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A vexed Sharapova misses out on golden opportunity

6/2/2008 - Tennis
Maria Sharapova had just eight winners and a whopping 39 unforced errors versus Safina. Jacques DeMarthon/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS -- The wave, a frenzy of pastel colors and throaty roars, crested right behind Maria Sharapova as she attempted to serve on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

She glared skyward, with an annoyed, sour-as-lemons expression, and stepped off the baseline. Raucous applause overcame the sweeping passions of the spectators and, eventually, order was restored. Sharapova, clearly unsettled, met that silence with a double-fault.

Four points later, the No. 1 seed was out of the tournament.

For the second time in three years, Dinara Safina sent Sharapova home from Roland Garros with a three-set, fourth-round defeat. It was a 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2 slugfest Monday that consumed nearly three hours of court time and spanned 4½ hours because of a rain delay.

At one point, Sharapova led the second set 5-2, and later the tiebreaker, also at 5-2. There was even a match point when she was serving at 5-3.

"I hit a winner on her match point," Safina said. "And then suddenly it changed."

And so, the French Open women's championship has been reduced to two separate (but distinct) national tournaments.

In the bottom half of the draw, No. 2-seeded Ana Ivanovic and No. 3 seed Jelena Jankovic, both of Belgrade, are in the quarterfinals and favored to meet in the final of the Serbian Open. In the top half, it's the Soviet Grand Prix, featuring two Muscovites, Safina and Elena Dementieva. Three of the four remaining candidates for two quarterfinals slots are from countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Late Monday, Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia played Belarus' Victoria Azarenka, while Kaia Kanepi of Estonia faced the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova in matches delayed by rain.

Safina, who beat three top-10 players on the way to the title last month in Berlin, is on a tear. Her toughness under duress has always been suspect, and when she blew the first-set tiebreaker, it looked like she was going to implode again. Safina led 6-4 and managed to lose the last four points, three of them on errors.

But then a curious thing happened. Playing with a super-charged focus -- her eyes, seen on slow-motion instant replay, had a crazed look about them -- she fought back to win the second set, in another tiebreaker. The third set wasn't even close.

"Physically, point in, point out, you've really got to stick with her," Sharapova observed. "After you don't take those opportunities and don't take the chances that you have, then it can go in the wrong direction really fast."

Clay, clearly, is not her best surface. Sharapova, memorably, once described her style of play on clay as "a cow on ice." She is 6-foot-2 and doesn't move particularly well on the loose dirt, perhaps because she left Russia at the age of nine and moved to Florida, where hard courts are king. Safina, who grew up on clay, has won almost three times as many matches on the surface as she's lost.

When she has been ranked No. 1, Sharapova has a sketchy record of 10-5. Safina has two of those wins. Sharapova will now have to wait another year to complete her personal Grand Slam.

This victory throws the top of women's tennis into something approaching anarchy. At this moment, no fewer than four different women -- Sharapova, Ivanovic, Jankovic and Kuznetsova -- could emerge from Roland Garros as the No. 1-ranked player.

This is the third Grand Slam quarterfinal of Safina's career and her opponent is Dementieva, whom she beat in Berlin. Dementieva defeated another Russian, Vera Zvonareva, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2 to advance to her farthest point here since 2004, when she was a finalist.

The last stroke was a backhand down the line, a flourish that prompted Dementieva to extend her arms and execute a 360-degree spin. There were tears in the blue eyes of her mother and coach, Vera.

Dementieva, who is 4½ years older than Safina, remembers her playing with tennis balls, even before she started playing with a racket.

"She was always working so hard," Dementieva said. "Like she was trying to show everyone that she can play as good as Marat."

Safina, 22, has been playing professional tennis for more than eight years. She has always played in the shadow of her older brother Marat, a two-time Grand Slam champion. Both have notorious tempers, although Safina -- despite punishing her racket when the first-set tiebreaker was 6-all -- has shown recently she can control hers enough to succeed.

How nice would it be to have two Grand Slam champions in the family?

"I think it's going to be a dream of all our family," Safina said. "Once we do this, we can put really the racket on the wall and say we did everything we could."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.