Youngsters step up with breakthrough performances

PARIS -- With all eyes on the grand dames of this French Open -- at 25, Serena Williams and Justine Henin were the oldest women left in the draw -- a quiet revolution continued on Tuesday.

While Henin advanced to the semifinals, she is joined there by three young and charismatic stars. Ana Ivanovic, 19, defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-0, 3-6, 6-1 to advance to a match with 20-year-old Maria Sharapova, a 6-3, 6-4 winner over Anna Chakvetadze, another 20-year-old Russian.

Jelena Jankovic, 22, defeated Nicole Vaidisova 6-3, 7-5, but the 18-year-old Vaidisova saved four match points in the process.

A year ago, Serbians Jankovic and Ivanovic were ranked No. 32 and No. 21. Today, they are No. 5 and No. 7, respectively. It will be the first Grand Slam singles semifinal for Ivanovic and only the second for Jankovic, who reached the U.S. Open semis last year, only to lose to Henin -- her opponent on Thursday.

This also marks the first time two Serbian women have advanced to the semifinals of a Grand Slam. Novak Djokovic, a 20-year-old Serb, meets Igor Andreev in Wednesday's first men's quarterfinal.

"Wherever you go, it's just Serbians all over the place, winning all these matches," said Jankovic, laughing. "It's just incredible. I'm just proud of that and just, hopefully, we can keep going."

Seven of the top eight women's seeds advanced to the quarterfinals, and the one interloper was No. 9 Chakvetadze, who supplanted No. 5 Amelie Mauresmo -- hardly a huge upset. This produced the usual grumbling that women's tennis is too predictable.

But, on second look, the four quarterfinal matches all seemed too close to call with certainty, a refreshing development.

Thirty minutes before the first serve, ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, a frenzy of pastels, walked into Court Suzanne Lenglen to call the Jankovic-Vaidisova match.

"This is as good as it gets," Fernandez said. "You can't have closer matches. Everyone has always criticized women's tennis for lopsided matches. Well, they're not lopsided any more.

"These youngsters have stepped up. They're playing with confidence and their rankings show it. They've all had their breakthroughs. This is a huge day toward making that next breakthrough."

As it turned out, Ivanovic took the biggest step forward.

She had been the least impressive entering the quarterfinals, defeating Sofia Arvidsson, Sania Mirza, qualifier Ioana Raluca Olaru and Anabel Medina Garrigues to get there. Still, she had beaten Kuznetsova -- the 2004 U.S. Open champion -- three weeks ago in the Berlin final.

That match ended in a third set tiebreaker, but this one almost bordered on psychotic. Ivanovic won the first set at love, dropped the second set and then won the third 6-1. She is a much better player, she said, than the 17-year-old who advanced to the quarters in here first appearance at Roland Garros.

"My fitness [is] a big difference," she said. "And also, a lot of experience because I played so many matches since then. That experience helped me a lot and made me more calm today."

Jankovic continues to be the most successful player on the women's side this year. She has now won 44 of 54 matches. Her speed and relentless retrieving more than neutralized Vaidisova's bigger serve and ground strokes.

In the sixth game of the first set, her signature shot -- a pure backhand down the line -- broke Vaidisova's serve and was part of a 10-point run that changed the chemistry of the match. After saving four match points, she dropped a forehand into the net and Jankovic was destined (doomed?) to face Henin, who not only knocked her out of the 2006 U.S. Open but also beat her twice last month on clay, both times in three sets.

Jankovic, despite her recent success, still has a reputation of being something of a head case. She did nothing to dispel that notion in her matches against Henin in Warsaw and Berlin.

"I will focus on my objectives, and whether or not she buckled under pressure, I mean, it doesn't matter," Henin said. "You might think that's an asset for me, the fact that she's psychologically weak, but I don't pay attention to that. I will have to be cautious, in fact."

Roland Garros was the one Grand Slam tournament in which Sharapova had never reached the semifinals -- until Tuesday. After weathering a draining three-set match with Patty Schnyder, she breezed in this one. There was no evidence of a sore right shoulder; her serve actually bailed her out a few times against Chakvetadze.

"I really didn't know what to expect from [the shoulder]," Sharapova said. "I thought it was going to be worse than it was, so after the match, especially, I'm very pleased. But I wouldn't say I'm surprised or shocked by the situation."

Sharapova last played Ivanovic in Tokyo back in February but retired with a hamstring injury trailing 1-6, 1-0.

"She's had some good success this clay-court season," Sharapova said. "It will definitely be a very tough match."

Another potentially explosive, 50-50 match? Parity has finally risen to the top of women's tennis. Enjoy it.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.