A SECOND ROUNDER TO REMEMBER, BETTER THAN MOST TITLE BOUTS

Why go on?

The match of the tournament has already been played.  I doubt that anything in the female precinct will top a second rounder sure to glisten and bounce about in my neural mush for years.  That was Wednesday’s triumphant hello-again for the ex-champ Justine Henin, her 7-5, 7-6 (8-6), victory over Elena Dementieva, a fireworks display that lasted almost 3 hours.

It would have been listed as one of the great finals – except that the Australian Open had barely begun, and this masterwork was consigned to the mishmash of the second round.

Why?

The tournament management goofed.  Henin and No. 5 Dementieva should never meet so early in a major championship.  Yes, I know the comebacking Henin has no ranking.  But she deserved a seeding on the basis of making the final at Brisbane, and holding two match points therein against that other reappearing Brussels Sprout, Kim Clijsters.  And as the holder of 7 major titles, the most recent the U.S. and French in 2007, she and No. 15 Clijsters are clearly superior to the majority of the seeded.  They may meet again in the quarter-finals.

But it’s a pity that Dementieva is gone so soon.  Adjusting seedings, regardless of rankings, is a major tournament’s prerogative.  The Aussies slept on this one.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne

Only a smidgin separated Kim and Elena as the lead went back and forth. As close as Siamese twins slapping each other with strokes sometimes unimaginable in their splendor, they had the 15,000 devotees filling Rod Laver Arena rolling and roaring appreciatively for nearly 3 hours.  Heninites swooned when she blew a match point in the tie-breaker. Dementievates did the same as she failed on a set point.  They could have gone another hour. I’ve never seen a finer women’s clash here.

Henin, the Paperweight Tiger, 5-feet-3 ¾, 120 pounds, glowed, “The crowd gave me so much.  It was a special night.  That’s probably why I came back  on the tour to live through such matches.”

Their shotmaking was deadly, most of it on the run as they forced each other to cover every square foot of the steel-blue court.  Long-legged 6 footer Dementieva didn’t have the variety of Henin –  who does? – but her groundies, the double-barrelled backhand foremost, were fierce and telling.  Winning any point was hard work, demanding punch, guile, imagination.  Oh, how they raced, keeping points alive beyond seeming limits.

Justine can do so many things with every shot, changing the spins and velocity.  Her right-handed backhand is the Katherine the Great of tennis: wily, sexy, dangerous.  Most of the gals today couldn’t spell volley much less use it.  Henin is never lost or stranded at the net.  Her closer – the second match point — was a storming, serve-and-volley crescendo.

It was over. What a way to go into the third round — against Russian Alisa Kleybanova, No. 27.

“A great fight,” Henin called it.  “I guess I’m still a fighter.” And then some.

The last time she visited Melbourne, Justine was crushed in the 2008 quarter-finals by the champ, Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 6-0.  Did that send her into retirement?.  I thought so.  She had worked so hard to compete with the big babes like Sharapova, won everything but Wimbledon, walked away 18 months ago as No. 1.

She went home, I went into mourning?  How could she do this to lovers of the sport?  Fortunately, she’s back.

“It’s magical to win this kind of match in this kind of atmosphere,” said she the returned little magician

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