Even Serena Williams likes the story of Justine Henin's comeback.
MELBOURNE, Australia — Even Serena Williams likes the story of Justine Henin's comeback.
It's an "amazing" tale, Williams said.
Only two tournaments into her return from a 20-month retirement, Henin has made it all the way to the Australian Open final. Her only obstacle to a happy ending is Williams, who faces Henin on Saturday.
"Justine hasn't been gone that long, but it's still a good story," said Williams, who has a long and intense rivalry with Henin that has never included a Grand Slam final.
The top-ranked Williams and the former No. 1 Henin have played 13 times, including six Grand Slam showdowns that only went as far as the semifinals. Serena holds a 7-6 edge in their overall matchups. In Grand Slams, Henin leads 4-2.
The last time Williams played a Belgian at a Grand Slam, it didn't go so well. Williams' tirade over a line call in her U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters cost her a record $82,500 fine. Clijsters was also fresh from a comeback after two years off to get married and have a baby — and Clijsters went on to win the title.
Henin is usually cautious about sounding too optimistic. But she was elated Thursday after winning her semifinal against 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist Zheng Jie 6-1, 6-0. The match lasted 51 minutes and was the most lopsided semifinal at the Australian Open since Chris Evert beat Andrea Jaeger by the same score in 1982.
"I'm aware that this is extraordinary," the 27-year-old Henin said. "I never would have thought that when I got on the plane I would be here in the final of the Australian Open."
Williams had a considerably tougher time. She wasted four match points before finishing off a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) semifinal win with an ace against Li Na of China, a day after her sister Venus lost to her in the quarterfinals.
Henin and Williams describe the other in similar terms — as a fighter with supreme physical abilities and the mental strength to rally for the victory.
"She is a real champion," Henin said of Williams. "A real fighter. Never gives up ... I think we respect each other a lot for that. We're both fighters. We want to win. And I think maybe we helped each other to get better."
Asked to list Henin's strengths, Williams summed them up briefly: "I think, it's a case of — what doesn't she do well."
"We bring out the best game in each other," said the 28-year-old Williams. "I think that we both just play our hearts out. I think that's what creates a good rivalry."
The return of Henin and Clijsters has restored some life and rivalries to the women's game, which has many promising newcomers but suffered some lackluster finals in their absence.
The final Saturday offers another good story line of two champions battling to be the best of their generation. Williams leads with 11 Grand Slam trophies to Henin's seven.
Williams has won all four majors, proving her superiority on all surfaces — clay, hard court and grass.
Williams also boasts more prize money from her wins, with $28.5 million since turning pro in 1995 compared to Henin's $19.4 million. The Belgian turned pro in 1999.
But Henin has spent more time at No. 1 — 117 weeks compared to Williams' 89 weeks — in a shorter time span.
Another factor going into the final is what Henin calls her mental and physical "freshness," coming back after 20 months off the WTA Tour.
At the height of her career, Henin stunned the tennis world by announcing in May 2008 that she had lost her passion for the sport. She became the first woman to walk away from the sport while ranked No. 1.
She wanted to escape her "tennis bubble" and experience life. Along the way found that she missed tennis and had some unfinished business to tend to, namely Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam she hasn't won.
In Melbourne, Henin is riding a wave of newfound self-confidence that has grown with each match. She unveiled a stronger serve and new aggressiveness at the net that have combined with her explosive speed and sublime one-handed backhand.
She has spoken about her return as if it were destined to happen.
"I feel like it's my place to be here," Henin said after her first-round win and repeatedly afterward.
The prospect of facing Williams stirs Henin's competitive spirit.
"I can't wait for the final," Henin said. "It's more than a dream. I wouldn't want it to be anyone else on Saturday because the challenge of facing the No. 1 player in the world is magnificent.
"I like it when things are difficult. And I know they will be."