View Full Version : Justine, Serena stand above pack as French Open Favorites

May 26th, 2007, 12:17 PM
By Richard Pagliaro

Hope comes to court during the pre-tournament practice week at the French Open. The crushed red brick court is a clean canvas offering an open expanse of opportunity for all 128 members of the singles draw.

But stop to survey the French Open women's draw released today and the thought of any woman other than reigning Roland Garros champion Justine Henin or 2002 winner Serena Williams raising the Roland Garros title trophy 15 days from now seems as plausible as the prospect of the Mona Lisa being bumped from the Louvre by the first framed painting from an obscure artist.

Two-time defending champion Henin has come to regard the red clay of Paris as her own personal piece of promised land and is bidding to become the first woman to three-peat at the French since Monica Seles swept her third straight title in 1991. Reigning Australian Open champion Williams returns to Roland Garros after a two-year absence seeking to seize the title that would put her halfway to a calendar Grand Slam.

They own a combined 13 major championships between them, they are the top two favorites for the French Open title and they find themselves so close to each other in the draw they can't help but notice each other's names with a brief bracket scan.

If the seeds hold true to form, the top-seeded Henin and eighth-seeded Williams will meet in the last eight and the woman who emerges from that quarterfinal clash will be favored to lift the shiny silver French Open title trophy 13 days from now.

Henin opens against 67th-ranked Russian Elena Vesnina; the pair have not played each other previously. Williams takes on 95th-ranked Tsvetana Pironkova, who upset older sister Venus Williams, 2-6, 6-0, 9-7, in the opening round of the 2006 Australian Open.

When she's playing at the peak of her powers, the muscular Williams' best tennis beats the best any woman in the world has to offer on any surface — except for the lithe Henin on red clay.

On the terre battue the tennis flows from the Belgian with the brilliant one-handed backhand like all the right answers on a test. The 5-foot-5 3/4 Henin has all the shots and all-court ability to confound bigger, stronger opponents and fortifies her vast versatility with innate improvisational skills. Henin has won three of the past four French Open championships, sweeping 22 of her last 23 matches in Paris. She enters the clay-court major with a 14-match French Open winning streak, including 10 consecutive straight sets wins.

In an era of big-hitting baseliners who seldom venture to net other than to complete the customary post-match handshake, Henin is unique in that she can defend on clay perhaps better than any woman in the world and is adept at moving forward in the court as well.

She showcased her seamless transitional ability in taking a 6-0, 4-2 lead over Williams in the Sony Ericsson Open final in Miami in March before a resilient Williams fought off match points to roar back and complete an 0-6, 7-5, 6-3, victory.

"Justine Henin has an all-around game; she's got the most complete game on clay," ESPN analyst and 1993 French Open finalist Mary Joe Fernandez told Tennis Week. "I think she is the favorite and she probably should have beaten Serena in that Miami final."

Henin's impressive resume of results might be daunting to even a former champion and when you consider Williams has not played a French Open match since she lost to Jennifer Capriati, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, in the 2004 quarterfinals, her task becomes of dethroning the defending champion seems even more demanding.

But short-term memory loss has long been one of Williams' biggest assets: she exhibits the uncanny ability to erase the memory of a poor shot, sloppy set or even lost season from her mind, play the next point without a conscience and often strings together a series of aggressive shots. Williams is able to wipe the past from her mind as routinely as a player erasing the stain of a ball mark from the clay court with the simple swipe of her sneaker sole.

In January, Williams concluded her audacious Australian Open return by reasserting her right to create a new start. Crushing the most convincing combinations of her career as if empowered by the prospect of reaching redemption and revival with every single swing of her racquet, the then 81st-ranked Williams delivered an authoritative annihilation of top-seeded Maria Sharapova in scoring a 6-1, 6-2 victory to capture her eighth career Grand Slam singles championship.

That victory solidified Williams status as a player who produces her best tennis on the game's biggest stages.

"After this year's Australian Open, I've gotta tell you: I think anything is possible with Serena," Fernandez said. "She has the heart, she has the belief and she has the serve and to me that serve is the hugest weapon in women's tennis."

The slower surface in Paris will sap some of the sting from Williams serve, however her switch to the smaller head, control-orientated Wilson racquet has helped Williams reduce her errors and construct points with greater patience — a prerequisite to success in Paris.

Williams has won six of nine meetings with Henin, but the five-time Grand Slam champion holds a 3-1 edge in their clay-court clashes, including a victory in in the 2003 French Open semifinals that escalated into an emotional event for both the players and the crowd. Henin showed survival skills in playing determined defense to subdue her harder-hitting opponent and rally for a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 triumph that snapped Williams' 33-match Grand Slam winning streak. Six points separated Williams from her fifth consecutive Grand Slam final as she stepped up to serve holding a one-set, 4-2 lead, but Henin, who held up her hand to call for time as Williams began her service motion in that seventh game, hung tough and fought back en route to winning her first French Open title.

The slow surface allowed her to run down several of the stinging shots emanating from Williams' racquet strings that day and if a rematch comes off in the 2007 quarters it's likely the woman who serves more effectively will advance to the semifinals where fourth-seeded Jelena Jankovic or sixth-seeded Nicole Vaidisova, who has been sidelined recovering from a wrist injury, could be waiting.

Jankovic, who has claimed clay-court Tier I titles in Charleston and Rome this season, is a legitimate threat to contend in Paris. The questions surrounding the expressive Serbian center on how her body responds to her her extensive schedule (Jankovic has played more matches than any woman in the top 10) and her inability to beat Henin, who could be looming as a semifinal opponent if she beats Serena. Jankovic is winless in five meetings with the World No. 1 though all five matches have gone the three-set distance, including clay-court matches in Warsaw and Berlin earlier this season. The 2005 U.S. Open semifinalist plays France's Stephanie Foretz in the first round.

Vaidisova, a French Open semifinalist last year and Australian Open semifinals in January, has not played a tournament match since succumbing to Michaella Krajicek in Charleston in April. Her lack of match play contrasts with her preparation in 2006 when she won Strasbourg the week before the French Open. Vaidisova opens against Emmanuelle Gagliardi and enjoys a relatively routine draw that could enable her to play her way into form.

SvetlanaKuznetsova, the 2006 French Open finalist, and seventh-seeded Serbian Ana Ivanovic are the top threats to emerge from the bottom half of the draw. Ivanovic has been resting a sprained ankle she sustained in edging Kuznetsova, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(4), in the Berlin final. She meets a qualifier in the first round. Kuznetsova, who opens against compatriot Ekaterina Byschkova, has registered consistent results throughout the clay-court season reaching the Warsaw semifinals and the finals at Berlin and Rome.

Second-seeded Maria Sharapova, who was sidelined two months with a sore shoulder, a possible early-round upset victim. Sharapova, who lost to France's Aravane Rezai, 6-2, 6-4, in today's Istanbul semifinals, faces another French woman, lefthander Emilie Loit, in the first round and could play 14th-seeded Swiss southpaw Patty Schnyder in the round of 16. Schnyder, who beat Serena Williams in Rome, scored her lone victory over Sharapova on the red clay of Rome in 2005.

Both ninth-seeded Anna Chakvetadze and 15th-seeded Shahar Peer are dangerous seeds in the bottom half of the draw though both women play their best tennis on hard courts rather than clay. Chakvetadze opens against Australia's Alicia Molik. Peer plays Kaia Kanepi in the first round and is quite capable of reaching a possible fourth-round match with Kuznetsova.

Simply Stunning, Simply Serena
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