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It’s a full-court press at French

A straight-set win put the comebacking Maria Sharapova in line to face Justine Henin. A straight-set win put the comebacking Maria Sharapova in line to face Justine Henin. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)
By Howard Fendrich
Associated Press / May 29, 2010

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PARIS — So much has transpired in the nearly 2 1/2 years since Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin last played each other.

Sharapova needed right shoulder surgery and was off the WTA Tour for 10 months, then missed time with a right elbow injury. Henin abruptly announced her retirement and stayed away for 20 months, then returned, happier off the court and, so far, almost as good on it.

The two former No. 1s, owners of a combined 10 Grand Slam titles, set up an attention-worthy showdown in the French Open’s third round today by wrapping up matter-of-fact victories yesterday.

“Comes very early, of course, third round,’’ Henin said. “But I feel ready for it.’’

Relentless rain Thursday created a backlog of matches, meaning that nearly every big name in tennis was swinging a racket somewhere around Roland Garros a day later. Both Williams sisters, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt — all played and won.

The only upset of real significance came when defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova lost, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, to 30th-seeded Maria Kirilenko in a third-round match that lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours.

“I have to move on. I have to grow and to improve,’’ said Kuznetsova, who will fall out of the top 10 in the rankings for the first time in four years.

With so many other top players still around, some must start facing each other. Four-time French Open champion Nadal meets past Wimbledon and US Open winner Hewitt today. That is scheduled to be followed in the main stadium by Sharapova vs. Henin, two women with decidedly different ways of looking at their most recent encounter, a straight-set win by Sharapova in the 2008 Australian Open quarterfinals.

It turned out to be Henin’s last Grand Slam match before her hiatus.

“It seems so far away. I mean, even seems like it never existed, that moment,’’ the Belgian said after eliminating 79th-ranked Klara Zakopalova, 6-3, 6-3.

Here is Sharapova’s take: “Actually, feels like we never left. Or it was just yesterday. That’s so funny.’’

Like Henin, Sharapova wasn’t challenged much in a 6-3, 6-3 victory over 71st-ranked Kirsten Flipkens.

Top seed Serena Williams needed 55 minutes to overwhelm Julia Goerges, 6-1, 6-1. Her older sister, second-seeded Venus, is a step ahead, already moving into the fourth round for the first time since 2006 with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 26 Dominika Cibulkova, a semifinalist last year.

Defending champion Federer eased into the fourth round by defeating 165th-ranked qualifier Julian Reister, 6-4, 6-0, 6-4. The man Federer beat in last year’s final, No. 5 Robin Soderling, also advanced, along with No. 4 Murray and No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

No. 15 Tomas Berdych’s 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory over No. 17 John Isner means Andy Roddick and Robby Ginepri are the only US men left.