The French Open women's semifinals were such lopsided affairs that they barely amounted to two hours' worth of shot-making at Roland Garros on Thursday. But the routs rewarded tennis-loving Parisians with the championship match-up they most want to see.
Saturday's final will pit a Frenchwoman they love, 2000 French Open winner Mary Pierce, against a European neighbor they respect, Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, the tournament's 2003 victor. Both met little resistance from Russian challengers in their bid to reclaim the Grand Slam title they most adore.
Employing a full array of shots on the slow, red clay, Henin-Hardenne needed just 68 minutes to oust seventh-seed Nadia Petrova, 6-2, 6-3, in the first semifinal. Pierce was even more efficient, dismissing an addled Elena Likhovtseva, 6-1, 6-1, in 57 minutes.
The outcome scuttled what could have been the third all-Russian final in the past five Grand Slams. And it guaranteed a passionate atmosphere for Saturday's final, with shouts of "Allez, Mah-REE!" and "Allez, Zhoo-STEEN!" sure to fill the air when Pierce and Henin-Hardenne step onto Philippe Chatrier Court.
Unlike last year's sloppy final between angst-ridden Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva, Saturday's match should deliver an intriguing contrast of styles. At age 30, the 5-foot-10 Pierce will seek to end points quickly with power and pace, while the diminutive Henin-Hardenne will counter with patience and placement. Bubbling under the surface of their battle will be a subtext of psychological drama.
Both women are survivors in their own right, having overcome difficult childhoods marked by loss and estrangement: In Pierce's case, an abusive father with whom she has since reconciled; in the case of Henin-Hardenne, the death of her mother at age 13 and the severing of relations with her father and siblings.
"It makes you want things more," Pierce said, asked about the effect such hardships have had on the finalists. "I think you cope with things differently. You enjoy things more. And when you win, it tastes even better than before."
Henin-Hardenne and Petrova wore identical outfits, from their white baseball caps down to their white anklets, but their play couldn't have been more dissimilar. The Belgian attacked early, driving her groundstrokes deep to knock Petrova on her heels. She ripped off three games in succession to close the first set in 34 minutes, and her confidence only grew from there.
"She was just swinging and making winners and making me run," Petrova said. "She made it difficult today for me."
Henin-Hardenne played her best game with the score knotted at three games each in the second set. With Petrova serving, the Belgian uncorked a backhand winner for break point, then wore down Petrova's patience, forcing the game-breaking error, to take a 4-3 lead.
Henin-Hardenne, barely 5 feet 5, draws strength from her opponents' weaknesses. She mentally dissects them from across the net, searching for vulnerability. And Petrova's was palpable. "When you see the other player is not finding the right solutions, it's a good source of energy," Henin-Hardenne explained.
Energy is a precious commodity to Henin-Hardenne, who spent most of the 2004 season bed-ridden with a viral illness. She was so sapped, at times, that she couldn't muster the strength to dine at a restaurant. "You have all sorts of doubts coming to your mind," she said. "Are you ever going to be normal again?"
The virus eventually tamed, her return to tennis in 2005 was delayed by an ankle injury. So it is something of a shock that she has advanced to the finals of her first Grand Slam since coming back.
"Roland Garros is very special to me," said Henin-Hardenne, who dedicated her 2003 title to her late mother. "To find myself in the finals here is certainly a fantastic feeling because I had very bad moments of fear and problems."
Pierce, by contrast, was all giggles after rolling past Likhovtseva to earn her third appearance in a French Open final -- an achievement she described on French TV as "very surreal!"
A part-time resident of Bradenton, Fla., Pierce has been training in Paris this year. And though her game is not ideal for clay, Pierce was utterly at ease on Center Court, where she complemented her skills with a dash of gamesmanship, drawing out her service games by pausing between points to dust the baseline with her toe, wipe each arm, dab her forehead, adjust her ponytail and knock bits of clay from each sneaker.
Asked if it was annoying, Likhovtseva said: "It is a bit, yes."
That said, Likhovtseva barely mounted a fight. "She didn't give me any rhythm," Likhovtseva said.
"I fell apart, really."
With the Russian serving to stay in the match, Pierce blocked a hard-hit passing shot for match point, then nailed a forehand down the line to seal the victory. She turned to the players' guest box, where her brother, an aunt and cousin looked on, and slapped her hand over her mouth as if in disbelief.