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Monday, January 18, 2010
Updated: January 20, 11:38 PM ET
Henin faces stiff test in Dementieva

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

Unseeded and dangerous, we all wondered where Justine Henin would land in the Australian Open draw. There was no first-round blockbuster, as it turned out, but pretty darn close. Henin was on a collision course with fifth seed and perennial bridesmaid Elena Dementieva, with both winning Monday to set up a showdown on Day 3.

Elena Dementieva (5) versus Justine Henin

Comeback queens winning in their first major back are all the rage since Kim Clijsters returned to conquer New York in September, and more than a few understandably backed Henin to triumph in Melbourne.

Henin drew inspiration from her performance in the final of the Brisbane International last week, a three-set classic in which she fell just short against Clijsters and, notoriously nervy in the first round of majors, emerged unscathed against another Belgian, Kirsten Flipkens in Melbourne. Yes, there was a minor hiccup in the second set.

A giddy Henin exchanged kisses on both cheeks with Flipkens when it ended, while opting for only a professional handshake with Clijsters. Clearly old wounds remain.

But Henin is facing a battle-hardened veteran who is coming off a title in Sydney, and a little earlier than she would have hoped. Dementieva continues to make waves in the latter stages of her career, proving her big-match pedigree by winning Olympic gold in Beijing and coming within a point of knocking off Grand Slam warrior Serena Williams at Wimbledon last year.

OK, "big-match pedigree" relatively speaking. Henin, after all, owns seven Grand Slam titles.

"This week is going to be special, because I'm going to be pushed very early at a high level," Henin told reporters. "It's a different situation than in the past. I know not everything will come back in a few matches. I'll need a little bit of time, but I feel great at the moment."

Henin's serve wasn't so great against Clijsters, evidenced by 11 double faults, and she acknowledged it's a part of her lovely all-court game that needs to improve. Dementieva is a fine returner, so a low first-serve percentage spells trouble. Dementieva, meanwhile, appears to have solved her double-fault woes and figures to be consistent, and solid, from the baseline.

She can tell herself a 2-9 record against Henin was all pre-comeback.

"We play lots of times before, but I think after such a long break, it's going to be all new," Dementieva said. "It's going to be a different match for both of us."

Working against Dementieva is her lack of consistency. Twice last year, including at the U.S. Open, she lost early.

"I'm not sure how Justine is going to react, but if you look at how she played against Kim, you just think she's going to rise to the occasion," said Roger Rasheed, a coach and analyst for host broadcaster Channel 7. "There's a reason why she's won all those Slams. Whoever gets through will have a path."

A probable path to Clijsters in the quarterfinals.

Prediction: Henin in three.

Juan Martin del Potro (4) versus James Blake

Juan Martin Del Potro
Will Juan Martin del Potro's wrist injury blunt his thunderous groundstrokes versus James Blake?

Del Potro is no one-Slam fluke. He's dedicated, lays low and has thunderous weapons. But his right wrist, the same wrist that gave him problems post-U.S. Open, is a big concern.

After needing four sets to get past U.S. veteran Michael Russell on Monday, he admitted as much.

"I don't feel 100 percent, but I feel much better than [Sunday]," del Potro, sporting tape below the elbow and wrist, told reporters. "I hope to feel better for my next match."

Blake has no pressure -- he's unseeded at a major for the first time in five years. And he's playing well.

Blake reached the quarterfinals in Brisbane, ousting Sam Querrey before being edged by Frenchman Gael Monfils, on the up. In his first-round match Tuesday, Blake thwarted Arnaud Clement, another Frenchman.

Prediction: Blake in four.

Flavia Pennetta (12) versus Yanina Wickmayer

Imagine a full-strength Belgian Fed Cup team -- Clijsters, Henin and Wickmayer.

Wickmayer, forced to play qualifying in the wake of a brouhaha related to tennis' so-called "whereabouts rule," toiled for 3½ hours against Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru in the first round.

She prevailed 10-8 in the third but complained of a bad back.

Wickmayer, however, has a point to prove and thrashed Pennetta to win a title in Auckland last week.

Prediction: Wickmayer in three.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.