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Opposites Attract: Williams Sisters Could Meet In French Open Final Again

Photo By Susan Mullane By Richard Pagliaro

The shots Venus Williams directed at younger sister Serena came in shutter-speed succession, encompassed all angles and were precisely positioned. It was moments after Serena scored a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Venus to claim the 2002 Roland Garros championship when Venus popped to the front of the pack of awaiting photographers to snap victory photos of her sister proudly posing with the title trophy in hand.

It was a Kodak moment between the sisters who have turned the last four Grand Slam finals into family photo-ops. The 2003 Roland Garros draw was released today and it presents the potential for another Grand Slam final meeting for the sisters who have been a picture of perseverance in majors. But look closely at the picture again, focus on those figures in the background and and you may see a Williams sisters final is not a foregone conclusion. Serena is a strong favorite to return to the final, but inactivity may make Venus vulnerable to an earlier upset.

Both of top-seeded Serena Williams' losses this season have come on clay and the two players who beat her — Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo — are both in Serena's top half of the draw.

Some players have hinted that Williams may be most susceptible to an upset on clay, but given the fact she is the most complete player in the game, arrives in Paris with a 28-match winning streak in Slams and has consistently come back from defeats with a vengeance, you get the feeling you could could cover Serena's side of the court in white-hot coal and she'd still find a way to win.

The top seed opens against Germany's Barbara Rittner and would face her first seeded-player in a potential third-round match against 2002 semifinalist Clarisa Fernandez, assuming the 28th-seeded Argentine beats former French Open champ Mary Pierce in her first-round meeting. Williams would play either fifth-seeded French woman Mauresmo or ninth-seeded Daniela Hantuchova in the quarterfinals. Hantuchova plays Russia's Alina Jidkova in the first round, while Mauresmo meets fellow French woman Virginie Razzano in her opening match.

Though her game may be more varied than nearly any other top 10 player, Mauresmo has failed to flourish at the French where she's been bounced out of the tournament in the first or second round in six of her eight appearances. Playing with more mental toughness in recent weeks, Mauresmo should equal or surpass her 2002 fourth-round finish.

Two points from defeat, Mauresmo rallied to score her first career victory over Serena in the Rome semifinals last Saturday, but don't count on her repeating the feat against a fit and focused Serena, whose losses often light the fuse that lead to her most explosive play.

Illness contributed to Henin-Hardenne's first-round exact from Paris last year. This year, opponents have found that beating Henin-Hardenne on clay has been as easy as trying to stop the spread of athlete's foot with a placebo. The fourth-seeded Belgian should have little trouble with Austria's Patricia Wartusch in the first-round and could eventually play either 19th-seeded Swiss Patty Schnyder or 14th-seeded Eleni Daniilidou in the fourth round. Eighth-seeded Chanda Rubin, a two-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist, could play Henin-Hardenne in the quarterfinals.

In her victory over Serena in the Family Circle Cup final, Henin-Hardenne astutely altered the spins and speeds of her shots to prevent Williams from regaining the rhythm she showed against Lindsay Davenport in the semis. Henin-Hardenne held her serve effectively and held her nerve throughout the match. She has the game to beat Williams, but in order to conquer the defending champion she needs cooperation from Williams.

The architect of the Serena Slam can struggle through streaks of patchy play when she's off and contribute unforced errors to an opponent's cause. But Serena's best beats Henin-Hardenne's best regardless of surface. It's not enough for Henin-Hardenne to play good tennis, she has to hope for Williams to be slightly off, which is certainly possible, in order to win. But let's be honest: beating Serena in a Grand Slam when she's playing her game is as easy as a sprinter trying to hurdle the Eiffel Tower — you're bound to fall.

The biggest beneficiary of draw may well be Kim Clijsters. The second-seeded Belgian, who was two points from taking home the 2001 title only to see Jennifer Capriati fight back for a 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 triumph — will play American Amy Frazier in the first round. Clijsters' quarter of the draw features three other seeds — 15th-seeded Magdalena Maleeva, 20th-seeded Elena Bovina and 30th-seeded Paola Suarez — who can all be competent competitors, but none of them should cause Clijsters much concern en route to a potential quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Lindsay Davenport.

A 1998 French Open semifinalist, Davenport will make her first French Open appearance in three years. At times, it appears Davenport's favorite thing about the French Open is leaving it and looking forward to Wimbledon.

Essentially, Davenport makes virtually no major adjustments to her game on clay, but when she's striking the ball with conviction she's so powerfully precise she can get win anyway. Her fitness is dramatically improved and Davenport produced some positive results on Har-tru making her a threat if the court is playing dry and fast. But damp, soggy, slow conditions could spell doom for Davenport, who's in the same quarter of the draw as former French Open finalist Conchita Martinez.

Assuming the seeds hold, Clijsters would advance to the semifinals to play either third-seeded Venus Williams or seventh-seeded Jennifer Capriati. Following her shocking setback in the first round of the Australian Open in January, Capriati should be hungry for victory in Paris. When tennis' top 10 rebel has a cause, she always plays with more passion and purpose. Seeking her first tournament title since the 2002 Australian Open, Capriati certainly has something to prove and a a game conducive to clay.

In the opening round, Capriati meets South African Joanette Kruger followed by a possible second-round match with France's Marion Bartoli, who grew up idolizing Monica Seles, and tries to emulate the three-time French Open champion's habit of standing inside the baseline to return serve. Seles herself could play Capriati in the fourth round and while she's enjoyed great success against her former teenage foe, Seles' chronically right arch severely limits her chances of sustaining success over the course of a two-week tournament.

Venus Williams may be the biggest unknown in the tournament. Talented enough to win it if she's playing well, the fact that the third seed has not played a match since retiring with the strained stomach muscle while trailing Mauresmo 6-7(6), 6-0, 3-0 in the final of the J&S Cup on May 4th makes Venus vulnerable.

Williams will play a qualifier in the first round and should move comfortably into the fourth round. If rising Russian Vera Zvonareva is able to beat compatriot Elena Dementieva to set up a fourth-round clash with Williams, don't count the 22nd-seeded Zvonareva out. She took a set off Serena at the same stage of the 2002 Roland Garros and is a fearless player who may lack the weapons to beat Venus, but is a confident player who would take the court believing she can win.

A Venus vs. Capriati quarterfinal could provide some exciting clay-court tennis in a battle between former No. 1 players. Capriati has never beaten Venus, but with the clay-court slightly slowing Venus' vastly superior first serve, Capriati would have her best shot on clay. Clijsters figures to meet the winner of that match in the semifinals.
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