Great champions come, great champions go and Justine Henin is not ready to exit yet.
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However, what was evident in her 6-4, 7-6 (8) loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round of the Australian Open on Friday is that the seven-times Grand Slam champion has major strides to take before she can become a dominant player again, and really, at the age of 28 and coming off a serious elbow injury as well as a brief retirement, there are questions as to whether she will ever be dominant again at all.
Without a doubt, deep down inside, Henin has the will to win another major, but as her coach Carlos Rodriguez told the Belgian press on Friday, she played scared against Kuznetsova. A bizarre occurrence considering she came into the match with a 16-2 record against the Russian. Yes, Kuznetsova is a two-times Grand Slam champion herself. Yes, the Russian is a powerful and capable player who can beat anyone on a great day, but that Kuznetsova admittedly began to choke serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set and that Henin was unable to cash in on a set point in the tiebreaker was somewhat shocking.
Former No. 1 Henin had had Kuznetsova’s number, taking her out in the 2006 French Open and 2007 U.S. Open finals as well as fighting off match points against her at Roland Garros in 2005. Kuznetsova decided that this time around – the first time that they had played since Henin’s 2009 comeback — that she would not fear the occasion, that she would attack her smaller and rusty foe, that she would not play passive and take it to her.
But she did briefly freeze up and allowed Henin to make a small charge. But for whatever reason, Henin continued to limp.
"The nerves came," Kuznetsova said. "They started to do a little bit of showtime. It’s like comedy. Women’s drama going on. It’s not only women’s. It’s like every match you see something, when it’s tough matches you see something like that, and then you have to fight the nerves to fight against yourself a little bit."
So she fought against herself, did go for a few lines, missed some others and in the last two points of the contest, watched Henin double-fault (her ninth of the match) and then commit a forehand error to lose the contest. The once nail-tough Belgian had become unhinged.
"Of course it’s disappointing to lose like this," said Henin. "She is just been better than me, especially in the important moments. I got some opportunities in the second set to come back, but I never really took the lead in this match. I was really too far. I never took the good opportunities and she was much more aggressive than me. So that made a big difference."
Kuznetsova has to given credit for the victory, because she really did go at her opponent, smashing serves, big inside-out forehands, as well as backhands down the line. But Henin’s continuing experiment with her serve continues to be troubling, because although her first serve may be a bit more powerful, she doesn’t get it in nearly enough and isn’t spotting it well, and her second serve, which is primarily a kicker, isn’t reliable either. Ending a two-set match with 41 unforced errors is unbecoming for the 2004 Australian champion.
At this stage of the season though, her performance must more or less be excused, as her arm is still a bit weak and her elbow still hurts her leaving her full of doubts. But if this pattern continues through the summer, then Henin may question why she ever came back in the first place, as it’s hard to stay in love with a game when you are losing big matches and spending hour after hour on the trainer’s table.
But at the very least, she’s always been driven and really doesn’t know how to fail. She’ll keep grinding a lot, and hopefully the next time she shows up at a major, she’ll play the old courageous Justine the world knows so well.
"I know I’m not 100 percent," she said. "I knew it before walking on the court. That’s why I say there are no excuses. I decided to play not being 100%. It’s been difficult in the last three days on my elbow and I just did everything that I could that it will be okay, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the best day I’ve had in my career so far. I hope next time it’s going to be better.