Coupe Coup: Who Will Stop Serena At Roland Garros?
Photo By Susan Mullane
By Andrea Leand
To this day, Serena Williams says her French Open victory last year remains the sweetest of them all. She was just as surprised as the rest of the field by triumphing on a surface that had proved the most frustrating to her over the years. In fact, it took Williams four attempts on the red dirt before she mastered the mobility and mental tenacity needed to overturn Jennifer Capriati in the semifinal and sister Venus in the final.
This time, as the defending champion rather than the challenger, Serena must execute under different pressures. Her loss to Justine Henin-Hardenne at the Family Circle Cup in April revealed chinks in the otherwise invincible front she has displayed all year. The American green clay neutralized Serena’s brazen strokes and allowed her slighter — although steadier — adversary to exploit her impatience.
But who will be able to take advantage of such opportunities at Roland Garros? If recent results have given the prime competition some impetus, they will need to pick up their training programs several notches if they are to challenge for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. The Roland Garros red clay does not humor half-hearted efforts well. There are no free points on a surface that extends matches well beyond daylight. Velocity of foot (rather than stroke) means more at this major, where the sturdiest mentally usually outlast big hitters. Playing superior defense pays better dividends than flashy aggression. In the sport’s ultimate dirt battle, often the most mischievous competitors emerge the victor.
Capriati has done it before and has the equipment to snag another French Open title. It is all up to her. If she continues to party as hard as she competes, burning the candle at both ends, she will not reach the semifinals. If she takes her craft seriously, trains adequately and plays to her potential, she can win as many titles as she wants.
Venus Williams is certainly not partying the nights away, but still has produced lackluster performances this year. Call it what you want: boredom, disinterest, lack of passion or confidence, disappointment. It still adds up to Venus simply not playing to her potential. Getting bumped off by little sister in four consecutive Grand Slam tournament finals (starting last year with the French Open) may have deflated her desire, if not ego, but there has been plenty of time to heal and reboot. We know Venus is smart, fast and powerful. We know that she has the weapons and wile to win any match, any title. What we do not know is whether she has the will. A more purposeful Venus may mean a first-time French Open title for the four-time Grand Slam titleholder, but if she shows up hoping to survive by going through the motions, she could lose in the early rounds.
In contrast, Lindsay Davenport crosses all her “T”s in training and is in the best physical condition of her career. Her lack of mobility and consequent inability to out-rally the game’s clay court retrievers has cost her at the French Open. The marathon matches, even in the early rounds, just seem to take more out of the 6-foot-2, 155-pound American. She won the other majors on faster surfaces with a combination of power, precision and competitive edge. With the quick games and free points, she did not have to slide or shift in 20-30 ball rallies as she must to win on red clay. To this extent, Davenport must produce a dogged determination and desire to stay on court as long as it takes to win every point and match. Having achieved her career goals, as she admits, Davenport may no longer have the mental fortitude to dig out balls in the mud, cake her socks and shoes with red clay and literally win the dirty way, the only way.
That leaves those undeniably talented Belgian stars, Kim Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne. After reaching the final at other Slams and notching prime tour titles this year, they are both due to swipe their first major. Their familiarity with the surface, having grown up on clay, gives them their best shots at taking a Grand Slam title this year in Paris. Henin-Hardenne possesses the more natural clay court game, with her whipping topspin backhand and agility. Beneath that lithe 5-foot-5, 110-pound frame lies a fighter with an edge as sharp and feisty as the French crowds. With a serve as soft as any cream puff patisserie, Henin-Hardenne must show that she has the resilience and mental might to fend off the more muscular to capture her first Grand Slam title.
Clijsters knows vicariously what it is like to win a Grand Slam tournament after watching boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt capture two. The difference in taking the winner’s circle herself has been so slight. A few shaky nerves cost her this year’s Australian Open title. Such an experience might prove just enough to help her better deal with such big moments again. She has proven that she can run and compete with the best. Now she must show that she has the steely nerve to beat them.
Serena already overcame such personal hurdles last year. She knows how to pick up the pace, play the big points and finish out a match. Her 28-match Grand Slam win streak reminds us why she is the one to beat. After last year’s exhilarating victories over Capriati and Venus, Serena knows what she must do to prepare. What sets her apart from the rest is that she puts in the work and shows up in the best condition. Such superior fitness creates her burgeoning confidence. If a dark horse such as Amelie Mauresmo, Chanda Rubin or Meghann Shaughnessy, along with the top seeds, grabbed a page from Serena’s training book, there might be a new French Open champion this year. But as Serena would say, "That’s a big ‘if.’"
Senior Correspondent Andrea Leand played in the French Open three times, enjoying her best results in 1982, when she reached the round of 16.