The world's best tennis pros take aim at the second Grand Slam of the year
For the tennis world, the end of May is dedicated to the French Open, the culmination of the clay season: a tumultuous globe-trotting, two-month span where winning is more about patience than power, topspin than pace and fitness than flamboyance.
Dominated by a number of Europeans, clay is a unique surface. The high-bouncing dirt is more suited to consistent baseliners than flashy serve-and-volleyers, much to the chagrin of the typical modern tennis player " a dull, power player all about power and allergic to finesse. Winners in Paris exhibit different kinds of strengths: mental fortitude to survive 20-shot rallies, control to minimize errors and an appreciation for red courts of Roland Garros.
Roger Federer (#1): After two months of shock defeats to lesser players, the 10-time Grand Slam champion's chances looked bleak. But Federer's recent triumphs - including a resounding comeback win over Nadal on clay, marking Federer's first win over Nadal on the surface and the first time Nadal has lost on clay in 82 matches " have earned him redemption. He should make another trip to the finals, at least.
Rafael Nadal (#2): The two-time defending champion, despite his recent loss to Federer, should be comfortable with his chances of repeating again. As the second seed, he won't meet Federer until the finals. Moreover, few compete as well as Nadal and no one has a game better suited to clay.
Justine Henin (#1): Henin has little fanfare coming into the tournament after a solid but unspectacular clay court season. But Henin moves the best of all the women on clay, and she has the power and finesse to win (assuming her fragile body holds up). Her draw includes a tough potential quarterfinal with a resurgent Serena Williams.
Maria Sharapova (#2): Sharapova has, once again, gotten an easy draw. Even with her lackluster warm-up season and questionable defense skills, "Shriekapova" will probably grunt her way to a semifinal against compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova or Serbian newcomer Ana Ivanovic. If she scrapes into the final, she'll get clobbered by either Henin or Williams.
Who and what to look for
The French Open has a long history of surprise winners (Anastasia Myskina, Gaston Gaudio), and the French-Wimbledon six-week span is usually a breakout season for future stars (Nicole Vaidisova, Rafael Nadal) and potential stars never to be heard from again (Jelena Dokic, Alexandra Stevenson).
At the French Open, a slew of young pretenders are looking to dismantle the established names. New top-10 players Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Anna Chakvetadze and returning semifinalist Vaidisova will look to challenge Henin for the crown. Ivanovic and Vaidisova, hard-hitting power players, will dictate with big forehands and serves, while Jankovic and Chakvetadze will stick to grinding. Last year's finalist, third seed Svetlana Kuznetsova can another run if she can take advantage of a well-suited game and an easy draw.
On the men's side, the emerging star of the next generation - Novak Djokovic - will try to continue an already standout season that has yielded three tournament wins so far and defend his quarterfinal points from last year. Guillermo Canas, back after a lengthy doping suspension, has already defeated Federer twice this year and has the game to go deep. The other contenders are mostly long-shots, a collection of mercurial talents with no self control - Marat Safin, Tomas Berdych, and the Federer-esque Richard Gasquet, who is long overdue for a breakout tournament.
The women have been dreadfully dull this year, though the return of Serena Williams has brought back some drama. Otherwise, Henin is still dominating the tour despite playing eight or nine fewer tournaments each year than the average pro.
Federer will once again try to win the one major to elude him, and complete the Grand Slam, where one player wins all four majors. If he wins the French Open, he will also have a chance to win the a calendar year Grand Slam. Meanwhile, Nadal will try to defend his clay-court stronghold (and ranking points) and build a new streak.
The Men: Roger Federer (1) v. Rafael Nadal (2)
Winner: Roger Federer
The Women: Justine Henin (1) v. Ana Ivanovic (7)
Winner: Justine Henin
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