Despite roadblocks, Henin back in final

MELBOURNE, Australia -- A slew of factors go into winning a Grand Slam. Besides talent, there's the draw, injuries, personal issues and, of course, luck.

From one day to the next, a player's chances of winning can go from zero to sky high, and vice versa. Just look at Rafael Nadal. At last year's French Open, his parents were going through problems, and coupled with his bad knees, it spelled the end of the Spaniard's reign at Roland Garros.

Justine Henin, on the verge of emulating Kim Clijsters' U.S. Open fairy tale, moved into a fascinating final with Serena Williams after thrashing a helpless Zheng Jie 6-1, 6-0 in under an hour Thursday. Who knows if Henin remains one of Zheng's idols following the rout.

Williams, her calf and leg still banged up, needed two hours to beat another Chinese, Li Na, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) in a baseline-bruising battle.

Strangely, Williams and Henin have never squared off in a Grand Slam final. In the most recent of their 13 meetings, in Williams' backyard of Miami two years ago, the American prevailed 6-2, 6-0 and leads the head-to-head series 7-6.

"I'm so happy to play against her, because if I want to win another Grand Slam, I'll have to beat the best player in the world," Henin told reporters. "And that's just the biggest challenge I could get. I didn't really expect that. It's more than a dream."

For Henin, ironically, she played her smoothest and most convincing round of the tournament in the semifinals. But her path has been fraught with one obstacle after another, all of which she has overcome.

Here are the key moments when Henin's run to the final could have been derailed, but ultimately she turned it around:

Turning Point No. 1

When the names were drawn out of the hat two weeks ago, Henin and dogged Russian Elena Dementieva, the fifth seed and titlist at a warm-up in Sydney, were on an inexorable second-round collision course. Henin's health was a question mark; she was hampered by a thigh injury at the Brisbane International, her first tournament back.

The seven-time Grand Slam champion toughed it out against Dementieva, who, at this point, appears destined to never win a major. How different it might have been if Dementieva had converted a set point in a second-set tiebreak. By then, they'd already been going toe-to-toe for nearly three hours under the lights. Henin, having squandered a match point earlier and not as rugged as the bigger Dementieva, probably would have lost. Instead, Henin showed a champion's heart, converting on a gutsy forehand volley.

When asked if Henin would have had a hard time winning a third set, her physiotherapist, Marc Grosjean, paused and then said, "Yes. The two players were exhausted. I don't know who would have won."

Turning Point No. 2

The next round, Henin found herself scheduled in the late afternoon. Not good. She didn't sleep much after beating Dementieva and hasn't slept well throughout the fortnight. Grosjean worked on Henin for 1.5 hours, icing, massaging and the like.

"She went deep in the match physically and mentally," Grosjean said. "She gave everything she had, with a lot of determination. After the match she attained a high level of [adrenaline]. We took the time to calm her and treat her."

Alisa Kleybanova was no slouch, either. Henin was down and out, trailing by a set, 3-1 and 15-40. Henin escaped. Kleybanova, a big, tall Russian, realized who she was facing, and the sprint to the final continued.

Turning Point No. 3

Back to the evening, and Henin toiled for two-plus hours yet again in a fourth-round slugfest with Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, as positive as they come on court. To everyone's surprise, the schedulers put Henin up first in the quarterfinals, at 11 a.m., against Nadia Petrova.

Henin dug out of a double-break hole in the second, and the early start was a blessing.

"We were able to finish everything quite early and have a nice long night," Grosjean said. "She slept well and it helped her."

And Now ...

The thumping of Zheng, who lacks a big weapon, was just what Henin needed. Her thigh is better, Grosjean said, and two days of recuperation follow.

"She had two or three hard rounds physically," he said. "But it's her mentality that guides her through. Finally, we succeeded to treat everything that was painful, partly due to her desire and her ability to win."

While Henin's path has eased nearing crunch time, Williams has spent ample time on court in the quarterfinals (against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus) and in the semis against Li. Either worrying or uplifting, depending on your perspective, Williams trailed Azarenka by a set and 4-0 prior to rallying.

Williams failed to serve out the first set against Li and needed four match points to finally fend her off.

"I wasn't at my best today, but I'm still here, which is shocking," Williams said.

It's been a topsy-turvy road for both Aussie Open finalists, but one thing is for sure: We got the final we wanted.