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Grand Slam hopes rise and fall with the French Open

By Douglas Robson, Special for USA Today


Three runs that weren't calendar Grand Slams but were impressive nonetheless:

Martina Navratilova: Won six consecutive Grand Slams over 1983-84 -- Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open (then played in December) in 1983 and French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 1984.

Steffi Graf: Won the 1993 French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and the 1994 Australian Open (played in January).

Serena Williams: Won the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003.


Winning all four majors in one season remains one of tennis' most enduring and elusive feats. Thirty-eight years have passed since Rod Laver won his second calendar-year Grand Slam. Steffi Graf won a "golden slam" by capturing an Olympic medal with all four majors in 1988.

This could be the year the Slam-less streaks end through the run of the Australian and French Opens, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Both Australian Open winners, Swiss Roger Federer and American Serena Williams, both 25, are capable of pulling off the Grand Slam. The French Open, however, is their biggest barrier. The year's second major, contested on clay, begins Sunday in Paris.

"It definitely is something that is at the pinnacle of any sport, to win the four majors in one year," says 10-time major champ Federer, who has never been champion at Roland Garros.

"It takes a lot of mental preparation and a lot of physical preparation," Williams says. "It's not something that you can just go buy, so I think that makes it harder."

If Federer, the No. 1-ranked male, can achieve the Slam, he might look back on Sunday's victory at Hamburg as his turning point.

Federer turned the tide by ending Rafael Nadal's 81-match winning streak on clay with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory in the final. The win at Hamburg was Federer's first in six meetings on clay against his Spanish nemesis, a boost of confidence heading into Paris.

"It's great to have that opportunity," says Federer, who lost in four sets to Nadal last year in the French Open final but followed with wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to go with his victory in Australia. "But still, the French Open is such a huge hurdle. I'm not thinking of (the Slam) at the moment."

Unlike Federer, Williams captured four consecutive majors, but not in a calendar year, when she beat elder sister Venus in finals from the 2002 French Open to the 2003 Australian Open.

In the last two years the once-dominant Williams has been beset by injuries, absences and questions about her commitment. Injuries cost her appearances in the 2005 and 2006 French Open, and she dropped to No. 140 in the rankings last year.

But after storming to her third Australian Open title in January and adding another win at the Sony Ericsson Open in March, Williams this week broke back into the top 10 for the first time since September 2005. She's ranked No. 9.

Because of a weakened field entering Paris, the oft-injured star appears determined enough to ride her unwavering confidence to the French Open crown.

"I feel excited to have an opportunity to go to Paris because I've missed it the last two years," says Williams, who says she isn't focusing on the Grand Slam. "Showing up this year is great for me."

Long road to a Slam

Winning the Slams at Melbourne, Paris, London and New York is a nine-month trek of near-flawless performances. Only two men and three women have accomplished it.

It means grinding out seven best-of-five-set matches (for men) or best-of-three (for women) on distinct surfaces in different time zones and settings. It means avoiding injury, knowing you are the player to beat in every match and staying motivated throughout the season.

A bit of luck helps.

"A lot of things are out of your hands," says Laver, who won the Slam as an amateur in 1962 and as a pro in the Open era in '69.

Many great players have failed. Among them: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

The feat is no easier for today's players. If the top of the fields isn't necessarily better, overall the sport is much deeper. Early round matches are not taken for granted. There are more specialists in the game, especially on clay.

Until the mid-1970s, three of the four majors were played on grass. Today, players must endure Australia's sticky, high-bouncing Rebound Ace surface, Paris' dirt, Wimbledon's grass and New York's slicker DecoTurf II.

"It's a torture chamber," former player and TV announcer Pam Shriver says.

To U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, the strength and conditioning required in the modern game have made the feat so rare.

"It's so demanding physically," he says.

Major obstacles

Neither style nor surface will likely pose the biggest hurdle for Federer and Williams in Paris.

Federer's chief obstacle is the bullish southpaw Nadal, the two-time defending champion. Although Federer has won three of their last four meetings, he trails Nadal 7-4 lifetime.

Before beating him in Hamburg, Federer admitted he was growing tired of all the advice coming in about the 20-year-old Mallorcan.

"It seems like the whole world wants to help me (on) how to beat Nadal on clay," Federer says, "but I know how to do it, seriously."

Federer arrives in Paris having played far fewer matches than in previous seasons and with a change in his entourage. Before Hamburg, he split with coach Tony Roche after crashing out of the Rome tournament to Italian wild card Filippo Volandri. He will play Roland Garros coach-less, as he did when he won three majors in 2004, and is "very positive" about his chances.

Though his chances look better than ever, Federer could be more vulnerable in the early rounds than Nadal because his vaunted forehand can go awry at times and his attacking style is somewhat thwarted by clay. In Federer's way is a tough group of rising stars and clay-court experts, such as Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Nikolay Davydenko of Russia.

But should Federer finally triumph in Paris, look out.

"If Roger wins the French, he will be even money to win the Slam in my book," two-time French Open champ Jim Courier says.

Williams, too, might have to overcome a formidable opponent. The favorite in Paris will be Belgium's Justine Henin, who has won three of the last four French Opens.

Top-ranked Henin has beaten Williams in three of their four meetings on clay, including a contentious clash in Paris in the semifinals four years ago.

"It's like her home," Williams says of Henin in Paris, "kind of like the way I feel in Miami. She's someone to look out for. But personally, I don't underestimate anyone."

Williams' biggest vulnerability is health. The eight-time major champ continues to play a limited schedule — just five tournaments this year. She injured her groin at Charleston in April, costing her several weeks on tour.

Last week Williams had a tough loss in her return to No. 17 Patty Schnyder in Rome, raising questions again about her fitness.

"Everything's great now," says Williams, whose self-belief stays intact no matter the circumstances.

She has won in Paris. She showed in Australia that if she gets on a roll in the early rounds, she can be tough to stop.

"Nobody plays as few tournaments and comes out (as) match-tough and confident," two-time U.S. Open winner and TV commentator Tracy Austin says.

Then is this the year? If they are thinking about it, Federer and Williams don't admit it. Williams says she has only one goal in mind at the moment: Roland Garros.

"All I know is that for me I'm trying to win seven rounds in Paris," Williams says. "I'm pretty sure his goals are very similar to mine. I wish him luck."

Simply Stunning, Simply Serena
:worship: 57 Consecutive Weeks as World #1 :worship:​
:worship: Olympic Gold Medalist ('00 Doubles w/ Venus) :worship:​
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