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A tough hurdle awaits Sharapova

The third-round showdown between Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova will excite the Roland Garros crowds.
Maria Sharapova, centre, signs autographs after her victory over Kirsten Flipkens.
Maria Sharapova, centre, signs autographs after her victory over Kirsten Flipkens.

In the run-up to this week's French Open in Paris, the image of Svetlana Kuznetsova has been plastered across promotional material. She is, after all, the reigning champion in the women's singles competition. But there is another reason why the Russian should be in the minds of tennis followers in the French capital, for Kuznetsova achieved something five years ago that nobody has managed since: She won a set against Justine Henin at Roland Garros.

Now, if Kuznetsova's compatriot Maria Sharapova has aspirations of triumphing in Paris, she will have to do more than simply emulate her 24-year-old friend, who eventually lost to the brilliant Belgian in 2005. She will have to surpass her. Yesterday, Henin marched past Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic 6-3, 6-3 to stretch her winning streak at the French Open to 39 sets. Sharapova meanwhile defeated Kirsten Flipkens 6-3, 6-3 to set up a truly delectable third-round tie.

"Playing again in front of the Paris crowd and all the Belgian supporters warms my heart," said Henin in a post-match press conference. She missed the previous two tournaments in Paris following a two-year hiatus. Sharapova, seeded No 12 at the clay court tournament, arrived in the French capital in high spirits and brimming with confidence after having secured two titles already this season, first in Memphis in February and then again in Strasbourg last week.

An added incentive of course is that she is chasing the only major title that so far eludes her. And it is these victories in the grand slams that primarily resulted in her never genuinely being labelled the successor to Anna Kournikova, the beautiful Russian tennis player who consistently flattered to deceive on court, but remained nonetheless for ever in the media away from it. The equally stunning Sharapova instead has proved she is not the world's highest paid female athlete simply because she can sell commercial products.

Her surprise victory at the All-England Club six years ago when she became, at 17, the third youngest Wimbledon winner of all time was complemented by the US Open in 2006 and then the Australian Open in 2008. Only a worrying spate of injuries has halted the 22-time WTA Tour title winner's charge for more major honours. Resultantly, for all her years on the circuit, she has never faced Henin this early in a tournament.

Thus far, the pair's meeting have always been saved for the quarter-finals stage or later, but due to both players having suffered long spells away from the game their respective rankings have provided them with tricky draws. Henin, now ranked 23rd in the world, retired in May 2008 as world No1 only to return in January 2010. She has so far this season reached three finals, including the Australian Open where she lost to Serena Williams despite a valiant display, and won once, last month in Stuttgart.

Sharapova is ranked 10 places higher in the official WTA world rankings, yet after nine meetings, the diminutive Belgian dominates, having triumphed on six occasions. The last time the two met however - in the quarter finals of the Australian Open two years ago - it was the tall Russian who emerged victorious. Sharapova, in emphatically defeating Henin 6-4, 6-0 in Melbourne, also halted the seven-time major winner's 32-match unbeaten run and will undoubtedly be keen to stop another winning streak when they meet on Philippe Chatrier.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Sharapova, after her comfortable victory over Henin's compatriot, Flipkens, yesterday. "We've had some great matches in the past. We've had some battles and I've had some tough losses and some great wins, so I look forward to this one." And so will the French Open spectators: There are few players who can attract a crowd quite like Henin and Sharapova - despite what the promotional material may suggest.

Published: May 29, 2010 04:00 AM

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