Petrova a queen on clay?
In wide-open field, streaking Russian could capture French Open title
Nadia Petrova of Russia has the talent to win a major, and she could achieve that goal on the red clay at the French Open, writes Tracy Austin of NBCSports.com.
By Tracy Austin
Updated: 5:02 p.m. CT May 26, 2006
There isn't a clear-cut favorite to win the women's singles title at the French Open, but there sure are a lot of questions surrounding the top contenders.
There also are some big names missing: Serena Williams (left knee injury); Lindsay Davenport (back injury); and Mary Pierce (right foot injury).
Given the circumstances this year's fortnight on the red clay sets up as an opportunity for someone we might not expect to sneak up and win the year's second major.
And that someone might be hard-hitting Russian Nadia Petrova, who must overcome a history of coming up short on the sport's biggest stages.
Petrova's time to breakthrough
The Russian, who will turn 24 just before the French Open draws to a close, is the hottest player coming into the Paris fortnight.
Since the Australian Open, Petrova has won four titles, three of those coming on clay. Her 2006 record on clay heading to Roland Garros is a near flawless 15-1.
She has achieved a career-high ranking of No. 3, and she has twice reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, last year and in 2003.
Petrova has always had the talent, but to me what was lacking in her game was the ability to consistently construct winning points, and a belief in herself.
She may be past those negatives since she showed me a lot by beating Henin-Hardenne in final of the German Open.
The 25-year-old native of France broke through to win her first career major at the Australian Open. She is the top seed at the French Open for the first time, and that might not necessarily be a good thing for her.
Although she is a very strong player on clay, the French Open is the only major where she has never made it past the quarterfinals. Part of the reason why is likely because she feels so much pressure to win in front of her home fans at Roland Garros.
She has to prove the tough times of dealing with the expectations of the Parisian crowds are behind her. I think having the Australian Open title under her belt will help her in her homeland.
As I have written before, in Paris the challenge for Mauresmo is much more mental than it is physical.
Despite an inconsistent season, Henin-Hardenne is the player I would think could have a slight edge in Paris. Last year she bounced back from injury and illness to win her second Roland Garros title, the other coming in 2003.
The Belgian loves clay, but she doesn't seem as confident as she has in the past, and appears a bit more vulnerable. After dealing with an injured hamstring after Paris last year, Henin-Hardenne reduced her schedule this year leading up to the French Open.
Heading into Roland Garros, she had played just 11 matches on clay in 2006, but was an impressive 9-2 in those tests, her only losses coming to Patty Schnyder in Charleston, and Nadia Petrova in Berlin.
She could have a chance at paying back Petrova in the quarterfinals in Paris.
The French Open is the one major Hingis has not won, making the finals in Paris twice, in 1997 and 1999. But her comeback has proven for real, and she is back to elite status on the women's tour.
Hingis has never lacked confidence, but heading to Paris off of winning a big title like the Italian Open has to help her confidence immensely. In Rome, five of her six wins were over top-20 players. That's very consistent, and very solid tennis.
Most of the top players don't possess the great slices, drop shots, and angles that Hingis does, and that diversity in her game can make up for the power she gives away to opponents.
In a perfect world, Hingis would like to have a little more power on her shots, and a bit of a bigger serve, especially a second serve.
But with no one player dominating on the women's tour, this is a perfect time for Hingis to add the one major she's missing on her impressive tennis resume.
has never won a clay-court event and she admits the surface is not her favorite. The French Open is the only major where she has not made the semifinals, and if she is to do so this year she may have to get past fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals.
The 19-year-old Russian looked strong earlier this season on the U.S. hardcourt swing, but she has not played a tournament since Miami in early April.
What's more, she may not be physically at 100 percent having pulled out of events in Rome and Istanbul in recent weeks citing a right ankle injury.
Venus is back from being sidelined after missing more than three months with a right elbow injury after her first-round loss in the Australian Open.
She's played two clay-court events, posting a 6-2 record, her losses coming to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Warsaw, and Martina Hingis in Rome.
Clay is not Venus' favorite surface, but to me she is always a dangerous opponent, no matter the surface.
Last year Venus went out in the third round in Paris, and only once at Roland Garros has she made it past the quarterfinals, that was in 2002 when she lost to her sister Serena in the final.
This year she faces the potential of meeting top-seeded Amelie Mauresmo in the quarterfinals.
The Belgian is a terrific athlete, moves very well, and clay is a surface she likes to play on. But she did not have a good showing at the Italian Open where she lost to Dinara Safina in the third round.
Clijsters' play has not been as consistent as in years past, and she hasn't shown the intensity that helped her win her first major last year, taking the U.S. Open by beating Mary Pierce in the final.
Her one title this year came on the clay in Warsaw, but she has made some early exits at other significant tournaments, which is not a good sign coming into Paris.
Two others to watch
, the surprise winner of the 2005 U.S. Open, plays well on clay. Her record this year on the surface is 13-5, and the last two years she has made it to the fourth round at Roland Garros. With Kuznetsoava, it's almost always all about confidence.
was runner-up to Anastasia Myskina in the 2004 French Open. The Russian is always dangerous on clay, but her results the last few months have been erratic. And she still needs to show she has the mental toughness to win a major.
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