PARIS (AP) – To reach the semifinals at the French Open, Justine Henin-Hardenne overcame shaky nerves, a sore back, questionable stamina and two match points.

It would seem she already deserves some sort of trophy, but that will be awarded only following the final Saturday.

“I’m far from the end at Roland Garros,” Henin-Hardenne said. “The hardest is yet to come. Now every match is going to be very difficult.”

On paper and on clay, the three-time Grand Slam champion and 2003 French Open winner is an overwhelming favorite among the final four. Her opponent Thursday will be Nadia Petrova of Russia, with the other match between another Russian, Elena Likhovtseva, and Frenchwoman Mary Pierce.

Missing from the group are the Williams sisters, two-time runner-up Kim Clijsters, top-ranked Lindsay Davenport, Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo and last year’s finalists, winner Anastasia Myskina and runner-up Elena Dementieva.

Among the top contenders at the start of the two weeks, only Henin-Hardenne successfully navigated the first five rounds.

“I would be surprised if she didn’t win it,” said Sharapova, who lost to Henin-Hardenne in the quarterfinals. “If she keeps her level up, she has a great chance.”

Henin-Hardenne’s play has steadily improved in Paris despite some rocky moments. She occasionally grimaced in pain and struggled with her serve because of a sore back that has bothered her for weeks, and because of rust, she battled nerves through the early rounds.

The Belgian missed much of last year with a blood virus that left her bedridden. But she answered doubts about her conditioning by winning a 3-hour, 15-minute marathon against U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, then beating Sharapova the next day.

Against Kuznetsova, Henin-Hardenne overcame two match points.

“In these moments for her, winning is going to mean a lot more,” Sharapova said. “She was out for so long and obviously really sick. Being able to achieve what she has achieved after that is incredible and really amazing.”

Since rejoining the tour in March following a seven-month layoff, Henin-Hardenne has gone 25-1 with 22 consecutive victories, all on clay.

“I’m a little surprised the way I came back. It was very quick,” she said. “I enjoy every single moment, each point.”

Pierce, the only other semifinalist who has won a Grand Slam title, is also on the comeback trail.

In 2000 she became the first Frenchwoman in 33 years to win at Roland Garros. But in the next two years she hurt her shoulder, back, ankle and abdomen, tumbling from the top 10 out of the top 100.

Now she’s in the semifinals at a major event for the first time since winning the title in Paris.

“It has been a really interesting journey,” she said. “It has been really tough. I’ve had some difficult moments. … I really savor victories now more than before. They mean more to me now because I went through difficult times.”

Born in Montreal and raised in the United States, the 30-year-old Pierce has trained in Paris for the past year and is a French citizen because her mother is a native of the country. Parisians have mocked her American accent and jeered her defeats, including a dismal loss to German Barbara Rittner on center court at Roland Garros in 1996.

“It was a terrible feeling,” said Pierce, managing to smile at the memory of that match. “They started cheering for her. I was like, “Am I still in France? Where am I? This isn’t Germany.”‘

Pierce’s semifinal opponent, Likhovtseva, will play in the first Grand Slam semifinal of her 12-year career. Petrova, the highest-seeded woman remaining at No. 7, also reached the semis in 2003 and will seek a berth in her first Grand Slam final.

A second all-Russian final at Roland Garros in as many years is unlikely, but possible.

“I feel like I’m pretty much on the same level that I can compete with anyone at the moment,” Petrova said.

Said Likhovtseva: “I have nothing to lose.”

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