Justine Henin went inches from completing two fairytale comebacks in one match before life-long rival Kim Clijsters claimed an epic Brisbane International final on Saturday night.
The dream all-Belgian decider in Henin’s first tournament back on the WTA Tour lived up to its billing and more with the pair slugging it out for two hours 23 minutes in a tense thriller.
Henin did produce one comeback during the match itself, fighting back from a set and 4-1 down, but in the end she couldn’t quite complete the overall comeback of winning her first tournament back.
The 23rd meeting between the pair had more twists and turns than a Hitchcock movie before Clijsters triumphed 6-3 4-6 7-6(6) with her fourth match-point.
Although she dominated the first set and a half, Clijsters was forced to save two match points at 4-5 in the third set to take the title.
The 26-year-old looked down and out at 3-0 down in the deciding set after losing eight straight games to surrender a 6-3 4-1 lead at a packed-out Pat Rafter Arena.
Henin’s unbelievable turnaround in her first tournament back following a 20-month hiatus after retiring when No.1 in the world stunned all and sundry.
The numerous momentum swings brought the two fierce but respectful rivals to combined laughter at one stage as Clijsters levelled at 3-all in the third with an exquisite point featuring a series of angled drop shots.
Her victory ended a three-match winning streak to Henin in their head-to-head rivalry which now stands at 12-11 in favour of Henin.
Clijsters’ surprise US Open victory, in her third tournament back out of her own retirement, suggested she had overcome the nervous attacks which had been an Achilles heel in her first career.
But she once again suffered a severe case of the wobbles just two games away from her 36th WTA title.
Her previously impregnable game was littered with unforced errors as Henin stormed back into the match to take the second set and lead 3-0 in the third.
Even when Clijsters steadied and broke back to be level at 3-all she missed a sitter of a smash on a break point for Henin to serve for the championship at 5-3.
Amazingly, the ice-cool Henin did just the same on break point for Clijsters to breathe again.
The tiebreak was a snapshot of the entire final with Clijsters shooting out to 5-1 lead when she fired down her first ace of the match, on her second serve no less, before she missed three match-point chances at 6-3.
Clijsters thought she claimed the title and raised her arms with the third but a backhand was called out.
Henin levelled at 6-6 before serving her 11th double fault, allowing the 26-year-old to close out the fluctuating encounter.
Henin’s long-time coach Carlos Rodriguez was well pleased by his charge’s display and rated it one of the best encounters between the pair.
“It was an amazing match and she looked great,” he said.
“From my side it was one of the best matches between Justine and Kim.
“I don’t expect such a high level after such a long period of time [out of the game].
Rodriguez admitted Henin was fatigued in the tiebreak but said she accepted the defeat much better afterwards by fighting back to 6-all.
“Kim is the boss there (in the tiebreak),” he said. “But the tiebreak is the heart more than the legs and the body.”
More to come.