ANTWERP, Belgium:Justine Henin made a stirring return to tennis three weeks after a heartbreaking Australian Open loss, fighting past qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova on Thursday at the WTA Diamond Games to the delight of thousands of home fans.
The Belgian world number one kept a crowd of 13,000 on the edge of their seats in the early stages of a tight contest before pulling out a 6-7 (4/7), 6-3, 6-1 second-round victory in two hours, 19 minutes.
Henin last played at home on the WTA in 2003 and is making a final appearance before the event disappears from the 2009 calendar.
She was also playing for the first time since losing in the Australian Open quarter-finals to Maria Sharapova while carrying a knee injury, her first defeat since last summer at Wimbledon.
"There was so much emotion playing at home again," said the winner. "It is my last chance to play in Belgium and I really want to do well. I've missed not being here."
Henin dropped the first set after more than an hour and was down a break in the second before rallying past her 76th-ranked opponent.
The seven-time Grand Slam winner now faces another qualifier in Russian Alisa Kleybanova, who beat Ukraine's Kateryna Bondarenko 7-5, 3-6, 7-5.
Henin opted to play in Antwerp at the farewell edition despite picking up a 10,000-dollar fine for withdrawing from next week's event in Doha.
In addition, she will forfeit 125,000 dollars of her share in the season year-end bonus pool for missing the newly-required event.
Henin made a nervous start after more than three weeks idle, with four of the first five games going against serve.
She steadied to hold 3-3, but her 20-year-old opponent showed nerves of steel in keeping the first set finally balanced.
Pironkova saved break points in the ninth game and recovered in the tiebreaker from 1-3 down.
Henin was unable to impose her game, with the Bulgarian firing a backhand winner to the corner for two set points and converting on the first from a Henin double-fault after 69 minutes.
Down a break in the second 1-3, Henin relaxed to begin a fightback, breaking for 5-3 and squaring the tie.
She then ramped up her game in the third with two quick breaks on the way to victory.
"It was a battle," said the top seed, holder of 40 titles.
"I could take nothing for granted. She is a tough player who returns and anticipates well."
Sweden's Sofia Arvidsson beat Russian second seed Anna Chakvetadze 6-3, 7-5 to set up a quarter-final with China's Li Na.
Arvidsson took 79 minutes to achieve the first major upset of the week.
Swiss Timea Bacsinszky beat Julie Ditty of the USA 7-5, 6-4 to set up a match with Slovak third seed Daniela Hantuchova.