Wednesday, May 22
Americans face tough foes on clay
By Greg Garber
AT ROLAND GARROS
Things you (the tennis fan) may already know about this year's French Open, which begins play May 27:
Gustavo Kuerten, after returning from hip surgery, will be shooting for the second-ever three-peat in 72 years at Roland Garros -- Bjorn Borg's four straight from 1978-81 is the gold standard -- and his fourth Grand Slam title there in six years.
Venus (wrist injury) and Serena Williams, who have only managed to reach a combined three quarterfinals in Paris, again will not display the patience, stamina and finesse required to win this Slam.
ESPN's commentators will reference the "red clay of Roland Garros" no fewer than 47 times in two weeks of extensive coverage -- and the hair on commentator Cliff Drysdale's arm will stand on end each and every time.
Pete Sampras, 0-for-ever in the French but a lucky 13-time winner in the other three Grand Slams, will go home without the title for the unlucky 13th time.
One or both of the two young Belgians, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, will reach the semifinals as they did a year ago.
Andy Roddick, the 19-year-old American and heir apparent to Sampras, will travel deep into the tournament as he seeks his fourth title on clay.
Clay is a curious beast.
It is dirt, after all. It is a maddeningly slow surface if you have a cannon for a serve; a torturous venue if you have a short attention span and live for quick points. Patience is the only virtue in the City of Light.
"When you grow up playing on clay, you know the points are going to be long," Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela, the No. 12-ranked player in the ATP's Champions Race, told ESPN.com. "You know you are going to have to fight for every point, scramble for every ball.
"To play well on clay, you must be patient. Hitting winners is much harder than on grass or hard courts."
This is why the ugly Americans typically disappear in the early rounds, although last year Jennifer Capriati was the first American-born French Open women's winner since Chris Evert won back-to-back titles in 1985-86. Andre Agassi broke through in 1999 with the first American win there in nine years.
The Europeans and South Americans, in particular, grew up playing on clay and tend to have the steady, point-building game that flourishes on the more forgiving surface. The clay-court season, which began in early April, has confirmed this fact:
In 20 tournaments on clay (11 on the women's side), Americans have won only five titles: Venus Williams at Amelia Island and Hamburg, Serena Williams in Rome, Roddick in Houston and Andre Agassi in Rome. Spain had four winners, while Argentina had three. It is worth noting that Spain's Angeles Montolio has as many tournament wins as Williams, while household names such as Argentina's Gaston Gaudio and Morocco's Younes El Aynaoui have two titles each, or the same number as Roddick and Agassi combined.
The young Argentines have been notably en fuego thus far this season. There are four inside the top 25 of the ATP Champions Race: Gaudio, 23, is No. 13; Chela, 22, is No. 12; Guillermo Canas, 24, is No. 17; and David Nalbandian, 20, is No. 24. They are all threats to do damage at the French Open. Beyond Kuerten, these little-known (at least in America) clay-court phenoms merit consideration:
With Gustavo Kuerten still not 100 percent, Juan Carlos Ferrero might finally win the Grand Slam in Paris.
Juan Carlos Ferrero, Spain
Ferrero, 22, has reached the French Open semifinals the past two years, only to lose to Kuerten, the eventual champion. This could be, should be, his year. He is a classic dirt wizard with a modern spin; he takes the ball early and employs an aggressive and acute topspin. He won at Monte Carlo, but was bounced early in Rome and Hamburg.
Gaston Gaudio, Argentina
Gaudio was beaten in the first round of the Italian Open two weeks ago (by Wayne Ferreira), but that ended a streak of 13 consecutive victories on clay, which included his first two ATP tournament victories in Barcelona and Mallorca. In Barcelona, Gaudio lost no more than six games in five of his six matches. Some of the players Gaudio beat on his way through those draws: Grand Slam champions Carlos Moya, Lleyton Hewitt and Kuerten. Gaudio is a scintillating 16-2 on clay heading into the French Open.
Albert Costa, Spain
It was Costa who sent Ferrero reeling from Hamburg in the first round, this after losing the first set 2-6. Nearly 27, Costa is enjoying a fine clay season; he was 13-2 after beating Ferrero. His 11 career ATP titles have all come on clay. Twice he has reached the quarterfinals in Paris, as recently as 2000.
Guilliermo Canas, Argentina
Canas is a well-rounded performer -- 19-10 last year on hard surfaces, 18-7 on clay and 7-2 on grass. He made the clay finals at Casablanca this year and the semis in Barcelona.
"I love the clay season in Europe," Canas says. "They are similar to the ones I grew up on Buenos Aires. Here, I am motivated to play well."
Even though he is not in top form, Guga [Kuerten] is the favorite in the French. Then you have Ferrero, [Alex] Corretja and Agassi.
Juan Ignacio Chela
Juan Ignacio Chela, Argentina
Chela is another versatile player who defies the "clay-court specialist" label. He reached the hardcourt final in Sydney, but lost to Sampras in the second round of the Australian Open. He was a quarterfinalist in Miami, but has suffered a rugged clay season.
"Even though he is not in top form, Guga [Kuerten] is the favorite in the French," Chela insists. "Then you have Ferrero, [Alex] Corretja and Agassi."
How about Chela?
"I'm playing OK," he said, laughing. "It is hard for me. Maybe not to win but to do well."
While people complain about the women's game being numbingly predictable, the French Open still has the ability to surprise. The past five winners: Iva Majoli, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (nine years after her first triumph there), Steffi Graf (just shy of 30 and retirement), Mary Pierce and Capriati.
If Jennifer Capriati defends her French Open title, she'll have won four of the past six Grand Slams.
Capriati, of course, is the favorite, having won three of the past five Grand Slams. She was last year's French champion after losing the first set to Belgian Kim Clijsters 1-6, then rallying to take the second set 6-4 and the third by a staggering 12-10. In this year's Australian Open, Capriati won a memorable final in the wilting heat, saving four championship points against Martina Hingis before prevailing in three sets. A win in Paris would give Capriati the first two Slams in 2001 and 2002 -- the first four of her career.
Clijsters and another Belgian, Justine Henin, will make their presence known -- count on it. Clijsters made a name for herself in last year's final and now at only 18 she is becoming a fixture in Grand Slam semis. This year, she defeated Henin in the quarterfinals to reach the Australian Open's Final Four before losing to Capriati again. Clijsters is ranked No. 4, despite missing six weeks with a broken arm she suffered in Australia.
All Henin (No. 5) has done is reach five finals: Gold Coast, Antwerp and Amelia Island -- losing to Venus Williams in all three -- plus Hamburg and Rome that she split with Serena Williams.
Lindsay Davenport (knee injury) and France's Nathalie Tauziat (retirement) will be missing, but a number of athletes are playing well. Majoli, for one, has resurfaced after a more than four-year absence at the top of the women's game due to injuries and poor form. Ranked for three straight years in the top 10, Majoli saw her ranking plummet as low as No. 163. Now ranked No. 32, she won in Charleston last month, beating Patty Schnyder in the final, her first WTA title since 1997, the year she won the French Open. Schnyder, too, has shown flashes of the game that once vaulted her into the top 10. To reach the Charleston final, she took out Capriati, Serena Williams and Amelie Mauresmo -- top 10 players all. Schnyder currently is sitting at No. 23. Here are some players not on the marquee that could make a good impression at the French, as well:
Daniela Hantuchova, Slovakia
Daniela Hantuchova isn't a marquee player for the French, but expect her to grab some limelight.
As an 18-year-old, she won her first WTA title, Indian Wells, in March, taking out no less than Martina Hingis in the final. Hantuchova, the No. 18 seed, became the lowest seed to win a Tier 1 event since 1980. She reached a career-best third round at the Australian Open in singles, lost in the doubles final with Sanchez Vicario and won the mixed doubles with Kevin Ullyett. She's ranked a career-high No. 13.
Anna Smashnova, Israel
Smashnova, the best name in tennis, is enjoying the best year of her career at age 25. Only 5-foot-2, 117 pounds, she won titles earlier this year in Auckland and Canberra, doubling her lifetime total, and dispatched Clijsters in Berlin in a 2-hour, 46-minute thriller.
Francesca Schiavone, Italy
A quarterfinalist in Paris a year ago, Schiavone defeated Amanda Coetzer along the way before falling to Hingis. In February, the 21-year-old (ranked No. 35) reached the quarters in Paris, beating Hantuchova in the process.
Lina Krasnoroutskaya, Russia
Forget Anna Kournikova, Krasnoroutskaya is the real Russian deal -- when it comes to playing tennis, anyway. At the age of 17, she reached the French Open quarterfinals a year ago and then advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon. A sprained ankle has kept her out of action for more than two months (during which time she turned 18), but she should be ready to go in Paris.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.