She stands only 5ft 5in tall and weighs just nine stone, yet Justine Henin has the heart of a lion. When she served at 0-2 down and 0-40 against Maria Sharapova in the third set yesterday it seemed that the Belgian's hopes were about to be ground into the red dust of Court Philippe Chatrier, but Henin has not won four French Open titles without demonstrating her appetite for a fight.
Half-an-hour later, having responded with a bold display of attacking tennis, Henin was celebrating a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory – her 24th in succession here – to earn a fourth-round meeting with Australia's Sam Stosur. With Venus Williams, the world No 2, going out to Nadia Petrova, the chances of Henin crowning her comeback after a 20-month retirement with triumph here are increasing with every day.
Sharapova, nevertheless, gave her fellow former world No 1 her toughest test on these courts for five years. The Russian is not at her best on clay and has spent much of the last two years making her own comebacks, the latest following a six-week absence with an elbow injury, but Sharapova is a ferocious competitor. Having been outplayed in the first set, the 2004 Wimbledon champion went on the attack in the second to stop Henin's run of 40 consecutive winning sets here, which equalled the record established by Helen Wills Moody in 1932. The match was stopped at one set apiece in near darkness at 9.08pm on Saturday night.
When they resumed Sharapova picked up where they had left off, but from 0-2 and 0-40 down Henin served impeccably and wrested back the initiative by taking the game to her opponent. "At 2-1 I was a bit more tentative than I was in the first three games," Sharapova admitted. "She started being a bit more aggressive and feeling much better about her game." Henin said the third game of the final set had been crucial.
"At 3-0 and with two breaks it would have been really difficult to come back," she said. "I was feeling under pressure, but from 0-2 and 0-40 I stayed focused on every point and hit a few good first serves. I came to the net and that gave me my confidence back."
Did Henin think she was back to her former level? "I don't want to compare because everything is so different. I'm not yet as consistent as I was. I've only played a few tournaments. The confidence that I used to have had been built over many years. As I said when I started, this is going to be a year of transition. I have real ambitions to go as far as possible, but I'm also conscious that I'll have to work hard on my intensity and concentration and need to be more consistent. I know there will still be ups and downs. But I knew that would be the case and I accept it."
Williams has been the most consistent player on the women's tour in recent months, but the American has not gone beyond the quarter-finals here since her only appearance in the final eight years ago. Petrova, who had to save three match points against Aravane Rezai in the previous round, hit the ball well throughout and is a proven performer on this surface, having reached the French Open semi-finals on two previous occasions. She now meets Elena Dementieva, a fellow Russian, for a place in the last four.
Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 3, is also through to the quarter-finals but needed three hours to beat Flavia Pennetta 7-6, 6-7, 6-2. The Dane now faces another Italian, Francesca Schiavone.Reuse content