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It gets late early in Paris this weekend.  We refer not to the avalanche of complaints from players who resent peering through twilight at the ball, but to the third-round collision between two WTA superstars with ten Slam titles between them.  This match marks the first time in ten meetings that Sharapova and Henin have intersected before the quarterfinal.   (Shouldn’t the French Open adjust its seedings to reflect clay expertise as Wimbledon does for grass prowess?)  Winning six of their nine previous clashes and both of their clay matches, the Belgian clearly has the surface edge as well as the overall edge in the rivalry, which suggests that the encounter might not live up to the media’s expectations.  On the other hand, Maria has showcased her highest level of tennis on the past three occasions when she has confronted Justine:  the 2006 US Open final, the 2007 year-end championships final, and the 2008 Australian Open quarterfinal.  Although all of those matches were contested on hard courts, the two clay meetings don’t hold much significance because they occurred five years ago before Sharapova’s game had evolved into its mature form.  Yet Justine has evolved markedly as well since that time, now more willing to finish points quickly with an imposing forehand or by approaching the net.  Meanwhile, Maria has improved her patience and fitness, an arena in which the Belgian long had held an advantage over her.  On this occasion, the fitness edge should be effectively neutralized, however, because Henin has been physically fragile during her comeback while Sharapova has devoted much effort to that feature of her game.  

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Brushing aside a quartet of helpless opponents, both players looked equally dominant in their first two rounds; Justine responded to the pressure of her Roland Garros return with trademark poise, and Maria advanced through the early stages with much more efficiency than usual.  Despite a few new wrinkles like Sharapova’s occasional drop shot and Henin’s sporadic serve-and-volley, there are no secrets in this rivalry.  Contemptuously rejecting a reporter’s suggestion that she modify her style for the clay, the Russian will hammer away at the Belgian’s defense from the baseline, while the four-time champion will seek to improvise ways to disrupt her opponent’s programmatic point construction.  Essential for both players, impressive serving would allow Maria to instantly assert control of rallies, pinning her opponent behind the baseline, and allow Justine to approach the net, where she regularly excels.  The cooler evening temperatures and more spacious Chatrier court would favor Henin more than if the match were played in mid-afternoon on Lenglen, but those factors shouldn’t be crucial.  Instead, what will be crucial will be the relative confidence of both players and their ability to seize opportunities while controlling their aggression.  Capturing the minor Strasbourg title last week, Sharapova enters the contest with a seven-match winning streak on her least favorite surface but has yet to defeat an elite player this season.  Entering the contest with a 23-match winning streak at Roland Garros, Henin has countless positive memories on which to reflect but has yet to defeat a former Slam champion or a player of Sharapova’s competitive resilience during her comeback.  If the Belgian finds her rhythm, she should be able to defuse the Russian’s power; if she’s a little off-key, she might be in trouble.

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Beyond the soiree of champions, here are additional matches of note on a somewhat nondescript Day 7.

Serena (1) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Predictably unsteady in her opener, Serena looked considerably sharper during a 55-minute demolition of Julia Goerges.  The top seed probably plans to use the first week to find her range before a challenging quarterfinal.  Formerly the #1 junior in the world, Pavlyuchenkova has cultivated a style most effective on hard courts but adaptable to all surfaces.  She appears to have recovered from a nagging foot injury that has hampered her for much of 2010.  Still too inexperienced to topple a competitor of Serena’s steel, the much-anticipated Russian phenom could create some engaging baseline rallies.  We’re curious to see what attitude Pavlyuchenkova brings to the match; Goerges capitulated rather spinelessly, but we suspect that Serena’s next opponent might not be willing to concede immediately. 

Peer (18) vs. Bartoli (13) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  Like Gasquet, Bartoli prefers the grasses of Wimbledon to the grit of her own country.  The top-ranked Frenchwoman left little imprint upon the rest of the clay season and was fortunate to draw a pair of underwhelming adversaries in the first two rounds.  By contrast, Peer has excelled throughout the road to Roland Garros despite preferring hard courts to the slower surface.  Although the star performers of Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid have enjoyed mixed results so far in Paris, don’t be surprised if the tenacious Israeli outlasts the eccentric, controversial leader of les bleues.

Verdasco (7) vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  An engaging contest between two baseliners who love to take huge swings in both opportune and inopportune situations, this match should showcase exceptional shotmaking.  The German punches well above his size and unleashes explosive backhands, while Verdasco’s forehand remains among the most powerful in the ATP.  Perhaps a little tired from Nice, the Spaniard recording outstanding results at all of the preliminary clay events except Madrid.  Expect a few momentum shifts, but expect Verdasco’s more potent serve, improved fitness, and somewhat improved patience to carry him into the final 16.

Hantuchova (23) vs. Wickmayer (16) (Court 2, 2nd match):  The stylish Slovak navigated her first two matches rather routinely, showing further signs of the resurgence that began in March.  Extended deep into a deciding set by Bammer, meanwhile, Wickmayer may be running low on energy as she was a few months ago in Australia. Somewhat like Kuznetsova except stronger mentally, this future top-10 WTA star possesses outstanding athletic talents that should serve her well on every surface.  One should remember that she is returning from an elbow injury that required surgery, however, and may not be able to display her highest-quality tennis.  If Hantuchova can control her nerves and stretch Wickmayer laterally with her trademark down-the-line groundstrokes, she’ll have a definite chance to pull off the mini-upset.

Ljubicic (14) vs. Bellucci (24) (Court 2, 3rd match):  Just weeks removed from his Indian Wells renaissance, the 31-year-old Croat stands a win away from setting up a rematch with Nadal.  This meeting presents an intriguing clash between a seasoned veteran and a raw but highly talented upstart.  Will Ljubicic’s greater versatility and all-court expertise prevail over Bellucci’s flamboyant lefty shot-making from the baseline?  Complicating the situation a little is the Croat’s marathon win over Fish on Friday, which might have drained his energy and taken a few vital miles per hour off his massive serve.  Nevertheless, expect few breaks and many short points, unlike a conventional clay-court encounter.

Briefly noted:  More impressive than anticipated against Nishikori, Djokovic shouldn’t experience excessive difficulty with Hanescu, who secured just three games in Madrid against Murray—nobody’s idea of a clay-court expert.  Even if the Serb’s much-scrutinized fitness sags a bit, the slow-footed Romanian won’t be able to extend the rallies sufficiently to test it.  Jankovic strives to improve upon a lackluster second-round performance by exacting revenge upon Alona Bondarenko for a loss in the same round of Melbourne.  On the other hand, the Ukrainian had lost all nine of their previous meetings before that Australian encounter, so perhaps Jelena should show her some mercy.  In the weakest section of the draw, Ivanovic nemesis Kleybanova intersects with Radwanska nemesis Shvedova for a ball-bruising pas de deux.  One of these two hard-court aficionados will be favored to reach their first Slam quarterfinal over the winner of Groth-Rodionova; it’ll be intriguing to note who capitalizes upon the opportunity.  Moreover, both Kleybanova and Shvedova have scored success against Jankovic in the recent past, suggesting that the Serb might look forward to a livelier quarterfinal than we initially had imagined when examining her vicinity.

Enjoy the accelerating action tomorrow as Roland Garros marches into the middle weekend!  🙂

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