The women's Australian Open final will have a lot to live up to if it is to match the dramatic possible dress rehearsal staged yesterday by Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, the two brilliant Belgians who left a massive void in the game during the time they spent together in premature retirement. Clijsters, who began her comeback five months before Henin launched her own a week ago, just had the edge in a thrilling resumption of a fascinating rivalry to prevail 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 in a dramatic showdown that had almost everything. Brisbane did not know what had hit it. A second-tier venue shunned by the top-ranked women on their way to Melbourne - next week's Sydney tournament has attracted all but Venus Williams from the world's top 10 - the packed Pat Rafter arena found itself hosting two former No 1s competing for a comparatively paltry first prize of Aus$37,000 (Dh125,000). The destiny of that small but significant cheque was in the balance for almost the entire contest. Firstly Clijsters took command and looked a sure-fire champion; then it was Henin's turn to hold what looked an unbreakable grip on what would have been a 42nd career title.
Neither player could press home their dominant situations and it was no surprise when the 2hr 23min contest needed to be decided by a final-set tie-break. Even then it had to be settled twice because Clijsters, arms aloft in a mixture of elation and relief, was initially denied her moment of glory by the most outrageous of line calls on the second of her four match points. Even Hawk-Eye was not required to confirm that Clijsters had hit the cleanest of winners and that the sideline judge had made the most horrendous of errors. Somehow Clijsters composed herself and, after seeing a further match point slip away, she summoned up the strength to accept her fourth, presented to her by Henin's 11th double fault. That desperately tight verdict left Henin lamenting her own failure to accept the two match points that came her way in the 10th game of the final set. "What a match," gasped an exhausted Clijsters as she celebrated her 36th singles title. "We've set the bar pretty high now for the rest of the season," added Clijsters, who earned a prolonged standing ovation when it was announced that she donated her prize money to the local children's hospital.
Henin told the crowd at the presentation ceremony to bear with her as she had forgotten how to make a speech in the time that she has been absent from a sport she left when sitting unrivalled at the top of the rankings in May 2008. She made a good effort though to find the words to describe her disappointment at failing so narrowly to make a triumphant return to competitive action which will resume when she takes another wild card place among the high class Sydney line-up. There is every chance that she will be able to assess the level of her form and fitness against world No 1 Serena Williams in Sydney. The American, holder of the Australian Open, has a bye into the second round of that Medibank International tournament where she will face the winner of the first-round encounter between Henin and Spaniard Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. Both Henin and Clijsters will then be at the mercy of the draw for the Australian Open. There is a possibility, tantalising but unwelcome of them both coming out in the same section of the draw with one of the Williams sisters who are their main rivals for the Melbourne honour. Let us hope instead for the two re-emerging Belgians and the two powerful Americans to occupy separate quarters. If so, a vintage Open is in the offing. @Email:email@example.com