Sharapova gains quarters

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

PARIS — Maria Sharapova slugged her way into the French Open quarterfinals Monday, and one of the first questions she was asked was about her makeup, her dresses and feeling beautiful.

Momentarily nonplussed, she started to answer, then laughed.

''That's such a not-tennis question,'' she said.

Sharapova plays 2003 champion Justine Henin-Hardenne in a match Tuesday that could propel the 18-year-old Russian toward her second Grand Slam title and first anywhere on clay.

When someone asked if she's too young to be ''a global product,'' Sharapova volleyed back, saying, ''Unfortunately, it's too late.''

Winning Wimbledon last summer is bringing Sharapova fame, fortune, endorsements and a never-ending stream of goofy questions, even during tournaments where she's trying to show that she's all business when it comes to tennis.

The second-seeded Russian took all of 10 minutes to sweep the final three games and complete a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Spain's Nuria Llagostera Vives in a match suspended Sunday because of rain. It was more evidence that the slender, 6-foot tall Sharapova can adapt her game, built for hard courts and grass, to the demands of the clay courts that, she has said, expose her few weaknesses.

''I'm getting better and better,'' she said. ''If people underestimate me on clay, then they'll be surprised.''

Henin-Hardenne surely won't underestimate her, especially after the 10th-seeded Belgian squeaked past another Russian teen, reigning U.S. Open champion and No. 6 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 7-5 in a grueling 3-hour, 15-minute duel.

Men's phenom Rafael Nadal of Spain, who turns 19 on Friday, reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal and ran his winning streak to 21 matches by completing a rain-interrupted 6-4, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 victory over No. 23 Sebastien Grosjean of France. The match was halted for 10 minutes when a chair umpire's ruling against Grosjean brought sustained jeers from the center court crowd before it was suspended in the third set Sunday because of the rain.

''The crowd yesterday didn't really behave as they maybe should behave when watching a match,'' said the fourth-seeded Nadal, who next faces No. 20 David Ferrer. ''But this is France, it's not Spain. I've never seen anything like that in Spain, that's for sure. It was just a really silly thing. The umpire was absolutely right.''

In a tournament in which top players have fallen early and often, the fourth round featured the departures Monday of defending champion Gaston Gaudio and the Argentine compatriot he beat in the final last year, Guillermo Coria, as well as Australian Open champ and No. 3 seed Marat Safin.

The fifth-seeded Gaudio blew a 4-0 lead in the final set and lost to No. 20 David Ferrer, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-4.

''I got too nervous, I guess, and after that I couldn't do anything,'' Gaudio said. ''Always to lose is disappointing. Losing like this is even worse.''

Coria, seeded eighth, was eliminated by No. 12 Nikolay Davydenko 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (1), 6-2.

''I'm not playing at the same level as last year,'' Coria said. ''I'm disappointed, but on the other hand I knew that this was the kind of thing that could happen.''

Safin, frustrated by his own play, smashed a racket and put a hole in the base of his changeover chair in the third set of a 7-5, 1-6, 6-1, 4-6, 8-6 loss to Spain's Tommy Robredo that took 3 hours, 50 minutes.

In the end, Safin said, the difference in the match was ''pure luck.''

''Some went my way, some went his,'' he said. ''I can't be angry. He was lucky to get the passing shots, a lot of them. And I'm not taking any credit from him. He played really well. I was missing a little something.''

No. 9 Guillermo Canas of Argentina advanced to the quarterfinals when No. 28 Nicolas Kiefer withdrew hours before their match because of a sore neck.

Kuznetsova acknowledged succumbing to nervousness at critical moments against Henin-Hardenne. Kuznetsova had a chance to serve out the first set with a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker, but lost six of the next seven points. The 19-year-old then wasted two match points at 5-3 in the third set, both with unforced errors.

''The moment I had to do something, I didn't do anything,'' Kuznetsova said.

Henin-Hardenne, who won the last four games, said she could see Kuznetsova tightening up.

''She was afraid to win the match, that was very clear,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ''And when you can see that in the eyes of your opponent, that is very good.''

In Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne knows she will be facing a player who is not as accomplished on clay but is fearless on any court. They played earlier this month on clay in Berlin, Henin-Hardenne winning in straight sets, but the heavier weather here and the pressure of this tournament could easily change the outcome. Fitness may come into play, too.

''Maria had pretty easy matches in the last few days, so she's probably very fresh — more than me,'' said Henin-Hardenne, whose stamina has been an issue since she developed a blood virus last year. She's also been bothered by a back injury for weeks and could be seen grimacing on some serves. Yet her third three-set match in four rounds extended her winning streak to 21 matches, all on clay, and improved her record to 24-1 since returning in March from a seven-month layoff.

A day after 15-year-old Sesil Karatantcheva reached the women's quarters, No. 29 Ana Ivanovic became the third teen to get there. The 17-year-old Serb beat No. 22 Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3 and will next play No. 7 Nadia Petrova.



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