MELBOURNE, Australia – Former No. 1-ranked Justine Henin reached the semifinals in her Grand Slam comeback, beating Nadia Petrova 7-6 (3), 7-5 Tuesday to take out the last seeded player in her half of the Australian Open draw.
Henin, unranked and playing on a wild-card entry at Melbourne Park, next will play Wimbledon semifinalist Zheng Jie, who beat Russia’s Maria Kirilenko 6-1, 6-3 to equal her Chinese record for the best run at a major.
Henin went down a break in the second set before finding the range with her powerful groundstrokes and winning seven of the next nine games to finish off No. 19-seeded Petrova.
“I just went for it with my heart. Finally I could make it, and I’m very happy,” Henin said. “At the end I played much more aggressive tennis.
“I didn’t want to go to the tiebreaker. I wanted to close out the match.”
The 27-year-old Belgian beat Petrova on Jan. 4 at the Brisbane International in her first match back on tour after almost 20 months in retirement.
Henin reached the Brisbane final, where she lost in three sets to fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters. It was Clijsters’ win at the U.S. Open last September, in the third tournament of a comeback from two years in retirement, which inspired seven-time Grand Slam winner Henin to return to the tour.
Now she’s two wins from emulating Clijsters’ triumphant Grand Slam comeback.
Henin ended a highly successful run in Melbourne for Petrova, who ousted two reigning major champions on her way to the quarters: Clijsters in the third round; and French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth.
Kirilenko had taken out big names in her section, too, starting with her 3-hour, 21-minute first-round win over 2008 champion Maria Sharapova and her fourth-round victory against last year’s finalist Dinara Safina, who retired with a back problem.
The 23-year-old Russian was making her debut in the quarter-finals of a major and struggled with what appeared to be a hip or thigh problem. She was no match for Zheng, who was a wild-card entry when she reached the last four at Wimbledon in 2008 to become the first Chinese Grand Slam semifinalist.
Zheng has a career-high No. 15 ranking and also won China’s first Grand Slam doubles titles, at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006.
“It’s very amazing for me,” Zheng said of being the first Chinese player to reach the Australian Open semifinals. She said her victories here in doubles helped. “I feel this court for me is lucky.”
Henin retired suddenly in May 2008 while holding the No. 1 ranking and has not played at a major since losing in the quarter-finals to Sharapova at the 2008 Australian Open. Henin won the title here in 2004 and reached the final in 2006, when she retired due to stomach problems against Amelie Mauresmo of France.
The loss to Sharapova confirmed to Henin that she needed a break.
“There was my little voice that was saying to me that I should go away because I needed something else at that time, to breathe differently again without tennis,” she said. Since her comeback, her inner feelings have changed, she added: “Little voice that is very positive. Thank you.”
Henin’s ability to lift her intensity on key points showed against Petrova, who has never gone past the semifinals at a major.
After being forced to a tiebreaker in the first set, Henin raced to a 6-1 lead and clinched it, two points later, with one of her classic backhand winners.
In the second set, Henin was trailing 0-3 when she started to climb back. She won the next four games to take a 4-3 lead.
The next four games went on serve to give Henin a 6-5 lead.
Belgian flags waved from the stands and Henin walked out to the baseline pumping her fist, swinging a practice backhand and jogging in place, determined to break Petrova’s serve. And she did, to a standing ovation from the crowd.
During the match, Royal Australian Air Force fighter jets roared overhead, canons exploded and helicopters whirred past, all part of the celebrations for Australia Day.
In mixed doubles action, Toronto’s Daniel Nestor was eliminated in the second round of competition when partner Daniela Hantuchova withdrew due to illness.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams ended local hopes of breaking a three-decade drought at the Australian Open on Monday, the eve of the national holiday.
Federer beat former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 – his 15th straight win over the Australian – and defending champion Williams defeated No. 13 Samantha Stosur 6-4, 6-2 in back-to-back fourth-round matches on Rod Laver Arena.
“It’s important when you’re playing a local girl to not let the crowd get too involved or else they’ll kill you,” said Williams, who only conceded seven points on her serve in the 65-minute match.
The main story lines after Monday’s play: Federer will play Nikolay Davydenko; and 2008 champion Novak Djokovic will meet 2008 runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals.
Serena and Venus Williams are each a win away of setting up a sisters semifinal.
Venus Williams advanced with a 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 win over Francesca Schiavone and will play No. 16 Li Na, who ousted U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-3. Li beat Venus in the 2008 Beijing Olympics quarter-finals, their only previous meeting.
Four-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams will play seventh-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who won the last 10 games to beat No. 9 Vera Zvonareva of Russia 4-6, 6-4, 6-0.
On the men’s side, No. 10 Tsonga had to go five sets for the first time in a career that has spanned 11 Grand Slam events to edge Spaniard Nicolas Almagro 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-7 (6), 9-7.
Davydenko held off No. 9 Fernando Verdasco 6-2, 7-5, 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3 to extend his winning streak to 13 matches, including victories over Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal.
Nadal, the defending Australian champion, takes on No. 5 Andy Murray on Tuesday night.