Extended over three sets and two days, Henin and Sharapova contributed another worthy entry in a rivalry no less classy than it is classic. Despite the almost unparalleled intensity of both competitors, the Belgian and the Russian demonstrated their mutual respect with the gracious, sincere handshake above as well as courteous comments aplenty in prematch and postmatch interviews. It’s satisfying to observe this characteristic in such a major rivalry, which probably would have become a central theme atop the women’s game had not injuries and emotional stress taken a severe toll on both players. Nevertheless, we still hope to see several more editions of this enthralling contrast in styles on various surfaces throughout the coming months and years. One of the most stirring single-match performances in both comebacks so far, the match this weekend reminded us of how Henin and Sharapova bring out the best in each other’s games, turning their encounters into much more than the sum of their admittedly spectacular parts.
While Sharapova crosses the Channel for what promises to be an impressive grass campaign, Henin crosses the puddles to Lenglen for a challenging confrontation with Stosur. Outside a first-set lapse against Rossana de los Rios, the Australian has looked fairly solid in the first week although perhaps a shade less magnificent than during her semifinal run last year. Henin’s narrow escape from Sharapova’s jaws could produce one of two opposite outcomes; either her intoxication with the victory will leave her with the dreaded hangover syndrome, or she’ll translate the emotional momentum into a confident, composed performance. As was the case in the Stuttgart final, the match largely lies in Justine’s hands despite Stosur’s crushing serve. Gifted with too much variety and texture for the Aussie when she’s focused, the Belgian could struggle against Stosur’s aryhthmic style if she suffers a poor serving day or loses the radar on her forehand. The indoor surface in the German tournament also seemed surprisingly swift by clay standards, so the ultra-slow Court Suzanne Lenglen should provide Henin with a more compliant canvas for her artistry. Don’t expect many service breaks, and look for both players to approach the net at the earliest opportunity. Henin will want to set up backhand-to-backhand rallies, but she’ll be comfortable with forehand-to-forehand battles as well, which suggests that Stosur will need an outstanding serving performance in order to overcome the Belgian’s baseline advantage.
Ginepri vs. Djokovic (3): Although the Serb thrashed the American embarrassingly here several years ago, there’s reason to think that this meeting might not be so lopsided. Ginepri’s sturdy five-set win over Ferrero in the third round illustrated his ability to grind through matches on clay much more successfully than most of his compatriots. Seemingly in control of his fragile health so far, Djokovic has dropped two sets to his first three opponents but hasn’t found himself in serious trouble. The Serb has yet to face a tireless mover and consistent retriever like Ginepri, though, whose style adapts itself better to testing fitness than those of Korolev or Hanescu. On the other hand, the American might be tired and a step slow after his Ferrero victory, like the equally movement-oriented Nishikori when he played Djokovic after a five-set win over Giraldo. One could imagine Ginepri taking a set, especially if Djokovic loses the rhythm on his serve or a bit of concentration, but it’s hard to imagine that he’ll take three.
Serena (1) vs. Peer (18): The Israeli faces the grim prospect of a fourth meeting with a Williams sister since February, although the previous three occurred against Venus. (Nothing like a bit of variety.) Three years ago, the rising Peer came within a single game of ousting Serena from the Australian Open, a tournament that the younger Williams famously won despite an extended absence from the game. Among all of the surprise sensations in Rome and Madrid (MJMS, Rezai, Safarova, Ivanovic), only Peer remains in the Roland Garros draw, where her tenacity emerged most notably during a tense first-set tiebreak against Bartoli. Serena needed some tenacity herself to overcome an ailing stomach in her previous match, so we’ll see whether the illness lingers. (She did look fine in her doubles with Venus.) Even on the slowest surface, the top seed’s serve proved highly effective during this week, while she has moved on the clay with impressive ease. If her health has returned, expect her to set up the marquee quarterfinal that we’ve all been awaiting after a couple of reasonably competitive sets.
Bellucci (24) vs. Nadal (2): Often considered the descendant of Gustavo Kuerten in Brazilian tennis, this aggressive lefty baseliner has much more developing to do before he can step into that French Open champion’s shoes. In recent weeks, he’s certainly taken important strides by defeating opponents like Isner and Ljubicic; at the same time, he’s wobbled against the likes of qualifier Pablo Andujar, who dragged him into a fifth set two rounds ago. That stinging forehand should crack some winners, but anything other than a straight-sets win for Rafa would be astonishing in the highest degree. Despite enduring a few more suspenseful service games than he should, the four-time champion’s knees look healthy, and (just as importantly) so does his confidence.
Jankovic (4) vs. Hantuchova (23): Once again, the Roland Garros organizers schedule the match of the day for the final position on Chatrier. Can the Serb and the Slovak continue where Henin and Sharapova left off on Saturday night? Hantuchova looked ready to become a full-time doubles specialist not long ago, but she must be thinking otherwise after an excellent first week of straight-setters capped by a small upset over Wickmayer. Adding intrigue to this encounter are Hantuchova’s two recent wins over Jankovic, of which one happened on green clay (Charleston) and the other on hard court in Fed Cup. To be sure, JJ claimed to be injured on both of those occasions, but isn’t she always ill, injured, exhausted, or all three? Presented with a golden opportunity to end her Slam drought, she made life more interesting than necessary against Kanepi and Alona Bondarenko. Jelena loves (melo)drama, though, so don’t read too much into those early difficulties. The Serb’s superior comfort level on red clay and positive experience at Roland Garros should enable her to join Djokovic in the quarterfinals, perhaps in three sets, which would be her first appearance at that stage of a major since the 2008 US Open.
Gabashvili (Q) vs. Melzer: Unleashing 58 winners against a becalmed Roddick, Gabashvili looked infinitely more formidable than the average qualifier. His emotions have betrayed him at crucial moments before, but Melzer likewise has struggled to control his temper against marquee opponents. What matters more at Roland Garros, beating Roddick or beating Ferrer? One would imagine the latter, considering the relative prowess on clay of those upset victims. At any rate, it should be a somewhat intriguing contrast between Melzer’s lefty net-charging style and Gabashvili’s baseline bludgeoning. While the Russian’s returns and passing shots will be vital, so will the Austrian’s first-serve percentage. Neither player hits groundstrokes with much margin for error, which renders their second-week appearances all the more unexpected. We’re not going to hazard a guess here; the ball’s in your court.
Verdasco (7) vs. Almagro (19): Probably the match of the day on the men’s side, the all-Spanish collision opposes two of the hottest players in the ATP over the last several weeks. (Female fans might argue that Verdasco has deserved that appellation for much longer than the last several weeks.) Reaching three finals in his last five tournaments (winning one), Mr. Sauce may be a little weary from over-playing in the preparatory events. During a five-set, four-hour victory over Kohlschreiber, he requested medical attention on multiple occasions and lacked the usual sting on many of his forehands. One of only two players to win a set from Nadal during this clay season, Almagro nearly bit the dust (literally) in his opener but has collected himself since then. Plenty of extended cross-court rallies should ensue, but it’ll be intriguing to note who redirects the ball earlier and takes a risk by connecting on a down-the-line attempt. Long known for reckless shotmaking, both Spaniards have modulated their aggression more effectively in recent months. If Verdasco enters the match weary, which is probable, he may seek to take command early in the rally, which means that he might go for too much too soon and look for an angle that isn’t there. Don’t be surprised to see a mini-upset by the surging Madrid semifinalist.
Groth (W) vs. Shvedova: Opportunity doesn’t knock here but positively hammers. Perhaps more familiar to some of you in her Slovakian incarnation as Gajdosova, the ambidextrous Aussie doesn’t hold back on any of her shots. Neither does the Kazakh, who outslugged Radwanska and Kleybanova in impressive fashion to create an opening for her first Slam quarterfinal. It’s ironic that the breakthrough could happen on the slowest surface for the hard-hitting, high-risk Kazakh, yet the clay does provide her additional time to set up for her shots and compensate for her indifferent foot speed. Which player will adjust more smoothly to the ultra-slow court on Lenglen, which stymied Roddick once again this year? Since Shvedova has overcome much sterner competition than Groth so far, we’re inclined to lean in her direction.
Let’s hope for sunnier skies and gentler winds as the second week begins!