French futility frustrates Venus
PARIS -- Nadia Petrova flashed to the net and hungrily eyed an easy overhead as though it were low-hanging fruit.
The Russian was only two points from booting Venus Williams out of the French Open when she took her eye off the ball and sent a megashank soaring skyward. Petrova, who has never been accused of intestinal fortitude, had to feel the doubts creeping in.
Before Sunday's fourth-round match, Petrova's record against top-10 players in Grand Slam events was 3-18. Make that 4-18 now.
Petrova gathered herself and on her first match point redirected a short floater with a crushing forehand winner and walked of Court Philippe Chatrier a 6-4, 6-3 winner. Williams was oddly listless throughout the match; she hit only 15 winners and, particularly down the stretch of the second set, centered the ball when she could have aimed closer to the line.
Maybe she caught the bug that left Serena dizzy during her third-round match.
As a result, the American survivors have been reduced to two: Robby Ginepri and Serena.
Petrova, it turns out, is a survivor, too.
She'll turn 28 in a week and is playing as she did in 2005 and 2006, when she rose to No. 3 in the world. She's a two-time semifinalist here; seven years ago, she defeated Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati on her way to the last four.
Now she has beaten both Williams sisters in the same month, going back to the fourth-round win over Serena in Madrid.
Petrova had lost to Venus in four previous matches, but there are signs that maturity is settling in on the Russian. She wrecked Kim Clijsters in the third round of the Australian Open, giving her all of one game, and she uncharacteristically saved three match points in a third-round win over Aravane Rezai here. In Sunday's match, both players had seven break-point opportunities. Petrova cashed four of them, but Venus only one.
And Petrova has some pop on her shots, too -- even on the sticky red clay. It might surprise you that Petrova leads the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour with 163 aces. (Venus is second with 147.)
Venus, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, will turn 30 in less than three weeks. She's having a terrific season, but her game is downsized on clay. She has reached the French Open final only once, in 2002, when she lost to her sister. Going forward, she will be among the favorites at Wimbledon, where she's won five titles and reached the final in eight of the past 10 years.
The Williams sisters are still alive in the doubles competition and advanced to the quarterfinals on Sunday. They are attempting to win their second major of the season, and a win would put them halfway to a calendar Grand Slam in doubles. The sisters have won Wimbledon four times and the U.S. Open twice.
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Venus' singles loss considerably opens up the bottom half of the draw. No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki plays Francesca Schiavone of Italy in one quarterfinal, and the other features two proud Russian campaigners in Petrova and Elena Dementieva. They have split 14 previous matches, and because this is the French Open, you have to wonder whether one of them could sneak into the final and escape with her first career major.
Petrova, meanwhile, has won here before. She was the girls' junior champion in 1998, defeating Jelena Dokic in the final.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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