The dream comeback moved a step closer to reality here today as Justine Henin reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open with a 7-6, 7-5 victory over Russia’s Nadia Petrova. Only Zheng Jie, a 6-1, 6-3 winner over Maria Kirilenko, now stands between Henin and a place in a Grand Slam final in only her second tournament after coming out of retirement.
Henin, who will not be given a world ranking until she has played three tournaments, needed a wild card to play here but has swept through her first five matches in convincing fashion. Although Alisa Kleybanova and Yanina Wickmayer both took sets off her, Henin has looked the best player in the bottom half of the draw by some margin.
Petrova, the world No 19, was Henin’s first opponent in her first comeback tournament in Brisbane earlier this month and once again was beaten in straight sets. The Russian, a former world No 3, has had a good tournament, beating both Kim Clijsters and Svetlana Kuznetsova, but rarely looked capable of stopping the Henin bandwagon.
The first set was close, but Henin ran away with the tie-break, in which she won six points in a row. The Belgian closed out the set in trademark fashion with a lovely backhand crosscourt winner.
What has impressed most about Henin on her return is her willingness to attack. She has always had good volleys, but her natural inclination is to counter-punch from the baseline. Here she has pushed herself forward, attacking the net when the opportunity arises, and has volleyed with real assurance.
Petrova got off to a flier in the second set, taking a 3-0 lead, but Henin won the next four games. When Petrova served at 5-6 and 30-15 Henin closed out the match with three excellent points. First a crashing backhand opened up the court, enabling her to punch a forehand winner down the line, before a forehand crosscourt winner set up match point. Finally a driven backhand return of serve forced Petrova into an error.
Henin did not feel she was at her best and said she had struggled to adapt to playing in the day. “Today was my first match in the sun actually since I came to Australia,” she said. “We were playing under the roof in Brisbane. Here I've played almost every match in night session and it was quite cloudy the other day when I played in the day. It was really difficult to find a good rhythm.
“I felt energy in a few games, and then I lost my intensity a little bit, especially at the beginning of the second set. I just tried to stay calm. When I had to play well in the tie-break, and at 5 5 in the second set, that's what I did. So I keep going. I'm happy.
“Now it's good because it's early, I'll have good recovery and two good nights. That's what I need. But it's just a great feeling to be in the semis of my first Grand Slam since I came back.”
Kirilenko, who had reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final at the expense of, among others, Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina, appeared to have a problem with her right hip. She already had strapping on her left thigh and knee and took an injury time-out at the end of the first set for treatment to her hip.
Zheng, who reached the last four at Wimbledon in 2008 to become the first Chinese Grand Slam semi-finalist, was a convincing winner. Kirilenko rallied briefly in the second set, going for her shots, but Zheng held firm and closed out victory in an hour and 25 minutes.
"It's amazing for me," Zheng said of her achievement in becoming the first Chinese player to reach the semi-finals here. She could yet be joined by another Chinese in the semi-finals. Li Na faces Venus Williams in the quarter-finals tomorrrow.