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Under the forbidding skies of a damp Paris evening, most players would have accepted the four-time champion’s mastery as inevitable and turned their minds towards the greener pastures of Wimbledon.  After a dismal beginning against Henin, however, Sharapova’s fabled ferocity erupted deep in the second set, where she refused to concede even a grain of grit when facing break points in the vital seventh game.  Erasing that opportunity with panache, Maria then capitalized upon the momentum shift to reel off 11 of the last 12 points before darkness descended.  A testament to her unflinching tenacity, the second set of this third-round match augurs extremely well for Sharapova in the coming tournaments, whether or not she wins the third set on Sunday.  (The warmer conditions at mid-day should help her, but she can’t afford to start half as miserably as she did in the first four games on Saturday.)  Streaky players like the Russian rely on accumulated confidence to propel them through the peaks and valleys that they experience within matches and tournaments.  Swelling Maria’s confidence bank is the notable achievement of becoming the first player to take a set from Henin at Roland Garros since Napoleon returned from Moscow (well, almost).  When Sharapova returns to the North American hard courts, it’ll be time for these investments to return profits.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Melzer fed Ferrer a bagel as a farewell souvenir of Paris, Ginepri booted King Juan Carlos from his throne, Serena lost a set to her stomach, and feuding Frenchwomen Bartoli and Rezai found something in common when they shared the experience of third-round losses.  Sunday is far from a day of rest in Paris, with eight round-of-16 matches on the menu as well as the Sharapova-Henin finale.  We preview each encounter straight ahead, arranging them according to the Roland Garros order of play (first four matches on Chatrier, last four matches on Lenglen):

Dementieva (5) vs. Scheepers (Q):  The least intriguing match of the day by a long margin, this meeting opposes an injured, weary Russian against a South African outside the top 100.  Barely edging the pedestrian Wozniak in a three-hour third-rounder, Dementieva struggled with sore legs yet found a way to win.  Her experience should allow her to prevail even if she isn’t in peak physical condition, however, for the Russian’s consistency typically creates nightmares for the journeywomen of the WTA.  Winning six matches at Roland Garros, Scheepers reached the final 16 without defeating a seed after the ignominious exits of Azarenka and Martinez Sanchez, so one should keep her startling achievement in a bit of perspective.

Petrova (19) vs. Venus (2):  While most spectators have been gawking at her outfit, Venus has quietly progressed into the second week with minimal ado.  The elder Williams looks much more comfortable moving on the clay than she normally does, but she faces an imposing test from a Russian who can match her serve for serve and recently defeated her sister with an 11-ace barrage in Rome.  Unsurprisingly unable to finish off home hope Rezai at the first opportunity, Petrova surprisingly and impressively closed out that cliffhanger shortly after the resumption, leaving her with plenty of energy for Sunday.  Although Venus has won all four of their meetings with the loss of just one set, the Russian veteran holds a distinct surface advantage; they never have played on clay, and two of the matches occurred at the All England Club, aka the All Venus Club last decade.  This season, the American has compiled an outstanding record without showcasing outstanding tennis.  She’s learned how to prevail when she’s several degrees below her blazing best, though, which will benefit her against Petrova.  While Nadia might win the physical battler, Venus should win the mental battle—the battle that counts.  But expect a struggle.

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Federer (1) vs. Wawrinka (20):  “Struggle” hasn’t been in Federer’s vocabulary here as he has cruised within two wins of his 24th consecutive Slam semifinal, not dropping a set in three rounds.  To be sure,  the trio of Peter Luczak, Alejandro Falla, and Julian Reister are only marginally more formidable than the Three Tenors where the world #1 is concerned.  Meekly folding to his compatriot in Madrid, Wawrinka did defeat Federer last year in Monte Carlo, yet he lacks the belief to topple him in a best-of-five format.  Enduring a slight slide this year, the Swiss #2 doesn’t possess the weapons to hit through the GOAT from the baseline and must hope for an error-strewn encounter, which the top seed rarely donates at Slams.  Nevertheless, the match should offer intriguing baseline exchanges during which one can observe Roger’s point-construction skills and recently outstanding movement / footwork. 

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Youzhny (11) vs. Tsonga (8):  The sole survivor on a swiftly sinking French ship, Tsonga doesn’t quite sting like a bee on the clay and nearly exited in his opener.  Meanwhile, Youzhny has dropped just two sets in his first three rounds despite also operating on the surface that least suits the Russian’s style.  When they collided in the 2008 Australian Open, the Frenchman triumphed rather comfortably, but then he was in the midst of what regrettably has become a career highlight more than a portent of the future.  Since both players enjoy remarkable agility, we should anticipate lively all-court points and clever shot-making.  Can Youzhny embed himself in rallies before Tsonga unloads his massive forehand and rumbles to the net?  Ever eager to rally behind les bleus, the French crowd surely will fill Chatrier with resounding roars at the slightest opportunity; Youzhny displayed his mental fragility rather graphically in Miami two years ago, although he’s improved a bit since then.  On the other hand, neither Monfils nor Rezai soared to victory on the wings of their vociferous compatriots.  If Tsonga is going to float like a butterfly, he’ll have to use his own wings.  This match could be the most engaging of the day, and don’t be surprised if it heads into Monday.

Kirilenko (30) vs. Schiavone (17):  Not long ago, the stylish, relatively petite Russian blonde seemed likely to become a doubles specialist.  Opening 2010 with a run to the Australian Open quarterfinals, however, Kirilenko has reinvigorated a moribund singles career and now looks likely to regain a foothold in the top 30 or perhaps even top 25.  It’s rather remarkable that her largely powerless game can succeed with sufficient consistency against much mightier foes, but kudos to her for proving the continued value of versatility.  Also to her credit, she has capitalized on all of the upsets that she has scored this year by progressing further into those significant draws.  Far from a powerful baseliner herself, Schiavone likewise relies on mental tenacity and artful point construction rather than booming serves or returns.  The Italian’s delicate sliced backhand can be as delicious as ravioli, while those who have watched Fed Cup have noted her competitive vigor.  Expect plenty of service breaks and prolonged rallies as each player attempts to gradually outmaneuver her opponent rather than hammering her off the court.  In such an even match, Kirilenko’s momentum from her tense triumph over Kuznetsova could be crucial.

Pennetta (14) vs. Wozniacki (3):  We’re impressed that Wozniacki has navigated her first three matches with uneventful straight-sets wins, but the road grows considerably steeper against the clay-loving Italian.  Winning the Andalusia title this spring, Pennetta faltered in Rome and Madrid; nevertheless, she has rampaged through the first week by dropping just nine games in six sets against some respectable opponents.  Although the Pole-Dane did reach the Madrid final last year, she has not quite developed a comfort level on clay, so a minor upset here seems plausible.   Glancing over the bottom half of the draw, we were struck by Pennetta’s friendly path in the upcoming rounds; she would face either Kirilenko or Schiavone in the quarters, then perhaps Venus in the semis.  The Italian possesses a winning record against the American and defeated her here two years ago.  Flavia Pennetta, Roland Garros finalist?  Although one never should look too far ahead, keep the thought in the back of your mind.

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Cilic (10) vs. Soderling (5):  Impressively handling Montanes in four relatively routine sets, Soderling has considerably elevated his level from the clay Masters Series events.  Cilic also has proved much sturdier in Paris than over the last several weeks, although a five-set win over Leonardo Mayer betrayed the dissonance between his game and the surface.  Expect plenty of booming serves, short points, and high winner-error totals, for both players will prioritize offensive shotmaking over clay consistency.  Unusual in the ATP is the groundstroke balance shared by the Croat and the Swede, who possess two-handed backhands that are more reliable and just as imposing as their forehands.  Unless Cilic manages to unnerve Soderling in an unexpected way, last year’s finalist should schedule a 13th duel with Federer.

Murray (4) vs. Berdych (15):  Lenglen’s sluggish soil should favor the counterpunching Scot, yet he’s been forced to play thirteen sets in his first three matches and may be a trifle jaded.  If he’s a step or two slow, the ball-bruising Czech could take advantage; Berdych has yet to lose a set here and stunningly pulverized Isner in the third round.  Will one of the sport’s greatest underachievers capitalize upon his Miami breakthrough to charge deep into a Slam?  Murray should feel relatively secure against an foe who enjoys the clay as little as he does.  Expect him to slowly expose the chinks in Berdych’s armor as the match progresses, assuming that the Czech allows him to settle into the match.

***

Enjoy the round of 16 as well as the finale of the pas de deux between two of the most formidable backhands in the WTA!

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