Crazier and crazier it got. If this was a prevue of major title bouts in another endless New Year in tennis, get ready for high wackiness – beauty, bizarre and bumbling. But that may keep it as exciting and exasperating as the female end of the Australian Open Saturday night.
It was Sister Serena’s ball game, as it figured to be – her fifth term as champ, receiving the trophy from the only woman to exceed that number, Aussie Margaret Court, a winner 11 times between 1960 and 1973.
Roger Federer and Andy Murray grab for the men’s trophy Sunday. The Bryan Twins, Mike and Bob took the doubles over the Canadian-Serbian coalition, Danny Nestor and Nenad Zimonic, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3.
But the story line belonged to a tiny person who looked even smaller when standing beside her overpowering Rubenesque conqueror. That was Justine Henin (5-4, 120), beaten, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, in 2:07, whom we’d forgotten. Her greatness (eight majors including this one in 2004) was established when she, as No. 1, startlingly retired at age 25 two years ago.
A little voice within her told Justine that she’d had enough. But the little voice spoke again recently, saying it was a good idea to return to the game after doing other stuff like UNICEF relief projects in Africa.
We knew about the other Brussels Sprout, her old partner Kim Clijsters, shedding retirement and, with little preparation, casually winning the most recent U.S. Open.
So why not do the same? And Justine Henin darn near did it. As a wild card in her second reappearance tournament she had a good shot at spilling Serena and grabbing this major for herself. Justine, a millionaire who couldn’t buy a first serve, kept making and missing those shots that made her the game’s most versatile shotmaker. Make. Miss. Make. Miss. It was going that way for Serena, too, in this carnival of erratic performances and piles of errors, Serena leading that department, 44-38.
Nobody could get much of a lead as 15,000 witnesses filling hot and humid Rod Laver Arena alternated groans with cheers. Justine flashed some of her wizardry, but, in trouble Serena muscled her way through with aces (12) and service winners (6).
“I wasn’t gonna let my title go,” said Serena, who also reigned in 2003, 05, 07, 09, blasting then No. 1 Dinara Safina, 6-3, 6-0, last year. That is Ms Williams’s mantra: I won’t let go – making her the toughest competitor in the game. She refuses to lose.
Nevertheless she began to wobble when it seemed she would put Henin away, holding a break point at 2-3 in the second. Whereupon Henin went on a rampage of five games to take the set and a 1-0 lead in the decisive third. “The crowd was behind me; it felt good to be able to play like that,” Justine said. She rang up 15 straight points during that stretch – could she be heading for a major championship in only her second comeback tournament.
The answer: No, as Serena came back to life, and lost but one more game.
Still, Justine’s tale was just as stirring in the women’s precinct. Her return at almost full speed is important to the sorority.
“I had opportunity that surprised me, but I wasn’t able to take it tonight,” said she, who had battled through formidable foes (Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova, Yanina Wickmayer, Alisa Kleybanova to name four) on the way to the final.
She kept sporting a smile seldom seen before her retirement. “It was more than what I could have expected. I’m not used to these situations any more. I haven’t been at my best, but I was fighting a lot. I put Serena under pressure as the third set began. But she’s a real champion. Right shot at the right time. She served great. After that it was mentally hard to stay in the match.”
“I didn’t know what to expect [in the comeback]. I was curious, ready to live the best and worst. I felt I took the right decision. I got results, two finals [the other Brisbane, lost to Clijsters], so I can be really happy about that. Today wasn’t enough, but positive. I have to work on things, to improve.”
Though Serena carried more tape than a hospital store room, she had no movement problems. Maybe it was a fashion statement.
January 30 2010 02:43 am | Australian Open