Published November 20, 2014
"Yeah," Henin acknowledged Sunday, "looked like it was going to be fast."
Right there, right when she needed to, Henin began to turn the third-round showdown her way. She emerged with a 24th consecutive victory at Roland Garros — a streak that dates to 2005, before her 20-month hiatus from tennis — by beating Sharapova 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in a match contested over two days.
"I definitely played some good tennis, but it wasn't enough to win," Sharapova said. "At the end of the day, no matter how good or bad you play, you know, she's the one with the 'W.'"
More than that, only five months into her comeback, Henin is compiling further evidence that she quickly has regained her status as one of the best in the game, regardless of her No. 22 seeding at the French Open. Remember: She was ranked No. 1 and the owner of seven Grand Slam titles, including four in Paris, when she abruptly left the tour in 2008.
So here's what everyone wants to know: Is Henin as good now as she was then?
"I don't want to compare, because everything is so different. I'm not yet as consistent as I was. ... I still need some time," said Henin, who reached the Australian Open final in January in the first major tournament of her return. "I know there are still ups and downs, and I'll work on it."
There were significant swings of momentum in this match between two former No. 1 players who own a total of 10 Grand Slam titles. On Saturday, Henin controlled the first set, and Sharapova the second, as they played through rain, wind and fading light before the match was suspended because of darkness.
"Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it got worse," is how Sharapova described Saturday's conditions.
"The ball is heavy. There's tons of clay on the court. It's raining. It's not just drizzling — it's pouring for about 10 minutes. That doesn't really help matters for the rest of the match. Then it gets dark," she added. "You've got all sorts of things, and you add the wind — and you add the opponent."
When action resumed Sunday, though, it took all of 11 minutes for Sharapova to seem to seize control by winning 11 of the afternoon's first 15 points.
On the first of what would be four break points for Sharapova in the final set's key third game, the Russian put a backhand into the net to lose a 16-stroke exchange. Henin began rushing forward, and two volley winners erased two more break points, while a 109 mph service winner took care of yet another.
"I came to the net, and that gave me my confidence back. I really needed that game," said Henin, who next meets No. 7 Sam Stosur of Australia. "After that, everything was easier."
After holding there, Henin broke Sharapova twice in a row, all part of a stretch in which the Belgian took 18 of 24 points and went ahead 4-2.
There was more shakiness for Henin, though: She dumped a forehand into the net to give Sharapova a break point, then ceded the game with a double-fault to cut her lead to 4-3.
Right when it looked as if it all might be slipping away, Henin broke right back, delivering one of her trademark one-handed backhands down the line for a winner that made it 5-3. She then served out the victory, and tapped her right palm over her heart while thanking the crowd for its support.
"I certainly had my opportunities in this match," Sharapova said. "It's definitely frustrating when you feel like you had them and just didn't take them — or was a little bit hesitant."
Still, Sharapova demonstrated that she, too, is on her way back to where she used to be — the big-hitting, baseline-covering, full-of-grit player who won Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008.
The best news of all for Sharapova is that she wasn't hampered by her surgically repaired right shoulder or the injured right elbow that kept her off tour earlier this season.
"I've been serving much better, and my arm has been feeling good," she said. "I feel, like, physically, nothing really bothers me."
(This version CORRECTS to 24th consecutive French Open win for Henin.)