KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Maria Sharapova started strong and
finished fast, while Justine Henin-Hardenne was feisty but rusty.
Henin-Hardenne, playing her first tournament in seven months,
staged a gallant comeback Tuesday but lost to Sharapova 6-1, 6-7
(6), 6-2 in the quarterfinals of the Nasdaq-100 Open.
"She has been a top player," Sharapova said. "I was expecting
a really tough match. It came out to be really tough."
Sharapova, seeded second, failed to convert three match points
in the second set but finally closed out the victory an hour later
with a backhand winner accompanied by her trademark shriek.
The Wimbledon champion, who said she has been winning lately
despite a sore back, will play Venus Williams in the semifinals
Thursday. Venus ended a streak of six consecutive losses to
Serena by winning 6-1, 7-6 (8) later Tuesday.
Henin-Hardenne, coming back from a virus and knee injury, was
pleased to win three matches and give Sharapova a battle.
"It's pretty amazing," the three-time Grand Slam champion
said. "I couldn't imagine before coming to Miami that I would play
at this level. I did a good job, so it's good for my confidence."
Against Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne dug in after a poor start. She
shanked several shots early, and even her picturesque backhand
malfunctioned on a mis-hit that sailed 10 feet long on break point.
She blew an overhead and lost that game, too, and hit a drop shot
that didn't even reach the net.
Sharapova, meanwhile, repeatedly placed shots inches inside the
lines to keep Henin-Hardenne on the defensive.
"She was playing unbelievable tennis," Henin-Hardenne said.
"She's tall and she's powerful. She's a great player."
But with Sharapova on the verge of victory at 5-4, 40-love in
the second set, Henin-Hardenne saved three match points. Sharapova
then double-faulted to lose the game.
With Henin-Hardenne hitting her groundstrokes more aggressively,
Sharapova saved three set points to hold for 6-6, then saved three
more in the tiebreaker before dumping a backhand in the net on the
final point of the set.
"You just keep fighting and keep being positive," Sharapova
said. "Easy to say, hard to do."
She quickly regrouped in the final set, taking a 3-0 lead
against a tiring Henin-Hardenne and improved to 5-0 in
quarterfinals this year. She has rebounded from a 6-0, 6-0 loss to
Lindsay Davenport at Indian Wells earlier this month.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.