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JUSTINE HENIN MAKES TRIUMPHANT RETURN

Justine Henin made a triumphant return to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour in Brisbane on Monday with a 7-5, 7-5 win over second seeded Nadia Petrova.

In her first competitive match since retiring eighteen months ago, Henin showed no signs of rust as she advanced against an opponent she has dominated 11-2 in their career head-to-head meetings.

Henin also defeated Petrova last month in an exhibition match in Cairo by a score of 7-5, 6-2, so the result should come as no surprise.

The crafty Henin only lost five points on her first serve in the opening set and broke Petrova at 5-5. She would later close out the frame with an ace.

In the second set Petrova staked an early 2-0 lead before Henin fought back and again broke at 5-5 to march towards victory.

Petrova seemed to take the defeat in stride and had nothing but praise for Henin in her post-match press conference.

“I think she is a better player than before she retired. She’s more aggressive,” Petrova said. “Previously, she was more of a clay court player, but now I see her a hardcourt player as well. She’s certainly playing high level of tennis.”

Personally, I would be embarrassed as a professional tennis player to lose to someone who has been away from the game for a year and a half. Henin however is not just any returning player. The Belgian has won 7 Grand Slams, an Olympic Gold as well as 41 other WTA titles in her career. At only 27 years old, there is still plenty left in the tank both physically and emotionally for Henin.

“I feel better today than when I retired, that’s for sure,” Henin said. “Better emotionally, mentally, better with myself—and that makes a big difference that I will enjoy being on the tour again.”

Under normal circumstances, a win over a top-twenty player like Petrova after such a sustained absence from the game would garner more attention and praise. While many eyes are on Henin, the bar has been set high by her compatriot Kim Clijsters. Winning a couple of rounds will not suffice and anything short of a title in the near future may be deemed a disappointment by some – a fact that would have seemed ridiculous before Clijsters’ incredible run at Flushing Meadows in August.

The comparisons to Clijsters are inevitable and not simply because of their shared Belgian heritage. Both took approximately the same amount of time away from the game and both are former top level players who have enjoyed Grand Slam success. The immediate returns that Clijsters enjoyed during the summer spoke volumes about the immense talent that she possesses. As much, if not more, will be expected from Henin.

Henin now advances to the second round where she will face qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva.

Isner Upsets Roddick In An Open Classic

With the crowd against him and Andy Roddick becoming more energized as the match progressed, John Isner dug deep to pull off the biggest upset of his career.

As day turned into night in front of a packed crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Isner hit a staggering 90 winners in his nearly four hour match with Roddick, bringing the crowd to its feet as he advanced into the 4th round with a 7-6 (3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5) victory.

“Once I got the first set, I knew that I was in with a chance,” said Isner. “He wore me down and had me on a string when we played a few weeks ago (in Washington D.C.), so I knew I had to be more aggressive in this match.”

The first set went by in straightforward fashion, with each player holding their serve throughout. Isner went down 0-40 while serving at 3-3, but rallied with two aces and a forehand winner to eventually take the game.

A forehand into the net sent Isner down an early mini-break in the first set tiebreaker, but he immediately rebounded with a string of winners. A backhand passing shot gave Isner back the mini-break on Roddick’s serve, and he followed it up with four more consecutive winners to give himself four set points. A missed forehand erased one of them, but a 112 MPH second serve ace on the next point allowed Isner to take the opening set.

“You can’t teach 6’9”,” said Roddick. “He’s serving out of a tree and really dialed in with his ground strokes in that tiebreaker. I don’t know if I really did anything wrong out there. He just hit his spots when he needed to.”

Midway through the second set, with Isner leading 3-2, Roddick mistimed two forehands in a row to send go down double break point. One point later, Isner guided Roddick into the net with a drop shot and then sent a backhand pass up the line to take a 4-2 lead.

The break of serve would be all that the Greensboro native needed. A volley winner while leading 5-3 gave Isner two set points. On his first one, Isner hammered down his 17th ace of the match at that point and took a commanding two set lead.

At 1-1 in the third set, Isner had triple break point on Roddick’s serve after the former US Open champion’s backhand began to betray him. With the crowd now squarely on Roddick’s side, he erased all three points and then hit a 128 MPH ace to deny a fourth chance for Isner to break.

With Isner serving down 3-4, Roddick began to display a retrieving ability normally uncharacteristic of his style. He returned an Isner overhead to force a volley error, giving him two break points. On his second opportunity, Roddick ran down an Isner volley and hit a forehand winner up the line to lead 5-3. He quickly held serve, hitting an ace on his first set point to take the third set.

The effects of the match began to take their toll on Isner. He began moving more slowly and started stretching his left leg during the changeovers. Roddick had a chance to break Isner’s serve at 3-3, but the former NCAA champion bravely knocked off a volley winner and eventually kept the match on serve.

With Roddick serving at 4-5, he hit his first double fault of the match to give Isner a match point. What looked to be the finish ended up being the last point that Isner would win in the set.

A 121 MPH ace by Roddick brought the game back to deuce and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Two more big serves leveled the match at 5-5. With the sold-out stadium chanting “Let’s go Roddick,” Isner appeared overwhelmed by the occasion. He missed two routine forehands and then hit an overhead well beyond the baseline to go down triple break point in the game. A forehand pass by Roddick gave him the break, and he leveled the match at two sets each with a 130 MPH serve.

“I wasn’t too upset about it because there wasn’t anything I could do,” said Isner. “I might have thought about it differently if it was a missed overhead or an easy shot, but he aced me. It was just too good.”

Isner went down 0-30 in his opening service game, but ended his losing streak at 13 consecutive points with an ace, eventually holding serve to start the 5th set. Despite taking an early lead, Roddick still looked fresh as the match wore on, while Isner began gingerly around the baseline, eventually calling for the trainer at 3-2.

“I was cramping a little bit late in the match,” said Isner. “He was definitely the fresher of the two of us out there, but I knew that I was still in the match.”

The two players traded service holds to force a deciding tiebreaker after nearly four hours of play. With Isner up 3-2 on Roddick’s serve, he hit one of his only cross-court passing shots of the day to grab the mini-break and a 4-2 lead.

“That’s when you have to tip your hat,” said Roddick. “I was covering the line because he had been going there all day, and you don’t expect to see a low dipping crosscourt shot at a moment like that.”

A successful serve and volley play on Isner’s second serve, followed by a drop volley winner, gave Isner two match points at 6-3. Roddick removed the first two match points with aces of his own, forcing Isner to serve it out. Coming in behind a short backhand by Roddick, Isner’s first volley forced Roddick to hit a forehand into the net. Isner dropped to the ground in celebration as the crowd rose to their feet, cheering for the arrival of a new American star.

“I don’t know if (the win) has really sunk in yet,” said Isner. “It’s by far the biggest win of my career, hands down. Nothing even comes close. And I kind of knew that if the match went a little bit long, it would turn into a night match and I really wanted to be in that atmosphere. The crowd was giving me goose bumps at times.

Ranked well outside the top 100 just three months ago, Isner will find himself just outside of the top 40 with his first ever appearance in the second week of a Grand Slam.

“If you had told me this would happen a month ago, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Isner. “Being out with mono for a month, you’re not even sure if you’ll be able to play the US Open, let alone do well. You can definitely say I’m a bit surprised by all of this.

With a fourth round showdown against No. 10 seed Fernando Verdasco scheduled for Monday, Isner said he’s looking forward to going even further in the tournament.

“It’s a great win to have, but I still feel like I can do some damage,” said Isner. “I’m not satisfied just yet.”

Kendrick crashes out to Haas in US Open

Coming into the US Open, Fresno native Robert Kendrick hoped to reach the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time, but his dreams were cut short on Thursday morning.

Facing an in-form Tommy Hass, the No. 20 seed in the event, Kendrick was unable to break Haas’s serve while facing break points in over half of his own service games, falling 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (3) on the Grandstand court.

“He doesn’t give you very many chances out there, and I wasn’t able to use the ones that I had,” said Kendrick.

Kendrick had two break points in Haas’s first service game to go up 2-0, but Haas saved them both with aces. They were the only chances that Kendrick had in the set as Haas unleashed a flurry of forehand winners, eventually breaking Kendrick at 3-3 and riding that lead to a 6-4 opening set.

An ace by Kendrick on game point at 3-3 was ultimately called a fault after Hawkeye (the electronic challenge system used at the US Open) overruled the call. Two points later, A mistimed lob by Kendrick sent him down 4-3 as he smashed his racket to the ground.

Down two set points at 3-5, Kendrick hit two service winners to win that game and make Haas serve out the set. Kendrick had two points to level the set at 5-5, but a winner by Haas and a mistimed forehand by Kendrick erased them. An ace by Haas on his fourth set point gave him a commanding two set lead.

“That was probably the turning point,” said Kendrick. “If I had won one of those points, anything could have happened.”

Kendrick soon found himself scrambling to stay in the match, fighting off a break point in his opening service game with a 126 MPH ace, and again at 2-2 with a forehand winner. Two groundstroke errors found Kendrick down break point at 4-4, but he hit two service winners to eventually hold for a 5-4 lead. Down break point once more at 5-5, Kendrick hit a volley winner to erase the deficit and eventually hold serve.

The third set tiebreaker was a one-sided affair. A volley into the net sent Kendrick down an early mini-break, and Haas soon took a 3-0 lead. An overhead by Haas on his first match point sent him into the third round.

Kendrick said he will head to Asia next to play a three week series of ATP events in the fall.

John Isner Advances Into Second Round at US Open

Although it looked like an upset on paper, John Isner’s form this summer has shown he is ready to start beating the top players on the ATP Tour.

In a match between two of the tallest players in pro tennis, Greensboro native John Isner fought off 10 set points in one of the longest tiebreakers in US Open history, and advanced into the second round with a 6-1, 7-6 (14), 7-6 (5) win over Victor Hanescu of Romania, the No. 28 seed in the event.

The first set was dominated by Isner. Holding serve easily and taking advantage of the lack of depth in Hanescu’s groundstrokes, Isner charged the net relentlessly, breaking Hanescu’s serve twice in seizing the opening set, 6-1.

“I started off so well,” said Isner. “That first set and a half was as well as I’ve played in a long time.”

After Isner broke serve early in the second set and held a break point to take a commanding 4-1 lead, the end result appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Hanescu saved the break point with an ace and Isner’s forehand suddenly began to betray him. Isner dropped serve at 3-2 with three forehand errors and a missed overhead.

“It doesn’t look like he’s that fast out there, but he gets to a lot of balls,” said Isner. “He was making me hit a lot of extra shots and unfortunately, I started missing a few.”

The two players traded service holds throughout the rest of the second set to force a tiebreaker. A missed backhand sent Isner down a mini-break as the Romanian seemed content to guide the ball into the court, forcing Isner into unforced errors.

Hanescu soon found himself serving with triple set point at 6-3. That’s when Isner began to do the unthinkable.

He fought off one set point with an ace, then another with an overhead smash. A forehand error by Hanescu leveled the tiebreaker at 6-6. Isner fought off five more set points in a row, mainly with crushing groundstroke winners that clipped the baseline. Isner reached his first set point at 12-11, but was unable to convert and sent a forehand into the net.

Isner fought off two more set points to level the tiebreaker at 14-14. A poorly executed drop shot by Hanescu allowed the American to rip a backhand up the line, giving him a second set point. At 15-14, a forehand volley winner gave Isner the second set as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

“I started off a little bit slow and obviously didn’t really want to go a tiebreaker,” said Isner. “I think he had five (set points) on his serve, and each one of his points I played really well. I told myself if I could just get one advantage, I might be able to take it.”

Isner and Hanescu easily held serve throughout the third set, with neither player facing a break point. In the tiebreaker, two consecutive forehand winners by Isner allowed him to go up 2-1. He held on the lead for the rest of the match, converting on his first match point with a forehand winner to advance into the second round, where he will play Marcel Ilhan of Turkey.

Just three months after being diagnosed with mononucleosis and missing Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Isner has been able to achieve semifinal performances this summer at Indianapolis and Washington D.C, as well as a quarterfinal finish at Los Angeles. Isner said he is still working on regaining full fitness, but has been producing the most consistent string of results in his career.

“Missing the whole European swing might have been a blessing in disguise,” said Isner. “I’ve felt fresh ever since I started playing in the States.”

With his ranking currently at a career high of No. 55, Isner said his immediate goal is to reach the top 50 and ultimately, to be talked about as a player well beyond the American swing.

“I want to become a big name in tennis, not just American tennis,” said Isner.