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Sharapova, Henin set up French Open showdown
Belgium's Justine Henin reacts after a winning point as she plays Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova during their first round match for the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Tuesday, May 25, 2010. Henin won 6-4, 6-3. - photo by Associated Press

PARIS — So much has transpired in the nearly 2½ years since Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin last played each other.

Sharapova needed right shoulder surgery and was off the 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 Saturday by wrapping up matter-of-fact victories on a sun-soaked, busy Friday.

"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 2½ hours. Even that wasn't exactly shocking, when you consider Kirilenko already beat Kuznetsova on clay at Rome this month and knocked out Sharapova at the Australian Open in January. Plus, Kuznetsova arrived in Paris with a losing record this year and barely eked through the second round by saving four match points.

"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. "I didn't come here with my best game, but I gave it my all."

With so many other top players still around, some must start facing each other. Four-time French Open champion Nadal meets past Wimbledon and U.S. Open winner Hewitt on Saturday. 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 of the Czech Republic 6-3, 6-3. "I didn't want to be on the court anymore at that time, and now I have a lot of motivation to be out there and to fight and try to keep winning."

Here is Sharapova's take: "Actually, feels like we never left. Or it was just yesterday. That's so funny. It was a couple of years ago, and here we are. We're back. It's a different Slam, but it's the same drill."

Like Henin's second-round match, Sharapova's was halted in the second set because of darkness Thursday night. Like Henin, Sharapova wasn't challenged much in a 6-3, 6-3 victory, hers coming against 71st-ranked Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium.

Clay never has been the 6-foot-2 Sharapova's preferred surface; she's only once been as far as the semifinals in seven previous trips to the French Open, while she won each of the other Grand Slam tournaments.

The 5-foot-5¾ Henin, in contrast, excels at Roland Garros, where she has earned four of her seven major titles and owns winning streaks of 23 matches and 39 sets.

They're forced to face off this early because Sharapova is seeded 12th, and Henin 22nd — far lower than both have been, but a consequence of all those matches they missed over the past two seasons. Henin, remember, is competing at the French Open for the first time since 2007, when she won a third consecutive championship.

"We have different features and qualities, of course. She is tall. She can be very powerful. She can be a slugger when she hits the ball," said Henin, who has won six of nine matches against Sharapova. "There's one thing we share ... which is: We are winners. We are fighters. With her, it's never over."

Other women's third-round matchups Saturday include No. 1 Serena Williams against No. 29 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, and No. 4 Jelena Jankovic against No. 27 Alona Bondarenko.

Williams needed all of 55 minutes to overwhelm unseeded Julia Goerges of Germany 6-1, 6-1 Friday, while Pavlyuchenkova beat Jill Craybas of Providence, R.I., 6-4, 6-1.

"I can learn a lot, like, 'OK, what am I doing today? How can I get them to all be like that?'" Williams said. "Those are the questions that I ask and I try to answer."

Her older sister, second-seeded Venus, is a step ahead, already moving into the French Open's fourth round for the first time since 2006 with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 26 Dominika Cibulkova, a semifinalist last year.

Afterward, Venus declared that when this French Open ends, the buzz-worthy, black-lace, corset-like dress that she designed and has worn for each match "will be retired."

"I mean, as great as the design is," she explained, "I really want the focus to be on the tennis."

Her next opponent will be No. 15 Aravane Rezai or No. 19 Nadia Petrova, whose match was stopped because of darkness at 7-all in the third set. Women reaching the fourth round included No. 3-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, No. 5 Elena Dementieva, No. 14 Flavia Pennetta, No. 17 Francesca Schiavone and 131st-ranked qualifier Chanelle Scheepers, the first South African woman to make it this far at the French Open since Amanda Coetzer in 1997.

Defending champion Federer eased into the fourth round by defeating 165th-ranked qualifier Julian Reister of Germany 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, No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 15 Tomas Berdych and No. 20 Stanislas Wawrinka.

Tsonga is the last Frenchman still playing; Berdych's 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory over No. 17 John Isner of Tampa, Fla., means Andy Roddick and Robby Ginepri are the only U.S. men left; and the two remaining Swiss men will square off when Wawrinka plays Federer, his pal, mentor and gold-medal-winning doubles partner at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"He's no longer asking for tips," Federer said, "which is a good sign."