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Good to have opponents like Maria, says Justine

Antwerp: One loss in half a year hasn’t dented Justine Henin’s confidence.

After her Australian Open defeat at the hands of Maria Sharapova last month, the top-ranked Belgian can’t win the Grand Slam. But with three majors and the Beijing Olympics left this year, she still has plenty to play for.

“You have to keep your feet on the ground. It is already so tough to win just one Grand Slam,” Henin said ahead of Thursday’s opening match at the Diamond Games, her first test since the quarter final loss in Melbourne.

If Henin needs a confidence boost, there is no better place than the Sports Palace, where more than 13,000 home fans have bought a ticket to see the nation’s greatest female sports star on Thursday.

“It will be a present to my fans. They have always supported me,” Henin said of her first WTA tournament on home soil in five years.

Henin has recently been the dominant force in women’s tennis, winning two of the three Grand Slams she played last year and building a 32-match winning streak that lasted until Sharapova looked in a class of her own three weeks ago.

The Russian had Henin on the run all the way and won in straight sets, including a 6-0 to finish it off.

“I am not a machine and it took nothing away from what I achieved in the past,” Henin said of her first defeat since losing to Marion Bartoli in three sets at the Wimbledon semi-finals in July.

“I hadn’t lost in months and that became a weight too. We knew defeat would come one day. (Sharapova) had the knife between her teeth. It is good to have great opponents like her. It will allow me to develop further.”

It was thought that Henin could equal her great idol Steffi Graf this year. The German won all four majors and added the 1988 Seoul Olympics tennis title for the only Golden Slam to date.

Henin was sure, though, it always was going to be a pipe dream. “I didn’t leave for Australia thinking that this year I would win all four plus one,” she said.

Instead, after the defeat, everything starts anew.

Overall, she has won seven Grand Slams and 40 tournaments. She has been No. 1 for more than 100 weeks. And considering her 2,728-point lead over No. 2 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia, that won’t change soon.

Henin’s biggest fear in the past few weeks has been the tender right knee she brought back from Australia. Medical treatment and more than two weeks of rest have taken care of that.

Henin gets her first test on Thursday against the 76th-ranked Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, who beat Anne Kremer of Luxembourg 6-1, 6-1.

Henin is slated for a semi-final appearance against Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia on Saturday, while a final looms against Anna Chakvetadze, who won the Gaz de France Open last week.

If all goes well, she will lift a gold-and-diamond racket studded with 2008 gems late Sunday, testimony of her second tournament victory of the year. (AP)

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