As Serena Williams acknowledged the day before her 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Justine Henin in the Australian Open final, the outcome would be seen as a defining result for her, because elite players’ careers are largely judged by how they perform against their most heated rivals.
Had she lost to former No. 1 Henin, it would have been the fifth time in seven occasions that the scrappy Belgian would have beaten her in a major, their head-to-head record would have been even at seven and there could be an argument made that Henin was a better big-match player.
This likely won’t be the last time we’ll see Justine Henin and Serena Williams battle in a final.
Despite a couple of serious lapses in the match, the American seized control of the contest midway through third set, running off four consecutive games to grab her fifth Australian Open title Saturday. While Williams appeared nervous at times, she was able to calm herself and more than matched the intensity of a super-focused Henin.
“I watched Serena at practice today and there was something about her and how she stepped on court and I could see in her eyes how competitive she was,” her touring coach Sasha Bajin told FOXSports.com. “I fed her a her short ball and she didn’t stop and attacked and came in straight to net and did her thing. You could tell she really wanted it, even though there was big pressure. Justine has beaten the last three times in a Grand Slam so it was really big.”
Henin tried to put a tremendous amount of heat on Williams, but her often-poor serving hampered that effort.
And Williams — playing with a few yards of bandages wrapped around her limbs — was determined to hustle and was quick to the ball most of the night. She may not have the reputation as the tour’s hardest worker, but Bajin said she busted her hump during the offseason to prepare herself for Australia and it was clear during a fortnight in which she was battling hamstring, ankle, wrist and toe injuries and played singles or doubles every day, that she was in peak condition
Henin tried to yank her around, mixed in slice backhands and hard drives, leap at her second serves, and go hard at her forehand. But except for an blinding stretch from 3-3 in the second set to the second game of the third set when the Belgian’s game went up to the heavens and she ran off 15 straight points, Williams held firm.
Serving down two break points at 0-1 in third set, Williams crushed a 122 mph ace and then nailed a swing volley winner and eventually held. Her box stood up and cheered.
“Venus was really supportive out there,” Williams said. “I remember in the third set, I was down, and I heard her say, ‘Come on, Serena.’ It’s OK, right here, right here. And, honestly, that really got me pumped up.”
Then she tuned up her groundstrokes, sensed that Henin was wavering and pushed forward. The Belgian began to mentally tire, and after she made a bad crosscourt backhand error to be broken fall behind 2-3, she was all but gone.
“She’s a real champion,” Henin said. “She plays the right shot at the right time. She served great at that time. After that, mentally was a little bit harder to stay in the match.”
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Photos: Early rounds | Semis | Finals
Williams served out the last game with tremendous authority, nailing two 120 mph aces down the center, jamming Henin with an unreturnable serve and winning the contest with a wicked backhand crosscourt winner.
On this night, power and mental fortitude mattered more than variety and hope.
“To take a Grand Slam final away from Serena takes big effort,” Bajin said.
Some might have thought that winning her 12th Slam wouldn’t matter than much to the 28-year-old Williams, but that’s not the case. After winning the contest, she fell on to her back and celebrated, almost as if she had won her first major. In her acceptance speech, she pointed out former U.S. great Billie Jean King, saying ‘I tied you Billie.”
Serena has been aiming for King’s mark since Wimbledon, when she won her 11th major in a victory over Venus, knowing that tying one of her idols and biggest supporters were place her even more among the greats.
“She could have been the greatest ever (record wise) and I still think that when she plays her best, that she is the best ever,” King said. “She’s smarter, and has the power and the speed. But what I really appreciate is how much she’s grown up. She’s so much better now at recognizing the other players now. There’s life after tennis and you want to be well adjusted when you retire.”
There are lot of people in tennis who don’t think that Williams has matured much and didn’t take enough personal responsibility for the her U.S. Open implosion last September, when she threatened to shove a ball down a linewoman’s throat.
But Williams feels she’s turned it into a positive and hasn’t let the criticism get to her. She’ll be opening up a second school in Kenya in March and doesn’t have time to think about her past transgressions. She wants to focus on giving back to society as a whole.
“I don’t hear or read anything and I’m in my own bubble,” she said. “It’s OK to make a mistake and learn from it and move on. One moment doesn’t make one person’s career. It’s all about the moments you’ve put together.”
Williams has a great shot to pass King with 13 Slam titles, but doesn’t think she has much of a chance to tie the next two in the record books, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who have 18 each.
“Six away, that’s crazy,” she said.
But there is one legend she does have a chance to run down, men’s No. 1 Roger Federer, who owns 15 majors.
“I was trying to hunt Roger down and he kept winning,” she said. “He won the French and I was like dude, stop. And then he won Wimbledon. It’s really frustrating. But the guy is amazing