PARIS – For a few moments on Sunday, it looked like things were getting away from four-time Roland Garros champion Justine Henin.
Down 0-2 and 0-40 in the third set against the clean-hitting, three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, Henin was being pushed around the court and appeared unsure as to how she could chop the Russian down.
But Sharapova committed a critical backhand error into the net and off Henin flew, rediscovering her often spotty first serve, crushing crosscourt backhands, attacking the net and scampering to and fro retrieving Sharapova 's massive blasts.
The contest really could have gone either way as Sharapova contested one of the best clay court matches of her life, but in the end, the player with more tools on the surface and one of the biggest hearts the game has ever seen came through.
"It's true that this was a match that I feared a bit, because I have great admiration for this girl," Henin said. "She proves it all the time. And even though she is coming back [from injury], she's a real fighter. Each time she had opportunities, like at 5-3 today, 40 Love, she kept encouraging herself. She has great qualities in that respect. So it was a great test for me."
Venus Williams owns as many Grand Slam titles as Henin does (7) but she's not as consistent as the majors and on clay when there are series of elite players in the field, and she remains incredibly vulnerable, hence her 6-4, 6-3 loss to Nadia Petrova in the fourth round.
Venus hasn't made it to the French quarterfinals in four years and given that she'll turn 30 in a few weeks, it's doubtful that she's ever going to make it back to the big dance again.
The last time she did so was in 2002, when she fell to her more accomplished sister, Serena. Venus was faster and more secure in her game off the ground back then.
Today, she is fairly comfortable sliding into shots on dirt, but is lacking consistent power off the ground, and to some degree she's missing that go-for-broke attitude that serves the likes of Sharapova so well. The legendary power hitter was actually belted off the court by the Russian, whom she held a 4-0 record against coming into the match, but who had no fear of her.
On cold and windy days in Paris -- and there are those plenty of those -- Venus often looks confused. She doesn't know how to win ugly on clay, and unlike Serena, who can scratch out wins with her "B" game as she manages her matches better, Venus doesn't switch strategies nearly enough.
So again a former top-five player like Petrova, who is on a bit of a hot streak and is super motivated to make her self into a relevant player again, all she can do is hope that her feel for the ball will return before the match it over. If it doesn't ,she's a goner because despite her No. 2 ranking, she hasn't exactly been making mincemeat of the tour this year. She hasn't been able to win a title in the tour's six largest events.
"A the end of the day you have to connect with the ball, and you have to connect physically and mentally and just make the play," She said. "These days on tour you can't really have a match where you aren't playing your best. Everyone plays their best, especially when they're playing a top player. Out on Court 18 I don't know what they do, but when they come against me, they come hard. So it's tough to have a bad day. It's not as easy to win if you aren't having the best day."
Henin is a different sort entirely; due to her small physical size she's been forced to fiddle with her game. She came on tour a great defensive player and now is winning most of her points with brilliant offense. Even though Sharapova is stronger than she is, she knew she had to throw some hard body blows to shake the Russian and she did.
"I had no more choice [but to attack]," she said. "She's a champion, so as soon as you give her the opportunities, if you play a little bit too short and you don't take the opportunities, she takes them....It's difficult to change your nature [as a player]. But then it's very frustrating to know exactly what's going to pay off. Today I had to go to net because it was important for me to react and I think I've evolved in that respect because I fought and I dared."
Just five months into her comeback, Henin says that her game is still a work in progress and admits that she lacks consistency. If she wins this title, it will might go down as the most extraordinary achievement of her career. In the next round, she'll have to face Aussie Sam Stosur, who has reached a career-high No. 7 ranking, won the green clay title in Charleston and pushed her to three sets in the Stuttgart final last month. Even if she gets past the Aussie, she might have to best No. 1 Serena in the quarters and possibly No. 4 Jelena Jankovic.
Henin isn't looking that far ahead, saying that Stosur has " beautiful qualities on clay because she plays kind of a man's tennis," full of heavy shots, a murderous forehand and kick serve.
If Henin wants to grab her first title, she must be a little more proactive, but she actually seems to prefer to have a cold bucket of water poured over her head so she can wake up and discover her full possibilities
"I usually tend to react more than act. That's part of my character," she said. "OK, I try and evolve. I have changed as compared to what I was years back. There is a huge progress. But I still feel I have to put myself at risk to do what I need to do. I need to be my back against the wall. It's not always easy to manage, but I make it, fortunately."