Down Under: Where did the last 18 months go?
It’s almost as if she never left.
All eyes were on Justine Henin as she began her comeback in Brissie today. Pat Rafter Arena, full-house, second seed Nadia Petrova. The stage was set for one helluva first round match and the girls did not disappoint.
All throughout the off-season, the Henin camp had been keeping expectations low for the Australian circuit of the tour coming up, but it is hard not to expect things when Justine defeats an in form Nads in straight sets to kick off her season.
Given that it was Nadia Petrova standing on the other side of the net, I expected some clothing malfunction and a whole lotta implosions. I got neither.
Petrova was surprisingly steady throughout the match, serving big, rallying solidly and charging forward when the opportunity presented itself. The two sets mirrored each other, with Justine and Nads going toe-to-toe until 5-all, when Justine broke and served out each set, 7-5 7-5.
What was surprising was how little rust Henin had. All the aspects of her game that endeared her to many were ever present – the signature backhand, the thoughtful shotmaking, the net play, the defence on the run, and the speed, not just from one end of the court to another, but the uncanny ability to stop and turn with agility…
Nadia Petrova agrees:
“It’s a different Henin. To me, it looks like she is playing better tennis than when she retired.
“She really plays a completely different style. She tries to be very aggressive and taking her opportunities straight away.
“Before it was always like long rallies and more like a claycourt player and now she’s becoming a really aggressive player.”
Henin claims that her new aggressive style will help with her longevity in the game.
“I tried to be a bit more aggressive but, physically, if I am going to play on the tour for a few years I need to be more aggressive,” she said.
“It’s only the beginning and I feel better today than I did when I retired that’s for sure, both emotionally and mentally.”
That’s not to say there was nothing lacking in her game. Henin came back from retirement with a higher ball toss and shorter forehand backswing. Part of the Career 2.0 package she’s been working on over the off-season that’s supposed to benefit her quest for Wimbledon and slam glory.
Serve-wise, 6 aces to 3 DFs, not at all shabby by WTA standards. Although the first serve percentage was atrocious for most of the match, she was winning 90% of the points on first serve. The jury’s still out on whether productivity for percentage is a fair trade in the case of Justine Henin.
But so far, so good. It was lovely to watch these ladies kick off their seasons with a lively, competitive match. Power, speed, and versatility. They gave us a bit of everything. With Serena, Clijsters and Henin already favoured by the bookies for the Australian Open, the last two years of the WTA merry-go-round starring Ivanovic, Safina and Jankovic seemed but a distant bad dream.
I didn’t realise it was 2005.
Mentioning bad dreams, earlier in the day, Ivanovic won her first match since Rogers Cup 09, defeating Jelena Dokic 75 16 63.
Compared to the match between Henin v Petrova match that followed, this match represented all the woes of women’s tennis – double faults, neurotic ball tosses, mental paroxysms, the inability to maintain leads or control momentum.
Dokic was the better player for most of the first and second set, but her refusal to hold back on the second serve costed her 11 double faults, and ultimately the crucial third set. Ivanovic should be pleased to have at least a win to start her year. I’m just not sure it was so much her doing as Dokic’s undoing.
And if there was one thing I hate as a tennis fan, it’s matches won or lost on errors rather than positive play.