Henin grinding her way back

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Three months before Justine Henin ended her 19-month sabbatical in Brisbane, Australia, Kim Clijsters' comeback essentially began with the hoisting of the U.S. Open trophy.

Clijsters, who left the game to have a daughter, played two tournaments -- a scant total of seven matches -- then ran the table last fall in New York, beating both Williams sisters in the process. It was an unlikely, yet charming turn of events, which concluded with young Jada, blonde curls cascading, cavorting about the court.

Charming, unless you are Henin, who shares the claustrophobic airspace of being Belgian with Clijsters. Expectations were raised, of course, something Henin didn't need as she navigated a physical and emotional path back to the top of women's tennis.

Ever the competitor, she reached the final of her first tournament -- only to lose to Clijsters. And then Henin, 27, made a sensational, Clijsters-like run at the Australian Open. She won her first six matches before losing to Serena Williams in the final.

The hangover was sobering, to say the least.

A seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, Henin lost to Gisela Dulko in the second round at Indian Wells. She's managed a bit better here at the Sony Ericsson Open. On Wednesday, she took down the WTA's No. 2-ranked player, Caroline Wozniacki, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4.

As luck would have it, Henin will face Cijsters, who beat Samantha Stosur 6-3, 7-5, in a Friday semifinal.

Her quarterfinal victory was just the kind of match Henin needs these days, to take a little rubber off those fresh tires; she aggressively stroked 52 winners, balanced by 50 unforced errors.

"I did 30 unforced errors in the first set and only 20 for the last two sets," Henin said, smiling. "I prefer these stats actually."

The match went 2 hours, 45 minutes and at the end, Henin -- whose default hue is alabaster -- had two rosy circles on her cheeks. She wearily rested on the net with both hands as she waited to shake hands with Wozniacki.

"I didn't play for two years, so it's good to be on the court a little bit longer," Henin said. "Still, physically I was feeling, I wouldn't say fresh at the end, but I could play my best tennis on my last service game.

"That was something I was happy about. It means at the end even physically I was a bit tired I could make the difference. I think I proved that I was still out there at my best, fighting a lot."

Part of fighting in the professional game is playing through injuries. Henin had a courtside massage in the sixth game of the second set and revealed that she has been taking anti-inflammatory medication for soreness in the muscles around her lower back and hips.

Wozniacki is the present and future of women's tennis. The 5-foot-10 Dane is the prototype of the larger-format players Henin has been battling for years. She has a terrific backhand and relentlessly chases down everything. At 19, she is a decade younger than Venus Williams, a prodigy. The next teenager in the rankings is Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, who at 18 is ranked No. 35.

The first set framed the shakedown issues with which Henin is wrestling.

It went 77 minutes and ended in a tiebreaker. Wozniacki was just a little bigger from the baseline, and better, too. She collected four set points, at 6-2, but then lost the next three. Henin was in position to level the breaker, but when she stepped into her classic one-hand backhand, she inexplicably lashed it into the middle of the net.

But, as she mentioned, her game got cleaner as the match progressed. Always trying to come forward, Henin seemed to wear Wozniacki down; she cracked a perfectly timed cross-court forehand winner in the final game that drew a gasp from the stadium crowd.

Whatever happens going forward, this tournament has been a success for Henin, who beat Elena Dementieva 6-3, 6-2 in a second-round match.

"It's not that easy to come back," Henin said after her first-round victory over Jill Craybas. "Kim proved in August that she could come back. I proved it in January. But after that, we have to confirm, and we have. At the beginning there was no pressure. After that, you're into it again.

"I was No. 1 when I retired, and now I have to build again. I know where I want to go, but it's going to take a little bit of time."

She says she is happier, too, after her time away from the game.

"I enjoy much more every win on the court," Henin said. "Before that it was like everything was normal, and I forget how I could enjoy my tennis. I had the feeling I was getting a little bit lost.

"I've been away to just find myself again and trust myself as a person. Now that I have this great experience behind me and to come back with everything I know that I didn't know two years ago, I enjoy my game much more than in the past."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.