PARIS – Put Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova on the same court and imagine the possibilities between the two former No. 1's -- sprints, power shots, drop shots, grunts, cries of anguish and screams of joy.
In the most widely anticipated match of the French Open weekend on the women's side, four-time French Open champion Henin -- just five months into her comeback -- will attempt to stop one of the greatest fighters of her era, a three-time Grand Slam champion who may not love the red clay, but is adapting to it better and better every year.
"Well, what I expect is everything. This is the most important thing," Henin said after her 6-3 6-3 victory over the Czech Republic's Klara Zakopalova.
Instead of being a final or at least a semifinal, this contest is a third-round affair, which has more to do with Henin's 20-month retirement and Sharapova's on-and-off play since she underwent shoulder surgery in October of 2008 than it is a lack of talent. But assuming that both stay healthy for the rest of the year, the No. 23-ranked Henin and No. 13-ranked Sharapova should definitely end the year in the top 5.
There are numerous reasons why both have turned themselves into Hall of Famers, including the smaller Henin's speed, her high-variety game, and her willingness to get herself into peak condition so she could add ample power to her touch game. Sharapova's stroke production is incredibly proficient, she's a keen-eyed and hyper-aggressive returner, she is committing to defense when she is called upon and she's willing to change the pace and heights of her shots.
But it's their killer instincts that set them apart from most other players, there willingness to play courageously on big points, their inner belief that they aren't out of a match until the last ball is called out. As Sharapova says, when it comes to fight, some players are mere pretenders. But not these two.
"I've played some opponents where they've said, 'Come on' after every single point they've won and pump their fist," said Sharapova after her 6-3, 6-3 win over Kirsten Flipkens. "Deep down inside I know they're not really great fighters, and I know that mentally I'm much stronger than them. The fight is not so much about just the winning a point and just the celebration. It's the whole process of working up to that match, working up to a tournament, of mentally being strong and having a really good attitude."
When Henin discusses Sharapova, she consistently uses the word "fight." She realizes that in some ways, this is her match to lose. She's the queen of clay, she's the one who understands the ins and outs of the surface. But she also knows that the Russian will be gunning for her and can get on a hot streak on any surface.
"She's a real fighter and everyone knows everything she did in the past," Henin said. "She remains someone very, very strong. Because she has the fighting spirit, it's gonna be a question of attitude and just try to be aggressive. I like these types of challenges. And you have to think big and play big in some circumstances."
The two have played nine times, with Henin spinning Sharapova around in their two meetings on red clay, one at Berlin in 2005 and another at Roland Garros in the same year, which she won in straight sets in the quarterfinals and then went on to win the title.
However, the tall Russian won their last meeting, a 6-4, 6-0 beat down at the 2008 Australian Open, where she went on to the win the crown. Sharapova was out for revenge in that match, as the little Belgian had outlasted her in three sets in the WTA Championships a few months earlier and she and her camp were have said to have celebrated wildly in the locker room afterward.
Sharapova remembers the good wins over Henin, but also recalls the tough losses, too. For her part, Henin is now in what she calls her second career and has said of her loss to the Russian at the 2008 Australian Open that she knew at the moment that her desire to continue playing was waning. Four months later, she would temporarily retire.
"It seems so far away. I mean, it even seems like it never existed, that moment," Henin said. "I didn't want to be on the court anymore at that time, and now I have a lot of motivation to be out there and to fight and try to keep winning."
Sharapova has a different view on her career, one that has had stops and starts since that triumph in Melbourne. It was her last major title run. Just two months after winning it, she injured her shoulder badly. Seven months later she was on the surgeon's table, and now she's been climbing a long mountain toward recovery, trying to rediscover her once dominant form.
"Actually feels like we never left, or it was just yesterday," Sharapova said. "That's so funny. It was a couple of years ago, and here we are. We're back. It's a different Slam, but it's the same drill. But obviously you think back to the last few years, and both of us have been in different paths and different times in our lives. But here we are going to face each other tomorrow."
The match that will occur on Saturday and will have similarities to those of years past, but it will also have a different look. Sharapova's service speed still is not at pre-surgery levels, but she's spotting it fairly well. For whatever reason, Henin has tried to change her serve during her comeback, reasoning that she needed to add more speed, but in the process, it's become much more inconsistent and will open the door for Sharapova to jump on her second serve and get her nose in front of points. Henin also favors her forehand more than she used to (her inside-out forehand is much improved) and she doesn't slice with as much frequency off her backhand side, but she may bring the shot back against Sharapova, who doesn't like to bend down too often.
"I am not looking to the matches as going in and becoming a clay-court player and changing my game in order to suit someone else," Sharapova said. "I'll certainly incorporate the things that I've worked on, and I feel that maybe will work against her. But at the end of the day, I'm still gonna play as who I am and not trying to be somebody else in order to beat someone."
Henin is a quicker, more sure-footed player on the surface and has more options, but when Sharapova is striking the ball cleanly and deep, she is capable of hitting her off the court. She knows she has to be patient at times and commit to some defense. A wild Sharapova won't be able to get it done against the cagey Henin, who will be in the favorite in the match, and if she shows the same level that brought her four big trophies in Paris, she'll still strut way the winner.
But if she opens the door wide for a Sharapova charge, an upset is not just possible, it's probable. And as Henin said, the gloves will come off, because both of them despise losing.
"I think there's one quality we share, which is we are winners. We are fighters," Henin said. "With this girl, it's never over."