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Déjà vu as old foes square up for Aussie title

The final of the women's singles looks set to be a corker with Serena Williams and Justine Henin renewing their rivalry. The match may well set the tone for the unfolding tennis year.

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The Australian Open women’s final pits old foes Serena Williams, the defending champion and Justine Henin, now on her comeback trail after an 18-month lay off.

Their path to the final came in contrasting fashion against the two surprise semi-finalists from China, Zheng Jie and Li Na. Henin was untested as she swept past Zheng 6-1, 6-0 while a tenacious Serena overcame Li 7-6, 7-6.

The battle lines for Saturday’s final are clearly drawn. The younger Williams won the pair’s last match, played on the hard court in Miami, by a convincing 6-2, 6-0. But the win lost some of it lustre when Henin revealed about six weeks later that she was calling it quits. Their preceding match, at the 2007 US Open quarters, had gone Henin’s way in straight sets. Henin went on to take the title, dispatching both Serena and Venus Williams in back-to-back victories, a rare accomplishment. And, in 2007, Henin ended the year as world No.1, having stopped Serena at the quarters at three of four grand slams. No mean feat by any standard.

Comeback kid Henin

Henin and Serena Williams have met a total of 13 times but never at a Grand Slam final. Serena leads the scoring, having won seven times to Henin’s six. The pair have never met at the Australian Open, but both have won the title before. Serena has won four times in as many finals: in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. The odd years. She will be looking to break that spell. Henin took the title just once, in 2004 and was losing finalist two years later when she withdrew, mid-match, with a stomach ailment.

Undoubtedly, Henin’s comeback this year has been spectacular. She has taken out several fancied players, including Russia’s Elena Dementieva in round 2 but most of her matches, until the semis, have been close affairs. It will be a telling factor about the depth of quality in the women’s game if she wins right after coming out of her short-lived retirement. Serena has been there before, her victory in 2007 came after a long absence from the court. Ranked 81 in the world, she trounced the once pretty-good but perhaps now just-pretty Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in that final.

For Serena, the quest is to consolidate her position as the top player in the world and to bag another big prize after her reputation took a beating following her tirade against a line judge at last year’s US Open. An old foe, with less to lose stands in her way. Serena will want her tennis to do the talking as two of the sport’s feistiest players do battle.

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