LOUK SORENSEN has given Irish tennis a massive boost by qualifying for the main draw of a top-tier ATP Tour event for the first time.
Sorensen yesterday achieved his ambition of joining the big guns of men's tennis with a 6-2 6-7 (6/8) 6-2 win over young Indian sensation Yuki Bhambri in the $398,000 Aircel Open in Chennai, India.
And Conor Niland yesterday went tantalisingly close to emulating the performance of his Davis Cup team-mate in the $1,024,000 Exxon Open, in Doha, Qatar.
After overwhelming Spain's Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the second round of the qualifying series, the 288-ranked Limerick man suffered a heartbreaking 1-6 6-1 7-6 (7/4) defeat to Belgium's Steve Darcis.
Sorensen, ranked No 293 in the world, played in the qualifying round of two ATP Tour events last year but failed to advance on both occasions.
Now he finds himself in the 32-strong main draw along with the likes of Sweden's world No 8 Robin Soderling, who beat Roger Federer last week, and Croatia's 14-ranked Maric Cilic, conqueror of Andy Murray in last year's US Open.
Like Niland, Stuttgart native Sorensen, who today faces France's Stephane Robert, had three matches in the qualifying round.
His second contest featured a notable 7-6 7-6 victory over former world U-18 No 1 Donald Young of the United States.
Meanwhile, Belgium's Justine Henin made a triumphant return to professional tennis with a 7-5 7-5 win over Russia's Nadia Petrova in the Brisbane International first round yesterday.
Playing her first official match in 20 months, the 27-year-old Henin showed she had lost none of her fighting qualities as she ground out a hard-fought victory.
Henin quit tennis in May 2008 when she was ranked world No 1 but announced last year she was making a comeback.
She has been training for five months in preparation for the Australian Open, which starts on January 18, and sent an ominous warning that she is deadly serious about getting back to the top.
"I have been waiting for this moment for so long. I am so happy about what I did on the court," she said. "It's only the beginning and I feel better today than I did when I retired, both emotionally and mentally."