Old foes meet with new expectations
PARIS -- Like marquee stars making cameos on a community-access TV show, Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin seem miscast as third-round opponents in a Grand Slam. Each has personality and game enough to fill the big screen all by herself.
Both women made quick work of suspended matches Friday to set up the Saturday encounter, their first since Henin began what she refers to as her "second career" this season. Sharapova, too, has had a comeback, although her intermission was involuntary.
"Actually feels like we never left, or it was just yesterday," Sharapova said. "It's a different Slam, but, you know, it's the same drill."
Yet a great deal has transpired in the two-plus years since they last played, not the least of which is the evolution of their games. Sharapova is less of a pure power player and Henin is more likely to end a point early, which should make their rallies on clay more of a chess match than they were in the past.
Their last two collisions were significant. Henin outlasted Sharapova in a 3½-hour final at the WTA's year-end championships in November 2007, a match that capped an emotional and sensationally successful 63-4 season for the Belgian. Henin was so drained that she never fully recuperated in the short offseason.
That set the stage for their next meeting barely two months later in the Australian Open quarterfinals, when Henin walked onto the court with black physio tape encircling her sore knee and a pained expression on her face. "It seems so far away," she said Friday. "I mean, even seems like it never existed, that moment. I didn't want to be on the court anymore at that time, and now I have a lot of motivation to be out there and to fight and try to keep winning."
Sharapova shellacked the listless Henin 6-4, 6-0 and eventually won the championship. Six months later, they were both out of the game. Then-world No. 1 Henin stunned the tennis universe when she announced her retirement in May 2008, citing burnout. Sharapova immediately replaced her in the WTA's top slot, but a shoulder injury, eventually treated with minor surgery, forced her to shut things down that summer.
The Russian didn't return until the following April, traveling with her longtime hitting partner, Michael Joyce, although her father, Yuri, still works with her at home. Clay, which neutralizes Sharapova's big shots and tests her mobility, is not her natural medium, and few gave her much of a shot at last year's French Open given that she was still shedding rust. Yet she clawed her way to the quarterfinals, repeatedly extricating herself from trouble as she won four consecutive three-set matches. Meanwhile, Henin visited the grounds briefly, insisting she'd never compete here again.
The 2009 season ended well for Sharapova even though she didn't make much headway in the majors. She stayed healthy, and won her only title of the year in Tokyo. This year has brought more interruptions and less consistent results.
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A bone bruise on her elbow forced her to take time off again this spring, and she said she's so sick of stops and starts that she has enforced a gag rule on her entourage: "In practice they would ask me, you know, 'How's it feeling?'" she said. "I would just tell them to keep their mouths shut. I don't want to talk about it. I tell them if this gets bad, then they'll know."
Sharapova, characteristically, refuses to concede any surface. After bombing out of the first round in Madrid, she went to Juan Carlos Ferrero's academy in Spain and logged lots of hours on clay that paid off the week before the French Open with a win in Strasbourg -- her first-ever win on red European clay.
"I've learned a lot playing on it the last few years," she said. "Now when I play someone that hits a lot of slices or a lot of high balls, it doesn't really bother me. It doesn't affect me as it did many years ago, because I knew physically I couldn't be out on the court, I couldn't last quite that long as I feel that I can now. So just try to go for a little bit more than I should have. You know, I've learned and I've worked on that, and I certainly feel like I'm, you know, more patient out there when I face those opponents on clay."
Henin won her 13th clay-court title last month in Stuttgart, Germany, the most of any active player. She has won six of her nine previous matches against Sharapova, including both meetings on clay, and should be favored here at the tournament she has won four times. Their styles are as much of a contrast as their heights (Henin is 5-foot-5, Sharapova 6-foot-2), with Henin sculpting points from anywhere on the court while Sharapova gamely hangs in from the baseline.
It won't be the first time in Henin's second career that she's had an early challenge in a Slam. "A big match is a big match in any case," she said. "Dementieva, during the Australian Open, was very intense. It was the intensity of a final, and it was only second round. Of course, the draws were not really favorable, but I like that because this helps me to some extent to improve faster. I look at this match as if it were a big match, as if it were a quarterfinals, semifinals or even the finals."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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