If there were any doubters, it's time to run for cover: Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne has regained her stride. She showed it today, humbling the Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova of Russia in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2.
The victory propels Henin-Hardenne into the semifinals of the 2005 French Open and makes her a clear favorite to regain the crown she won in 2003 before suffering health problems.
"She played a lot better than I did," said Sharapova, the Russian-born stylist who lives in Florida.
The difference became clear midway through the first set, when Henin-Hardenne broke Sharapova's serve twice. While she lost her own serve in the process, the diminuitive Belgian took a 4-3 lead, then closed out the set.
At 1-all in the second set, Sharapova faltered, double-faulting on break point. That was virtually all Henin-Hardenne needed, slugging backhands into the corners and handling Sharapova's strongest shots. Henin-Hardenne soon piled up a 5-2 lead, scoring with a series of spectacular shots. One of the best was a court-spanning topspin backhand that drove the ball into a far corner, where it bounded beyond Sharapova's reach.
"I was feeling great on the court," said Henin-Hardenne. "I felt I had a lot of time, and I was in the good rhythm, and I served very good," she said, explaining that she defeated Sharapova earlier this month in Berlin on a clay court that played slower, blunting her most powerful strokes.
Because clay can cause the ball to bounce higher, power players like Sharapova suffer a disadvantage competing on the red dust. But Henin-Hardenne signaled that Sharapova's best days are ahead of her.
"Maria is very young. Everybody knows she is very strong on the hard court and on grass. That's the best surfaces [sic] for her game, like probably clay is probably the best surface for me."
In the semifinals here, Henin-Hardenne faces Nadia Petrova, another Russian, whose tournament results are less impressive than either Sharapova or Henin-Hardenne. The Belgian will be a heavy favorite.
Henin-Hardenne was the world's top player in 2003, when she won the French and U.S. Opens, then took the Australian Open crown in January, 2004. After that, her play fell off from a series of health problems. In the last two months, Henin-Hardenne returned to the tour with a vengeance, winning titles in Charleston, S.C.; Warsaw, Poland; and Berlin.