For someone playing only her second tournament in nearly two years it was a remarkable effort, but Justine Henin fell just short in her attempt to win the Australian Open here yesterday. Serena Williams, the defending champion, beat the Belgian 6-4 3-6 6-2 to claim the title for a fifth time and underline her position as the world's leading player.
Henin, who returned to competition earlier this month after coming out of retirement, still has to play one more tournament before she is given any sort of world ranking, but on the evidence of the last fortnight it will be a surprise if she is not challenging by the end of the year for the No 1 position she vacated in such dramatic fashion in May 2008. Henin played some beautifully crafted points and in moving forward more often is looking a more complete player than in her first coming.
The pure power of Williams proved the difference. By the end of the match the American was cracking big forehands into the corners, while her serve was crucial throughout. The American hit 12 aces to five by Henin, who made six double faults.
It was a much better final than some of the women's mismatches of recent years, but it was often a lop-sided contest. Although both women played well in patches, there were not many passages of play when both were at their best.
When Henin last appeared in the final here four years ago her retirement with a stomach problem when Amélie Mauresmo was leading in the second set did not go down well in some quarters. There was as much sympathy for Mauresmo on the grounds that the Frenchwoman had not been given the chance to savour her moment of victory after so many years striving to win her first Grand Slam title.
Nevertheless the support for Henin on this occasion was overwhelming, with loud cheers for almost every winning point. The Belgian's comeback story has been big news here, while Williams' worldwide popularity has undoubtedly dipped following her foul-mouthed tirade at a line judge during last year's US Open.
Williams struggled to hold her serve at first, but it was the American who made the first break to lead 3-1. The crowd's affections were clear in the following game. Henin managed to break back in the seventh game but, at 4-5, several errors gave Williams the set. Early breaks were exchanged in the second set, which was tight until Henin took charge with some remarkable play. From 3-3 and deuce the Belgian played superb attacking tennis, winning 15 points in a row to take the set and an early lead in the decider. Williams, her right thigh and left knee heavily strapped, was looking clumsy and tired. But almost as quickly as Henin had taken command, Williams re-took the initiative, winning six of the last seven games as she finally found a consistent rhythm. Two aces helped her to match point and a backhand crosscourt winner completed the job.
Williams, whose 12th Grand Slam singles title puts her equal with Billie Jean King, said after the match that it was good to have Henin back. "It's exciting," she said. "She can definitely be No 1, especially with our ranking system, if she keeps doing well."
Henin said she was disappointed to lose but added: "I'm sure there will be a lot of positives I can think about in a few days. It's been almost perfect, though I couldn't take the last step."