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Rafa, JH-H look to defend titles in Paris

Rafa, JH-H look to defend titles in Paris

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The second Grand Slam event of 2006 will get underway on Sunday, as Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin-Hardenne look to defend their crowns at the French Open.

If the amazing Nadal can win his next match, he would set an Open Era record with his 54th straight victory on clay, surpassing a mark set by legendary Argentine Guillermo Vilas way back in 1977. The 19-year-old Spaniard, who will turn 20 on June 3, is off to a 28-3 start this year, including a flawless 17-0 mark on clay. He owns an ATP-co-leading four titles this season, including clay-court ones in Barcelona and at the Monte-Carlo and Rome Masters. Nadal saved two match points before beating the great Roger Federer in a more-than- five-hour epic finale in Rome.

The powerful Nadal is the reigning French Open champion and has won his last 53 matches on clay.
Nadal's awesome run to this point in the season includes three victories over the world No. 1 superstar Federer, who succumbed to the Spaniard in a hardcourt final in Dubai, as well as clay-court title bouts in Monte-Carlo and Rome. Nadal is a stunning 5-1 lifetime versus the "Fed," including a perfect 3-0 record on clay. Nadal beat Federer in last year's French Open semis, and went on to defeat Argentine Mariano Puerta in an all-southpaw final at Roland Garros.

If Federer can somehow prevail at the '06 French extravaganza, he would boast a "Roger Slam," as he heads to Paris as the reigning Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champ. He owns seven major crowns, all told, having won seven of the last 11 Slams, dating back to Wimbledon 2003. No male player has held all four major titles since Rod Laver captured all of 'em (a Grand Slam) in 1969.

Federer is a stellar 38-3 this year, with all three losses coming at the hands of the relentless Nadal. The sublime Swiss needs the French to complete a coveted career Slam.

Federer beat upstart Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis in January's Aussie Open final and, like Nadal, owns four championships overall for the year.

On the women's side, Henin-Hardenne will seek her third French Open title in four years, having run the table in Paris in 2003 and last year, when she downed French crowd favorite Mary Pierce in the final.

The former world No. 1 Henin-Hardenne is a four-time major champion and was this year's Aussie Open runner-up to another French favorite, current world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo.

Back to the men.

If Federer can prevail at the French Open, he would complete a coveted career Grand Slam.
Aside from Nadal and Federer, who are some of the other contenders?

Well, there aren't that many.

Tennis Masters Cup champion David Nalbandian has proven very dangerous an all surfaces and is 6-5 all-time versus Federer. The gritty Argentine reached the French Open semis in 2004 and titled on clay in Portugal earlier this month.

Clearly he's a threat.

Another dangerous performer could be Chilean slugger Fernando Gonzalez, who's now up to No. 9 in the world and is 13-4 on the dirt this year. If his powerful groundstrokes are landing in, watch out.

There are a handful of other potential winners, but I wouldn't say their chances are too serious. This would include the likes of Nikolay Davydenko, Tommy Robredo and 2004 French Open champ Gaston Gaudio. Robredo did win the title at the Hamburg Masters last week, but that watered-down field did not include Federer or Nadal or Nalbandian.

Big-serving specialists like Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick realistically don't have a shot at winning seven straight matches on the slow red clay, so I'm discounting them. Neither the Wimbledon runner-up Roddick nor any of his fellow Americans have a prayer in Paris. Sorry James Blake, but that includes you.

Did I forget to mention Marat Safin? No. This guy is the definition of vulnerable and will not claim his first-ever French title next month.

If I had to pick a darkhorse or two, I'd say watch out for emerging Spanish clay-courter Nicolas Almagro, who is an eye-catching 17-5 on clay this year, including a title in Valencia last month. Hard-hitting Argentine Jose Acasuso is also playing well on the dirt. He's 16-5 on clay this season, including a title in Chile.

Who's kiddin' who, it'll be between Nadal and Federer, and I'm pickin' the hottest of hot hands right now to come out on top in Paris -- Nadal.

FYI, there hasn't been a repeat men's French Open champion since Gustavo Kuerten in 2001. And the only repeat Spanish winner was Sergi Bruguera in 1994.

The men's field will be without several injured stars, including former champs "Guga" (hip) and Andre Agassi (back) and 2004 runner-up Guillermo Coria (elbow).

Back to the women.

The diminutive Henin-Hardenne will seek her third Roland Garros crown in four years.
It's a bit more wide open among the ladies, as Henin-Hardenne can expect a stiff challenge from the likes of Kim Clijsters, Nadia Petrova, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Martina Hingis.

Mauresmo has never advanced beyond the quarters at her home Slam, but she seems to be at the peak of her career right now, holding titles at the prestigious WTA Championships and Aussie Open. She reached a pair of Roland Garros quarters in 2003 and 2004, but is still looking for her breakthrough in the "City of Light."

The former world No. 1 Clijsters is a two-time French Open runner-up (2001 & 2003) and, if healthy, can make a serious run at RG. The 2005 U.S. Open champ lost to her countrywoman Henin-Hardenne in the '03 French finale, and has played in finals at three of the four majors during her career.

The world No. 3 Petrova is the hottest player on the women's tour right now, having won three straight and four of her last five tournaments. She's captured her last three events, all on clay, including a victory in Berlin two weeks ago. She stunned Henin-Hardenne in the final at the German Open and surprised Mauresmo in a hardcourt finale in Qatar back in March.

Petrova gave way to her fellow Russian Sharapova in the Aussie Open quarters four months ago.

The 2004 Wimbledon champion Sharapova has been nursing an ankle injury, but still figures to be one of the players in Paris (at the time of this article), despite a lack of any clay-court preparation. The big Russian hasn't played a tour match since losing to her compatriot Kuznetsova in the lucrative NASDAQ-100 Open final in Miami in the first week of April.

Sharapova hasn't announced that she's skipping the French, so, until then, I'll have to consider her as one of the faves (but certainly not the fave). When she has played in 2006, the wildly-popular covergirl is 21-4, but has yet to swing away on clay.

The two-time Grand Slam runner-up Dementieva's always dangerous, but I think her chances of titling in Paris in the coming weeks is a longshot this year. Her play has been erratic over the past two months, with her last appearance in a final coming at Indian Wells in March. She reached the French final two years ago, but lost to her good friend Anastasia Myskina.

The 2004 U.S. Open titlist Kuznetsova is enjoying a resurgent campaign. After struggling through much of 2005, the sturdy Russian has reached a pair of finals this year (1-1), has landed in at least the semis in six of her 10 tourneys and has failed to reach at least the quarters just once, as she lost to Lindsay Davenport in the fourth round at the Aussie Open. That's pretty consistent.

By the way, an injured Davenport (back) will not join this year's field in Paris.

Don't look now, but the cagey veteran Hingis could be closing in on that elusive French Open championship. She's fresh off her clay-court title in Rome, where five of her six wins came against top-20 talent. It marked her first WTA Tour title since 2002.

Hingis, however, hasn't competed at RG since 2001, when she reached a fifth straight French Open semi. The former world No. 1 and five-time major champion has been eyeing the French title for years, and this appears to be one of her best-ever chances, despite heading into '06 following a three-year layoff from the demanding circuit.

The "Swiss Miss" is a solid 31-7 lifetime in Paris, including runner-up finishes in 1997 and 1999.

Serena Williams won't be on hand for the French. But what about her fellow former world No. 1 sibling, Venus?

The Wimbledon champion Venus, a five-time Grand Slam winner, is scheduled to make the trip, but I'm quite sure that the rusty star will have trouble making it into the second week at RG. She lost to Serena in the 2002 French final.

Are there any darkhorses on the women's side?


The women's pick is difficult, but I'm gonna roll with JH-H. She has to be the player to beat at this event and is probably the best performer on clay. But I wouldn't be surprised if Petrova prevails, as not only is she sizzling right now, but she's reached the French Open semis in two of the last three years and has apparently figured out how to close out matches over the past half year.

The last repeat women's French Open champion was Steffi Graf in 1996.

For the first time in the history of Grand Slam tennis, the men's and women's singles will begin the Sunday before the traditional fortnight. Twelve first- round matches (six men's and six women's) will be staged on the three main courts at Roland Garros -- Philippe Chatrier, Suzanne Lenglen and Court No. 1.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.

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