PREVIEW-Tennis-Unlikely trio eye women's French Open crown
Thursday May 25, 11:06 AM PREVIEW-Tennis-Unlikely trio eye women's French Open crown
LONDON, May 25 (Reuters) - Amelie Mauresmo, Nadia Petrova and Martina Hingis were unlikely to have been at the top of anyone's list of likely French Open champions six months ago. Mauresmo was a perennial underachiever at the grand slams, Petrova floated on the women's tour as the forgotten Russian and Hingis had not even been spotted on a tennis court for three years.
Yet when the Roland Garros gates are thrown open on Sunday for the season's second grand slam, the trio will be among five players the rest of the 128-strong field will want to avoid running into. The other two being Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, the defending champion.
Since Mauresmo contested her first major final at the Australian Open in 1999, when she lost to Hingis, she criss-crossed the world to compete in 23 grand slam events over the next six years.
On every occasion, the talented Frenchwoman's trip ended in frustration as she failed to reach another showpiece match.
Paris was an especially unhappy hunting ground. While she had at least reached the semi-finals in the other three slams, she failed to even equal that feat on home territory. Each time her fragile nerves crumbled under pressure.
After finally getting her hands on a grand slam trophy at the Australian Open in January, however, Mauresmo has acquired new-found confidence in her game and is determined to live up to her world number one status in Paris.
"To start the tournament as number one seed will spur me on even if I know that a lot of people will turn their attention to me," said the 26-year-old, who expects to be fully fit despite withdrawing from last week's Italian Open with a sore throat. "I was sorry not to be able to play in Rome where I always had good results but maybe that's a good thing," she said.
"The previous years I won in Rome or reached the final and it didn't help me in Paris."
When her Russian compatriots Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova won three of the four majors in 2004, Petrova got lost in the crowd.
In fact, she did not win her first WTA title until last season.
This year she has been almost unstoppable on clay, sweeping up titles in Amelia Island, Charleston and Berlin.
Hingis has been the story of 2006. Since announcing her comeback in December from a self-imposed three-year exile, she has clambered up the rankings at a furious pace.
Victory in the Rome final cemented her place as one of the serious challengers for the Roland Garros crown and the world number 14 is eager to win the only grand slam title that slipped through her grasp during the first phase of her career.
The 1997 and 1999 runner-up is happy with her role as underdog.
"The pressure is on them, it's not on me, and now with winning this event I know that I can do it again. I know I'm very close."
In 2005 a merciless Henin-Hardenne took just 62 minutes to pummel Mary Pierce into a 6-1 6-1 submission in the final, capturing her fourth major trophy.
The win capped an undefeated 24-match streak during the gruelling claycourt season.
Second-ranked Clijsters is no big fan of clay but has been runner-up in Paris twice.
Like Henin-Hardenne, the U.S. Open champion has had her share of injury problems but is now raring to go.
"Nothing is stopping me from going out a hundred percent, that's the most important thing," she said. "Nothing is restricting me from playing, so that's a great feeling to have."