Dulko and Pennetta First Doubles Team to Qualify to WTA Championships

ST. PETERSBURG, FL, USA – Today, Argentina’s Gisela Dulko and Italy’s Flavia Pennetta became the first doubles team to qualify for the season-ending WTA Championships – Doha 2010, set to take place for the third year in a row at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex in Doha, Qatar, from October 26-31, and offering prize money of $4.45 million.  Dulko and Pennetta will make their first trip to the prestigious Championships as a team after a successful season highlighted by winning five titles – more than any other team on Tour.  It’s also the first time that both players qualified for the year-end Championships in either singles or doubles.

“It is very exciting to qualify for the WTA Championships. We are thrilled to play in the prestigious event for the first time in each of our careers and look forward to competing in Doha against the best doubles teams in the world,” said Dulko.

“I’m so happy to qualify for the year-end Championships with Gisela as we are close friends on and off the court and it is very special for us,” added Pennetta.  “We have worked very hard this year and reaching the Championships is a perfect way to end the season.”

Dulko and Pennetta have played 13 tournaments together in 2010, winning five titles to take their career tally together to eight.  Earlier this season, they compiled a 17-match winning streak – the longest on Tour since March 2007 (when Cara Black and Liezel Huber won 22), which garnered three consecutive Premier-level titles at the Sony Ericsson Open (Miami), the Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome) and the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (Stuttgart). Their run was finally stopped by Serena and Venus Williams at the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open (Madrid), where Dulko and Pennetta finished as runners-up.

The second half of the season has been highlighted by two additional titles – the Rogers Cup (Montreal) and the Collector Swedish Open (Bastad).  Dulko and Pennetta also recorded strong Grand Slam results this year, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and the US Open.  Dulko and Pennetta have amassed an impressive 40-8 record as a team so far this season. Dulko also won a sixth doubles title this year, collecting the Copa BBVA Colsanitas (Bogota) with Edina Gallovits.

“I congratulate Gisela and Flavia on qualifying for the WTA Championships for the first time in their careers,” said Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the WTA. “They are an exciting and charismatic team and have worked incredibly hard to become the most consistent doubles champions during 2010.  Gisela and Flavia will make a great addition to the doubles roster during the WTA’s season finale in Qatar and it’s great that the fans will be able to watch them compete with the best doubles teams on Tour.”

The Pizazz Is Back With Henin Returning

The worst kept secret is finally official. Justine Henin is returning to tennis. The seven-time grand slam champion announced her intentions earlier today.

“Justine Henin is one of the great champions in the history of women’s tennis, and we, along with millions of her fans around the glob, are thrilled with her announcement today,” said Tour CEO Stacey Allaster. “Justine was that rare athlete who decided to step away from the game at the height of her powers, and no doubt she will be a force to be reckoned with from the get go. Her career was marked by so many amazing moments, and a new chapter begins today.”

One of the biggest reasons for her return to a sport she once was on top of ranked first over a year ago when the gritty Belgian called it quits is because she’s never won Wimbledon. The only major that’s eluded her from achieving a career grand slam.

“It is a dream of mine,” the 27 year-old Henin said who lost twice in finals (2001, 2006) while also coming close in a 2007 semifinal loss to runner-up Marion Bartoli. “I want to work to get it. I make it a priority.”

“I can see her winning it,” long-time coach Carlos Rodriguez told RTL-TVI network. “This fourth title, it is one of the reasons for coming back.”

During her impressive WTA career, Henin’s captured one Australian Open (2004), four French (2003, 2005-07) amd two U.S. Opens (2003, 2007) while totaling 41 singles titles, taking her place among the best. Pretty amazing stuff considering her small frame that lists her under 5-6 at 126 pounds.

On a tour dominated by heavy hitters Serena and Venus Williams along with Maria Sharapova, the feisty Henin proved her mettle by being able to go toe to toe with her bigger competition. Thanks to a solid forehand along with her signature one-handed backhand which is easily one of the best in the game, Henin has proven size doesn’t matter as much as heart to win. Along with her speed, she’s been able to come up with great angles keeping points alive while also faring well during exchanges, making for fun tennis.

Indeed, there’s plenty to admire about one of a handful of players who defeated both Williams sisters en route to winning a slam. Something her one year younger countrywoman Kim Clijsters accomplished in a successful comeback following a two and a half year break, finishing it off by besting Caroline Wozniacki for her second U.S. Open.

“Subconsciously, it might have had an impact,” Henin admitted of seeing what Clijsters accomplished in just her third event. “But it certainly was not the most important reason.”

“The last 15 months, I’ve been able to recharge the batteries, emotionally as well.”

During her time away, she became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador focusing her attention on finding cures for struggling children in Congo, Cambodia and Denmark. Certainly admirable work from a player who made history by becoming the first ever No.1 to retire, stunning the tennis world following some early exits prior to defense of Roland Garros.

That included a three set defeat to current No.1 Russian Dinara Safina in Berlin. At the time, Safina was ranked outside the top 10. It turned out to be Henin’s final match. She seemed fairly certain a return wouldn’t happen. But as so often happens in sports, the burning desire to compete never goes away.

“A flame I thought was extinguished forever suddenly lit up again,” she pointed out on a TV appearance while also noting a desire to play at the 2012 London Summer Games. Henin won gold in singles in 2004 at Athens.

“Adrenaline is part of my life, my existence. It is in my character.”

That character is ready to be tested with her scheduling exhibitions in Charleroi, Belgium and Dubai as preparation before returning to compete down under in next year’s first slam, the Australian Open.

“The fire within burns again. I want to come back in January.”

If she still has it and there’s no reason to believe she won’t, the WTA just got a lot better. With both Clijsters and Henin back along with emerging 19 year-old Dane Wozniacki and soon to be 18 year-old American phenom Melanie Oudin plus Svetlana Kuznetsova, it looks like Serena and Venus will have plenty of competition in the future.

So, while Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva continue to struggle for that elusive slam, it promises to be much more challenging. Especially if Sharapova returns to form. Keep a close eye on talented Bulgarian Victoria Azarenka who has a big enough game to make a dent. Ditto for 20 year-old German sensation Sabine Lisicki who made a surprise quarter run at Wimbledon that included wins over Kuznetsova and Wozniacki.

Can Yanina Wickmayer carry forward her surprise semifinal Open appearance? Will the Ana Ivanovic that won a French and made it to No.1 ever return? What about talented Russians like Nadia Petrova or Vera Zvonareva? Can they ever get over the hump?

The women’s game just improved leaps and bounds. The pizazz is back.