Friday, January 29, 2010

Rivalry Renewed


The Australian Open organizers couldn't have written a better script. In the first Slam final of the new decade, 11-time Slam champion Serena Williams, world No. 1 and defending champion, will face off against 7-time champ Justine Henin, the 2004 champion playing in only her second event since abruptly and mysteriously retiring from the tour as world No. 1 -- the only player in history to do so -- 20 months ago.

Serena is gunning for Slam title No. 12, which will tie her with the legendary Billie Jean King on the all-time list. Henin is going for Slam No. 8 which will tie her with Monica Seles on the all-time list and move her past Venus Williams into second place among active players behind Serena.

There's mutual respect and a few vials of bad blood. Henin will never be able to live down her infamous hand shenanigans in the Roland Garros semifinal, which ultimately cost Serena the match and a chance to defend her first Roland Garros title. And after a string of successive defeats in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2007, Serena virtually ran Justine off the tour with a 6-2, 6-0 beatdown in the quarterfinals of Key Biscayne in 2008.

A few weeks ago, when the Sydney draw came out, Serena and Henin were to face off in a potential second-round encounter. But Henin withdrew citing injury. She had just completed a grueling three-set final against her Belgian rival Kim Clijsters in the Brisbane final, so the tennis world would have to wait to see these mulitple Slam champions go at it.

Didn't have to wait too long. Some are calling it a dream final, others a cat fight. Based upon the player's current form, the encounter could be over in an hour. Serena's serve and return are the key. As much as Henin fights, her serve hasn't held up well throughout the fortnight. But her opponents haven't been able to fend off her aggressive return game to hold their own serves.

Serena went through four rounds without dropping serve and it wasn't until nerves overcame her at the outset of her quarterfinal encounter against Victoria Azarenka that she finally surrendered a service game. Several of them. But if she's comfortably holding serve -- she's served the most aces (53) and clocked the fastest serve (126.7 MPH) through 6 rounds -- and breaking serve at will, Henin won't win a set.

But Serena is trying to defend a Slam title for the first time since Wimbledon 2003. And while she asserted in a presser that she doesn't enter events to defend titles but to win them, I can't imagine some nervous pressure won't leaden her feet in the first few games of the match.

Henin, who recently admitted being afraid of playing Serena, could play with nothing to lose or as anxiously as she did against Elena Dementieva in the second round. Either way, her second serve is a wasteland and her penchant for double faulting at the crucial junctures of a match could be her undoing. However, if she's cracking forehand winners with that shorter backswing and earlier contact and wearing Serena down with dropshots, she could take Serena the distance.

Serena leads their career head-to-head 7-6. The American is 4-1 on hardcourts, the Belgian, 4-2 in Slams. They're tied at 2 wins apiece in event finals. Amazingly, this will be their first match in a Slam final and their first match in Melbourne.

Even though Serena has never lost a final Down Under, she's never won the title in an even year. Henin's only Australian Open title came in an even year.

ESPN will air the finals live at 3:30AM eastern standard time. Take your naps, set your alarms, prepare the popcorn and get ready for the fireworks.


Cross posted to Huffington Post


chad said...

Mentioning the factors you have here, you'd have to go with Serena for the final.

But I think Justine is going to come through in 3 sets. I think she wants what Clisters got late last year. Combine that with Serena's 'preventative measures' like taping her leg - and I think Justine's got a real shot.

Running Serena around will be the key for Justine and of course...serving. Serena is a Clydesdale horse of a tennis player. Strong, but large. I don't mean this offensively (I'm a Clydesdale horse on the court too). She really looked ragged in her semi with Li Na although she fought beautifully. But had she lost that 2nd set tiebreak, it could have been a completely different match.

Justine will need to make Serena go the distance. If she can do that...she's got a chance.

Beth said...

Craig, I want to do what I can to see this but I'm going out tonight...sigh....I will just have to subsist on what little winks I can catch before 3:30am. Love the write up. Good stuff Craig.

Beth said...

BTW, am not a Serena follower and don't know her game and mind set nearly as well as many of you but my gut sense is that she is TAKING this. Maybe not in straight sets but she will take it.

Karen said...

Thanks for the gut feeling Beth. Any other player and I would have been ok for them to win it, maybe even Justine herself, but you cannot come to a major in your second tournament back from retirement and win a major. It still annoys me that that is what happened with Clijsters. When things like this happen it tarnishes the tour itself as it makes it seem as if there is not much competition in women's tennis. Anyway, I am praying that she wins. I dont think it will go 3 sets. Whoever wins will do so in straights.

Beth said...

Sorry this is off-topic, but for those interested, I just read this piece on Rafa's knee injury. Looks like 4 weeks no playing.

Héloïse said...

I'd like to clarify some points:

1)Justine said she was afraid of playing Venus in the finals of Wimbledon 2007,hence losing mentally to Bartoli in the semis, and to my best knowledge she never said the same thing about Serena,and her slams QF trifecta against Serena that year,plus her back-to-back win over big sis in the US open that year means to me she was not afraid anymore at the time;

2)Justine recently told in interview that she was feeling her burn-out right after the WTA Championships and couldn't bear the wear and tear of the Tour from the go of the 2008 season. She didn't feel to train as much or fight on the court like before,and the really bad matches she had are proof for this.(How else can you explain the drop off from the stellar 2007 season?).

In her own mind,she was already gone from the Tour when she played Serena the last time,contemplating retirement and adding she had an (undisclosed) ailment that day that didn't allow her to fight on even terms with Williams.

Whatever...My point is that I feel we cannot compare the 2010 Justine with the 2008 one.And the supposed fear factor has already been considerably punctured by the likes of Kim,Elena,etc...

Flip a coin...and let's enjoy the match!

Craig said...

Thanks for the comment Héloïse. In the quote I read which I posted here, Justine included Serena but then singled out Venus.

But I agree: enjoy the match!!!

Pamela said...

What we can compare are their numbers in this tournament:

Fatigued, injured and mummified - I still give the edge to Serena.

Pamela said...

I decided to just post the stats myself:


Women’s ace leader – Serena Williams
Women’s double fault leader – Justine Henin

Total aces for Henin – 23
Total aces for Serena – 53
Average aces/match for all – 2
Average aces/match for Henin – 4
Average aces/match for Serena – 9

Total DFs for Henin – 33
Total DFs for Serena – 9
Average DFs/match for all – 4
Average DFs/match for Henin – 6
Average DFs/match for Serena – 2


Net approaches won by Justine – 84/127 (66%)
Net approaches won by Serena – 69/97 (71%)

% Points on which Justine approached – 14%
% Points on which Serena approached – 12%

Winners & Errors

Winners by Justine – 164
Winners by Serena – 191

Unforced errors by Justine – 225
Unforced errors by Serena – 147

Winner-UFE differential for Justine – Negative 61
Winner-UFE differential for Serena – Positive 44

The intangibles in my eyes go to Serena - she loves this place. Just as I would give the edge at Roland Garros to JH. I hope it's a good match.

Craig said...

That was a good preview, Pamela. Thanks for posting the stats. Makes me wonder how Martina N could claim Henin has been more consistent than Serena.

Still, it's an even year....

Karen said...

O/T - you know apart from Federer saying some stuff sometimes that makes you roll your eyes and say WTF was he thinking, I think a lot of the way fans feel about him has a lot to do with the commentators. I just heard PMac describe Federer as an emperor. WTF? Are you kidding me? This fellow is such an idiot.

Karen said...

Those stats are amazing. The fact that the numbers say that Serena should win is a good sign. As to the even year thing Craig, remember she has never made it to the finals in an even year either. In addition, this year is a leap year. Stranger things have happened. Like Justine says it will be all about who wants it more. Somehow I think Justine will want it more than Serena. I hope I am wrong.

Dapxin said...

the unknown.
as time fades away.

step in the hour,
where certainty,

exit love,
into the open,
blood, ambition.
the lone walk,
time, companion.

And little misses,
shrieks and screams,
of combat; technique,
and power;
complex combinations,
they takeover,
regulated by silence,
and breaths.

After which,
time - into yet another unknown,
remains the last winner,
ever standing,
in comfort,
or masked agony,
that it might all fade,
memories of this long wait.

time teaches,
that one waits,
one wins, and one loses.

Matt said...

Seles won 9 Slams, did she not??

Matt said...

Seles: Four Australian Opens ('91, '92, '93, '96); Three French Opens ('90, '91', '92); Two US Opens ('91, '92).

I only remembered that because I was a huge Seles fan.

I hope Henriguez NEVER surpasses Seles' stellar record.