No. 1 rank­ing by out­last­ing Andy Rod­dick in the Wim­ble­don fi­nal.

But just on the cusp of a third con­sec­u­tive ma­jor, he was up­set in the US Open fi­nal by Ar­gen­tine Juan Martin del Potro, end­ing the Swiss player’s run at five straight ti­tles in New York.

The win was a boost for Del Potro, who dis­placed Andy Mur­ray at No 4 last week to en­sure he’ll avoid the top three play­ers at least un­til the semi­fi­nals at Mel­bourne Park.

In 2009, Fed­erer lost to Mur­ray in Doha, Nadal in Mel­bourne and to Djokovic at Mi­ami in March.

Then as Nadal strug­gled with in­jury, Fed­erer found his rhythm.

“I got bet­ter and bet­ter as the sea­son went on,” Fed­erer said. “I was able to bounce back and was on a roll. I can do it again. That’s a good feel­ing to have.”

Mur­ray said he felt more con­fi­dent than ever of end­ing his ma­jor drought af­ter winning three sin­gles matches for Bri­tain at the Hop­man Cup.

Right af­ter that, he lost to Spa­niard Tommy Ro­bredo in the fi­nal of the in­ter­na­tional mixedteams event.

Fed­erer com­plained of a sore right shoul­der when he lost the Doha semi­fi­nals this month to Niko­lay Davy­denko. But he has played down any in­jury con­cerns since arriving in Mel­bourne. Del Potro, mean­while, with­drew from an ex­hi­bi­tion tour na­ment at Kooy­ong with a sore right wrist, but it wasn’t se­ri­ous, said his agent, Ugo Colom­bini.

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