Serena faces an
uphill battle on clay
Uneven season, healthy Henin-Hardenne
could keep U.S. star from French Open title
Serena Williams is bidding to win her second major of the year, but her chances at the French Open title could be hurt by her limited match play this season, says Tracy Austin of NBCSports.com.
By Tracy Austin
Updated: 4:26 p.m. ET May 19, 2005
There isn't a clear-cut favorite to win the women's singles title at the French Open, but a former champion at Roland Garros, Justine Henin-Hardenne, is back in a big way from a right knee injury and she rates an edge over the rest of the field, including Australian Open champion Serena Williams.
Getting her health back
Henin-Hardenne posted a singles record of 35-4 last season, but she did not play after the U.S. Open due to injury.
She finally got back on the court in March in Miami and impressively made it to the quarterfinals before losing to Maria Sharapova in three sets.
She quickly shook off any rust from her layoff by following up her performance in Miami with three clay-court titles (Charleston, Warsaw and Berlin).
Henin-Hardenne likes clay and it's a surface she feels very comfortable on. She won the French Open in 2003, but exited early last year amid questions over her health.
Prior to beginning defense of her Roland Garros title last spring, the 22-year-old Belgian withdrew from Charleston with hypoglycemia and from Berlin and Rome with a viral condition. In Paris she defeated Sandrine Testud in the first round but then was upset by Tathiana Garbin in the second round.
It was the earliest departure for a French Open No. 1 seed since seedings were introduced at Roland Garros in 1925.
So Henin-Hardenne might well be on a mission to erase the sour memory of last year.
It's been a very strange year for Serena.
She won the Australian Open by coming from a set down to defeat Lindsay Davenport. But after that she played in just five events, withdrawing from the Paris Indoor tournament with a gastrointestinal illness and retiring from matches in Dubai (shoulder injury) and Amelia Island (left ankle sprain).
In the other two tournaments she played following the Australian Open she lost to sister Venus in the quarterfinals at Miami and to Francesca Schiavone in straight sets in her first match in Rome.
So Serena has not exactly had terrific preparation leading up to the second major of the season.
Although she lacks significant playing time this season, Serena is the only person I would say could get past that and win a tournament.
Her athletic ability, desire and hunger seem to make her a threat to win any tournament when she puts her mind to it.
The Belgian missed the Australian Open while recovering from a left wrist injury.
In February she returned from a three-month absence from the WTA Tour. She got back on track by winning tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami.
But earlier this month Clijsters had to retire from a third-round match at Berlin after suffering ligament damage to her right knee. That injury forced her to withdraw from Rome and left her status for the French Open in doubt.
Clijsters will have had two and half weeks off before the French Open begins to get her knee better and if she's healthy I like her chances at Roland Garros.
She's a terrific athlete, moves very well, and clay is a surface she likes to play on.
The 25-year-old native of France has had an up-and-down year. She got to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open but then lost in the finals of the Paris Indoor tournament to Dinara Safina.
She did win titles in Antwerp and Rome but also exited Indian Wells in the third round, losing to Evgenia Linetskaya who is ranked No. 40 in the world.
Last year Mauresmo came to Roland Garros having posted successive clay-tournament wins in Berlin and Rome.
But while playing solidly on clay, Mauresmo hasn't handled the pressure well at the French Open and last season she was knocked out in the Paris quarterfinals for the second straight year.
There is the weight of expectation on the Frenchwoman's shoulders and she has not yet been able to live up to that steep pressure.
Davenport has never been known as a phenomenal clay-court player, but she has won titles on the surface including at Amelia Island earlier this year.
This spring she did not go to Europe for the clay-court tournaments, but did play on the surface in Charleston where she lost in the quarterfinals to Justine Henin-Hardenne.
I can't say it was a mistake for Davenport to not play in Berlin and Rome because avoiding a long stretch in Europe leading up to Roland Garros could benefit her. She may feel that being fresh, eager and hungry and not being abroad for a long stretch is most advantageous to her chances at the French Open.
Davenport has a shot to win a title on the red clay, although this Grand Slam has never been her strong suit because her mobility gets tested.
Venus has not had a great season so far.
She lost to Amelie Mauresmo in the final at Antwerp and fell to Maria Sharapova in the semifinals at Miami -- that after beating sister Serena in the quarterfinals.
At Dubai she lost in the first round and at Charleston she went out in the third round. She did win two Federation Cup matches for the United States, but it just has not been a typical Venus Williams' season of say three or four years ago.
Venus is not blowing opponents away like she did earlier in her career and I think that's led her opponents to not fear her like they did in the past.
Venus has made one Roland Garros final, losing to sister Serena in 2002.
Venus needed six months off to recover from an abdominal injury that stopped her from competing midway through the 2003 season, and she has never really completely come back from that injury -- confidence-wise, game-wise, her opponents don't fear her like they did before.
Since Venus has returned to the tour her results have been impressive, but they haven't been as stellar as they were before she got hurt.
The surprise winner last year at Roland Garros has had a very shaky and brief clay-court season. She has played in just three tournaments, a total of four matches, and she has lost three of them. She isn't competing in Rome due to what she has called personal reasons.
Myskina's coach Jens Gerlach says the 23-year-old will attempt to defend her French Open title despite a nagging shoulder injury.
Others to watch
Maria Sharapova has never won a clay-court event so she's not a favorite at Roland Garros, but with her talent she could win the title.
Svetlana Kuznetsova made it to the fourth round last year at Roland Garros in just her second French Open.
She plays well on clay and on that surface in Warsaw earlier this season she lost a hard-fought, three-set final to Justine Henin-Hardenne.
Elena Dementieva was runner-up to Myskina last year on the red clay.
She is strong on the surface and made the final at Charleston earlier this season, losing to Justine Henin-Hardenne. She also won two matches on clay for Russia in Federation Cup play in April.
Dinara Safina is playing in just her third French Open, but she has a lot of potential and has spent a lot of time playing on clay this spring.