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Steve Flink: Henin fights past Sharapova

5/30/2010 10:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

As the seventh day of the 2010 French Open was drawing near its conclusion, with a soft rain falling but not dampening the spirits of the remaining Roland Garros fans, out stepped a pair of estimable players for a third round contest, ready to give the tournament an essential boost. On one side of the net stood 6’2” Maria Sharapova, among the most renowned and marketable female athletes in the world, the winner of three major singles championships across a distinguished career, a woman who has captured every Grand Slam event save Roland Garros. Facing Sharapova was none other than the 5’5 ¾” Justine Henin, the redoubtable Belgian who has amassed seven majors over the course of her remarkable career, and a woman who has also collected three of the four most prestigious crowns in tennis. She, too, has won all but one of the majors. Only the “Big W” has eluded her grasp.

Both players once resided at No. 1 in the world. Each woman has had an immense impact on the women’s game. They are right up there on any list of the best competitors in the world of women’s tennis. And make no mistake about it: this was an appointment that should have been slated for later in the tournament. That did not happen because Henin is still in the process of restoring her place in the game after coming out of a 20 month retirement at the start of this year. She has recorded some excellent results during her brief time back in her old vocation, making it to the final of the Australian Open, winning the title on the clay in Stuttgart, reminding everyone just how unrelentingly tough she is in the thick of a battle on a tennis court.

And yet, Henin needs more time to regain the consistency and confidence she had in days gone by. She has suffered a few surprising early round losses, falling in the second round of Indian Wells against Gisela Dulko, bowing in her first match at Madrid to Aravane Rezai at Madrid. Without those stutter steps, she might have been on the outskirts of the top ten in the rankings by now; instead, she is seeded 22nd at Roland Garros, a tournament she has won no fewer than four times, including her last three appearances from 2005-2007. In the minds of the vast majority of experts, Henin came into Paris as the clear favorite to win once more at Roland Garros. She should have been seeded no lower than No. 4.

So the No. 12 Sharapova was unfortunate indeed to find herself up against the game’s most highly regarded clay court player. Sharapova has done surprisingly well on what is probably her worst surface in Paris. She made it to the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2007, and has reached the quarterfinals on three other occasions, including a year ago when she willed her way into the last eight with a string of hard fought, three set victories. Sharapova shares Henin’s obsession with winning, puts herself on the line with the same unbridled passion and intensity, leaves no stone unturned in pursuit of victory. That is why the Henin-Sharapova match was one we all were so eager to witness; both players are among the most admirable individuals in their craft.

In their careers, they had clashed on nine previous occasions, with Henin emerging as the victor in six of those contests. She had won their only two clay court confrontations, including a 6-4, 6-2 quarterfinal victory in the quarterfinals of the 2005 French Open. But that was the last time they had met on clay, and Sharapova is demonstrably a much better player on the dirt now than she was back then.

Yet when this encounter commenced at 7:44 on Saturday evening in Paris, Sharapova was not nearly as sharp as the purposeful Henin. The 23-year-old Russian could not find her range at the outset. Henin was setting the tactical agenda, driving the ball with better depth off both sides, rocking Sharapova back on her heels. The conditions were difficult for both players as the rain slowed down the court decidedly. But Sharapova initially was more out of sorts. She lost her serve in the opening game of the match with a double fault and three unforced errors off the ground.

Henin was executing impeccably from the back of the court, and using the backhand drop shot down the line judiciously to catch her adversary flat footed and off guard. Henin held easily, broke again for 3-0, and took 12 of the first 15 points in the match. But Sharapova seemed to get her bearings gradually. Although Henin held for 4-0, Sharapova had four break points in that game and she was at last stepping up the pace on her shots and making the Belgian work much harder to take control of points. Sharapova closed that set with a pair of impressive service games, holding at 15 for 1-4 and at love for 2-5. Although an unshaken Henin held on comfortably to take that opening set 6-2, Sharapova headed into the second set in a better frame of mind.

Sharapova opened the second set with a commanding love game on serve, and she had two break points in the following game. Henin saved the first with a service winner down the T, and erased the second as Sharapova mishandled a backhand return off a second serve. Henin held on for 1-1. Serving at 1-2, Henin needed to fight off another break point. Sharapova went for a backhand winner down the line, but her two-hander was narrowly wide. Henin escaped once more to reach 2-2. At 3-3, Henin had her chance to reestablish her authority. In that critical seventh game, Sharapova double faulted three times, faced three break points, and always appeared under duress. But she somehow held on, saving the first break point with a backhand drop shot winner down the line, forcing Henin into a forehand error on the second, and winning a long baseline exchange on the third as Henin miss-hit a forehand crosscourt wide.

Sharapova finished off that game by using a kick serve to open up the court for another backhand drop shot winner. Having arrived safely at 4-3, Sharapova sensed that Henin was apprehensive. Both players knew that the light was rapidly fading, and a third set would never be completed. So Sharapova pounced. Sharapova was now handling the slow conditions much more effectively than Henin, hitting through the court with commendable power, rushing Henin into mistakes with the depth and penetration of her strokes. Serving at 3-4, Henin missed four out of five first serves, and her forehand let her down flagrantly. With the Belgian serving at 15-30, Sharapova produced a sharply angled backhand return, then moved in quickly behind it to punch a forehand volley crosscourt into the clear. At double break point down, Henin overanxiously drove a forehand into the net.

Sharapova was not going to waste this opportunity. Ahead 5-3, she connected with four consecutive first serves. On the first point of that game, she served-and-volleyed, putting away the first volley confidently.  Sharapova cruised to 40-0, and then unleashed a blazing forehand that was too much for Henin to handle. She had closed the set out with gusto, holding at love.

And so it was one set all. Henin had lost a set at the French Open for the first time since her round of 16 clash with Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2005 in the round of 16. Sharapova had the momentum, and must have been cautiously optimistic about her chances. But it was after 9PM, and the match was fittingly halted at that juncture, allowing the players to come back fresh today to finish their business. And what a finish it was! Sharapova carried her late second set form into the early stages of the third, and established an immediate lead. Henin, meanwhile, was still anxious and uncertain. At 15-30 in the first game of the final set, she double faulted wildly. Although Henin saved one break point, she pressed on the second, sending a forehand wide to go down a break.

Sharapova was soaring. She connected with five of six first serves in the following game and held at 30. In closing out that game, Sharapova pulled Henin out of court with a deep crosscourt forehand, and then moved in to roll a forehand down the line for a clean winner. She was up 2-0. Henin knew how critical the next game would be. Serving in that third game, she double faulted on the first point. Sharapova played two commanding points with remarkably controlled aggression to reach 0-40. Here was Sharapova at triple break point for 3-0, perhaps on the verge of breaking the match wide open.

Henin, however, wanted no part of such a scenario. At 0-40, she defended ably as Sharapova came at her hard, and the Russian netted a low ball off the backhand as she went crosscourt. Henin sent a deep, slice serve into Sharapova’s body to provoke an errant return for 30-40, and then the Belgian opened up the court with an angled backhand topspin crosscourt, moving up swiftly to put away a forehand volley for deuce. Sharapova promptly earned a fourth break point, but Henin ably rose to that challenge, coming forward for a backhand volley winner behind Sharapova. Henin steadfastly reached 1-2, and unsurprisingly that clutch hold of serve brought about a crucial momentum shift.

Sharapova only missed one first serve in the next game, but Henin broke at 15 for 2-2 as she picked smartly on Sharapova’s more suspect forehand side. Henin held for 3-2, and then collected a fourth consecutive game. With Sharapova serving at 2-3, 30-40, the No. 12 seed took a noticeably long pause before serving. Henin was unperturbed, hitting a deep return down the middle. Sharapova pulled a forehand wide, and Henin was up 4-2. When Henin got to 40-15 in the seventh game, she seemed set to run the match out comfortably, but Sharapova ceded no ground here. On the 40-15 point, Henin missed a forehand approach up the line. At 40-30, she stuck to her pattern of serving down the T, but tried to throw Sharapova off guard by coming in behind her delivery.

The tactic backfired. Sharapova released an inside-out forehand return winner. Two points later, Henin double faulted that game away, and now Sharapova was back to 3-4, still in with a chance. Sharapova was ahead 30-0 in the eighth game, and then made it to 40-30, one point away from an improbable 4-4 deadlock. But Henin curled a forehand down the line to provoke a backhand error from Sharapova. After Sharapova saved one break point, Henin earned another with some excellent defense. Here, Henin was at her very best, driving a deep return down the middle to elicit a weak reply from Sharapova. Henin took the short ball and drove an exquisite backhand topspin winner down the line. She was ascendant again, leading 5-3, serving for the match.

With the wind at her back, Henin closed out the account in style. A service winner down the T, an ace down the T, and a forehand pass off a poorly disguised backhand drop shot from Sharapova carried Henin to 40-0. She served her tenth and last double fault of the match to make it 40-15, but quickly made amends for that by pulling Sharapova off the court with a topspin backhand crosscourt. Sharapova missed her two-hander on the run. Henin had deservedly triumphed 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to reach the round of 16.

This sets up the distinct possibility of a Henin-Serena Williams quarterfinal, as long as Henin can overcome a tenacious Sam Stosur in the fourth round. In Stuttgart recently, Stosur took a set off the Belgian. But I would be very surprised if this win over Sharapova did not take Henin to another level for the rest of the tournament. She was tested severely by an old and revered rival. She was in a very precarious position at 0-2, 0-40 in the final set. But she displayed her class and character to beat a highly charged and determined Maria Sharapova.

All through the past week, we were waiting and hoping that Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova would clash in the third round. They did not let us down. Henin just might use her victory over Sharapova to push on with conviction toward a fifth championship on the Roland Garros clay. But Sharapova need not be discouraged after elevating her game significantly over the last two sets of an honorable loss. If she can play this brand of tennis at Wimbledon, she could find herself in the hunt for the title.

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