A broad smile spread across Justine Henin’s face when she walked onto centre court on Saturday and the thunderous applause of 15,000 people swept over her.
Henin had forgotten what it felt like to be in a Grand Slam final, and she allowed herself to take it all in. Perhaps, that was a mistake.
“It was emotional, of course. I was feeling nervous, of course. But it was great,” Henin said. “It was a bit harder after that. But at that moment, it was a very nice moment.”
The storybook comeback of Henin’s return to tennis after a 20-month retirement did not end with her winning the Australian Open. Not this year at least. Nor, could she match the feat of fellow Belgian and long-time rival Kim Clijsters, who won the U.S. Open after her return from a two-year leave to get married and have a baby.
Defending champion Serena Williams ended Henin’s journey with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 win in the final that both players had rightly predicted beforehand would be as much a mental battle as a physical one.
Despite winning seven Grand Slam titles, Henin has always struggled with self-confidence. Her swift return over the past two weeks to the upper echelon of women’s tennis surprised her but she was strict with herself about keeping her emotions in check.
“Overall, I think I managed my emotions more or less well,” said Henin. “Except for tonight when it was more difficult.”
“I wanted to win so much. The desire was there, and the motivation too. But maybe there was a small lack of confidence and that was what put the breaks on me tonight,” said Henin.
“I felt like we were both out there trying to prove something,” Williams said. “I think we both did it at the end of the day.”
It was the first time in the long and intense rivalry between Williams and Henin that the two played a Grand Slam final.
“She took me to the umpteenth level,” said Williams, who has now won the Australian Open five times and 12 Grand Slam titles overall. “She clearly hasn’t lost a step at all since she’s been gone.”
Williams sheer power and stunning serve were the dominant force of Saturday’s final, despite a list of minor injuries. She played with a strapped right thigh to secure a hamstring she said she had pulled in Sydney earlier this month, a taped left calf, a taped ankle and taped wrist - from twists and turns over the past two weeks.
Emotion overtook Williams when she clinched the match, letting her racket fly and falling on her back in celebration.
Henin retreated to her bench on the sidelines and sat stone-faced until the awards ceremony started, and a smile returned.
As the runner-up Henin was called to the podium first, and the thunderous applause returned. She waited patiently at the microphone, again taking it all in and nodding her head in appreciation until there was silence.
“It’s been a very emotional two weeks for me,” Henin said, with a hand on her heart. “I thought it would never happen again and finally I could come back and enjoy the game.”