MELBOURNE, January 26 – Justine Henin's dream run in her first Grand Slam on the comeback trail gathered pace Tuesday as she powered into the Australian Open semi-finals where she will face China's Zheng Jie.
The 27-year-old decided to return to tennis after seeing fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters win the US Open last year, and she has more than justified the faith of organisers here who handed her a wildcard.
The draw opened up for her nicely when Clijsters was knocked out in the third round and Henin has seized the opportunity, using her vast experience to down determined Russian 19th seed Nadia Petrova 7-6 (7/3), 7-5.
She now faces the dangerous Zheng, who destroyed unseeded Russian Maria Kirilenko 6-1, 6-3, for a place in her 12th Grand Slam final.
Zheng is in her first Australian semi-final, matching her run at Wimbledon 2008, and with Li Na also still in the tournament, Chinese tennis is on a high.
Li plays sixth seed Venus Williams in the other quarter-final on Wednesday, while defending champion Serena Williams takes on seventh seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
"Henin for me is such a good player, she is so strong mentally," said Zheng, who was far too good for Kirilenko, who played with her left thigh heavily strapped and was clearly struggling in the heat.
"I just want to go out there and enjoy the match and play well."
By reaching the semis, the 26-year-old from Chengdu will return to the top 20 for the first time since June last year.
Henin, whose win made her just the third women’s wildcard to reach the semi-final of any Grand Slam after Zheng at Wimbledon in 2008 and Clijsters at last year’s US Open, said she was now daring to dream.
"I’m here again in the last four. It’s just much more than what I could expect and the dream continues," said Henin, who called it quits in May 2008 after losing her enthusiasm.
"But there’s still a long way to go. I’ll just try to be focused on what I have to do on the court and hope it keeps going this way.
"I’ll have good recovery and two good nights. That’s what I need. But it’s just a great feeling to be in the semis of the first Grand Slam since I’m back."
She had struggled through long matches in her last three rounds, defying her aching body and an injured left thigh to reach the last eight, and there was little between her and Petrova as they went shot for shot on a hot day.
Henin took the early advantage when she broke in the fifth game, seizing on three double faults to go ahead 3-2.
Petrova broke back three games later but promptly lost her serve, leaving Henin to serve for the first set.
She was unable to do so as Petrova attacked, but the Belgian played a brilliant tiebreaker, opening a 6-1 lead and taking the set in 55 minutes.
The loss of the first set fired up the Russian and she skipped out to a 3-0 lead in the second, breaking Henin twice in the process.
However, the 27-year-old Henin, a renowned fighter, clawed her way back to get the set on even terms.
Then at 5-4 and Petrova serving, Henin attacked again and the Russian faltered, sending a backhand long and ensuring Henin’s passage to the final four.
The bottom half of the men’s semi-finals will be decided later Tuesday with seventh seeded American Andy Roddick taking on Croatian 14th seed Marin Cilic.
In the marquee night match, defending champion Rafael Nadal looks to end British hopes when he plays fifth seed Andy Murray.