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Tennis: Williams reigns but Henin oncourse to challenge dynasty

The title went to Serena Williams but as many plaudits were awarded to Justine Henin. Williams, the defending champion, won her fifth Australian Open title on Saturday, beating Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 in the final. The American, however, knows that the Belgian's remarkable return has transformed the landscape of women's tennis.

Twelve months ago, when she humiliated Dinara Safina here in a final that lasted under an hour, Williams' only realistic challenger for any of the game's major honours away from clay courts was her sister, Venus. Kim Clijsters' winning return at the US Open in September offered hope that she would provide lasting competition, but her fellow Belgian, despite having played only two events since starting her comeback, is already looking like a more significant long-term rival.

Clijsters' New York triumph was her second Grand Slam success. Henin, who was world No 1 when she retired in May 2008, already has seven major titles and for a while on Saturday looked to be on the way to her eighth. She won 15 points in a row in taking the second set and going 1-0 up in the decider before Williams found her range on her serve and groundstrokes.

Henin (27) will not even have a world ranking until she plays her third comeback tournament. Carlos Rodriguez, her coach for the last 14 years, believes she is still six months away from returning to her peak, but the signs are that she could eventually be better than ever. In the last month she has won 10 matches, beaten Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova and Ana Ivanovic, and lost only to Clijsters and Williams, in the Brisbane and Melbourne finals respectively.

Although Henin needs to work on her serve in particular -- she double-faulted six times in Saturday's final, often at crucial stages -- the rest of her game looks in good shape. Her driven backhand, once described by John McEnroe as the greatest shot in tennis, is still a glorious stroke, and there is a beautiful fluency about her slice.

Most importantly of all, Henin has at last heeded Rodriguez's advice to play a more attacking game. She has better volleys than most modern players and has such quality on her groundstrokes that it was always logical for her to attack the net more. Choosing when to go forward is crucial, however, and Henin also needs to play the big points with her former assurance. That should come with time.

"I've learned a lot of things in the last few weeks,'' Henin said. "Many things were positive in my game, on and off the court. I really enjoyed every moment of it. But I also know the way is still long in terms of where I want to go as a tennis player. I know I'll have to work harder. I'll do it, for sure."

Williams said Henin had taken her "to the umpteenth level'' and added: "She clearly hasn't lost a step at all since she's been gone. I feel like I played a girl who's been on the tour for the past five years without a break."

This was Williams' 12th Grand Slam singles title, putting her level with Billie Jean King. It was an admirable performance considering the amount of strapping she has been wearing around her right thigh and left knee and the fact that she still found the energy to win the doubles title here with her sister.

"I pulled a hamstring in Sydney,'' Williams explained. "Then something happened to the side of my leg in Sydney. I tape my ankles for prevention, but in the third round I twisted my ankle. I also fell against Victoria Azarenka and hurt my wrist."

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She added: "I felt like we both were out there trying to kind of prove something. I think we both did at the end of the day." (© Independent News Service)

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