It wasn't always pretty, but Serena Williams rained on Justine Henin's fairytale comeback parade to take her fifth Australian Open crown, an Open Era record.
Fighting through nerves, sticky feet, and legs heavy as wet hay, the world No. 1 picked apart Henin's game at the most crucial moments of the match for a gritty 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 victory on Rod Laver Arena last night.
It's the first time the American defended a Slam since Wimbledon 2003. The first to defend a title Down Under since Jennifer Capriati in 2002. And she finally broke the even-year jinx, winning a title in the first year of the decade to go with crowns in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009.
Serena has now won a Slam in three different decades, beginning with her maiden US Open title in 1999 at age seventeen.
With the victory, she claimed her 12th major title, equaling her idol Billie Jean King for sixth place on the all-time list. Serena now trails only Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Martina Navratilova (19) and Chris Evert (18).
With her five Australian Opens, she surpasses Smith Court, Graf, Monica Seles, and Evonne Goolagong for the most won in the Open Era. And she improves her overall winning percentage in Grand Slam finals to 12-3 (.800) the best among active players, woman or man.
Henin, who retired in a cloud of questions 20 months ago, was trying to repeat Kim Clijsters' comeback success by winning her first major entered, and to become the second unranked woman to win a Slam in the Open Era. (Bet I know who Clijsters was rooting for last night.) Despite Henin's run to the finals, she'll remain unranked on Monday. The WTA rankings system requires three events on the computer before spitting out a number before your name.
The Little Backhand That (Almost) Could played brilliantly in stretches and fought like she always fights, but it wasn't enough to overcome a determined defending champion. Despite being mummified with tape on her right thigh and left calf, and playing every day of the event for the last week and a half, including defending her doubles title with her big sister the day before, Serena had two practice sessions earlier in the day to get her feet moving and prepare for Henin's low slices.
In the first few games of the match, you would've never known. Serena had to serve 29 times, fight through two break points and five deuces just to hold her opening service game. She broke Henin's serve to lead 3-1 but faced another 15-40 deficit. She saved the first break point with a 119 MPH service winner.
On the second, a controversial line call denied the Belgian a break back. Henin played a great point to win the game but it had to be replayed because the linesperson called Henin's short volley out, corrected herself, but Serena chased the ball down and got her racquet on it. The crowd booed. When Serena struck another service winner to save break point, Henin cursed behind the baseline, and the crowd booed again. From thereon, it was firmly in Henin's corner.
Serena dropped the next three games to level the set and 4-4, but composed herself and broke Henin again in the ninth game to take the first set.
40 for 40 in wins Down Under after taking the first set, Serena was poised to run away with the match. Leading 3-2 in set two, she earned a break point on Henin's serve, but hit a forehand into Melbourne. After a few more deuces, Henin held on.
At 3-3, 30-0, Serena tossed in a wild double fault that landed halfway between the service line and the baseline. I gagged. So did Serena. She won a single point the rest of the set. Her feet froze, her mind wandered, and Henin took full advantage, striking line-cleaning winners off both wings from all over the court to win the set 6-3 and level the match.
Surely the match was now Henin's to lose, right? After all, she had the advantage of opening the third set on her serve.
After both players took an extended bathroom break, Serena returned to the court composed and ready to take names. After the match, she told Mary Jo Fernandez she might not ever get another chance and had to "man up", dig in and go for it. But that's not exactly what she did.
The intensity when these two play is unrivaled and I wasn't sure who would raise her game, hold it together, and seize control of the match. Was this see-saw affair headed to 12-10 in the third?
Momentum still on her side, Henin opened the set with a strong hold at love. Serena once again had to save 15-40 on her serve to level the match. After trading three nervy breaks, Serena finally consolidated one to lead 4-2. The finish line in view, the defending champ switched tactics, adding more topspin and less pace to her shots, spreading the court with angles instead of depth. Henin had trouble creating her own pace on the higher bouncing shots and finally capitulated another break to a fiercely focused Serena who was not to be denied.
With a strong service game, including the fastest ace of the match at 123 MPH, Serena closed out the tug of war in two hours and seven minutes. Falling on her back in victory, relief broke over her face like surf. When she finally got up to approach the net, she could hardly walk, a fortnight of fatigue on full display. Almost thought she was going to fall down again before reaching the stands and sharing celebratory hugs with her mother and sister.
A double duty champion Down Under two years running and fifth overall, Serena the Great put out an extraordinary effort. Now that she's reached her goal of equaling King's Slam victories, she may be more relaxed on the crushed brick of Paris and finally win another crown there.
Henin surely will have something to say about that.
Cross posted to The Huffington Post