Serena and the Belgian peril
By Eric Saillot
Friday, April 25, 2003
Serena Williams, the undisputed world n°1 has only lost twice in the last six months: to Kim Clijsters in the Masters and recently to Justine Henin-Hardenne in Charleston. Will the Belgian girls threaten Serena's new world order again at Roland-Garros 2003?
Difficult to imagine a firmer favourite for the women's title than Serena Williams! Not only is she the reigning champion, but comes to Paris on the back of 28 straight Grand Slam victories. In winning the Australian Open last January, Serena became only the fifth player after Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova to win four consecutive majors.
Serena was hardly tested by elder sibling Venus in the final but looked less imperious in some of her earlier matches. She had a scare in the first round when she was only three points away from being knocked out by France's Emilie Loit, and then came even closer to catastrophe in the semi-final against Kim Clijsters; trailing 1-5 in the final set she survived 2 match points to win 4/6, 6/3, 7/5. That performance spoke volumes about the American's mental strength but also provided further proof that Clijsters is now a real force to be reckoned with. In Melbourne, the Belgian girl almost pulled off the upset of the season by repeating her Masters win of 11 November in Los Angeles (7/5, 6/3). That defeat was Serena's first loss since the 2001 US Open final!
2002 long forgotten
Clijsters is not the only girl from the flat country aiming to be a thorn in Serena's side at Roland-Garros. On 13 April, Belgium's other ace Justine Henin-Hardenne put an end to the American's run of 22 straight wins in 2003. Down 3-0 in the first set on the clay courts of Charleston USA, the Belgian fought back to win 6 straight games and the match (6/3, 6/4). American supremacy was further threatened when the WTA rankings were published on 14 April. Clijsters had hoisted herself up to second spot - still some ways behind Serena but ahead of elder sibling Venus in 3rd place. The Williams hegemony was no more!
Henin-Hardenne's court sense and tactical wherewithal make her a formidable opponent on clay. At Roland-Garros, in 2001, she suddenly lost her way against her compatriot in the semi-final when leading 6/4, 4-2. Last year, when not fully fit, she crashed out of the competition against the unknown Aniko Kapros from Hungary. No doubt she will be looking to erase that painful memory this year and reach another Grand Slam final after Wimbledon in 2001. As for Kim Clijsters, she too will be looking to put last year's lacklustre French Open performance behind her when she ignominiously lost to Argentinian Clarisa Fernandez (6/4, 6/0) in the 3rd round.
Small in size, Belgium looms large at the moment when it comes to women's tennis. Just how large remains to be seen on 7 June on women's final day!
yay!!!! i can't wait til RG starts!! It'll be the first tennis coverage of seeing our Kimmie play since the aussie open!!! :hearts: pity there's such a time difference though!!! i have a good feeling bout this one!!! but my feelings are normally stuffed up & wrong!!!
Coupe Coup: Who Will Stop Serena At Roland Garros?
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.