Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Just around the corner--the French Open!

Defending French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne practices

The French Open, my favorite Grand Slam, begins May 28, and I can't wait. The women's field is wide open this year, with bookmakers giving the first nod to defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, followed by Kim Clijsters, Nadia Petrova, and Amelie Mauresmo.

Henin-Hardenne does stand a good chance of defending her title. She is one of the best clay players the WTA has seen since the mighty Chris Evert went on a 125-match clay court tear many years ago. But Henin-Hardenne has vulnerabilities. Her serve has been pretty shaky since her comeback from illness. And at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, Patty Schnyder brilliantly broke Henin-Hardenne's game down (for the first time), by not avoiding the deadly Henin-Hardenne backhand. Instead, Schnyder served extremely well (she is one of the best servers on the tour) and took control of the rallies, hitting relentlessly to Henin-Hardenne's backhand and patiently forcing the error.

Clijsters could certainly win the French Open; she is a fine clay court player. But Clijsters can be streaky, so who knows? Mauresmo has plenty of beautiful clay court game, but she has always been way too intimidated by French expectations to do that well at Roland Garros. However, since she won the 2005 WTA Tour Championships and then went on to win the 2006 Australian Open, Mauresmo has picked up some badly needed confidence and should be a serious contender at the French Open.

Petrova is red-hot and it is easy to imagine her winning at Roland Garros. Long considered to be the most talented of the Russians, she was such a head case she couldn't even win a tournament for years. All that has changed, and how. Petrova has been burning up the clay courts, winning back-to-back at Amelia Island and Charleston, and also winning the German Open.

The bookmakers place Martina Hingis at number five. Though she doesn't say so, everyone knows how badly Hingis wants to win the French Open and get her career slam. It is the Grand Slam she was always the most likely to win, and the one she never did win. She just won the Italian Open, which is a really nice way to slide into Roland Garros. Her chances are good; her game is still one of the best.

Others to be considered are Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, Patty Schnyder, and Mary Pierce, last year's finalist. Kuznetsova is pretty good on clay, but I don't see her going all the way. Dementieva is great on all surfaces but has such problems with her serve, it's a wonder she gets as far as she does. Bad serve or not (Hingis's serve isn't too hot, either), I still see Dementieva winning a Slam at some point--she has been a finalist twice--and this year's French Open isn't out of the question.

Schnyder's game is made for clay. It's beautiful and often brilliant, but Schnyder struggles terribly with confidence. When she's on a roll, she can beat anyone on the tour on any surface except, perhaps, grass. But when her belief in herself gets shaky, she can't deliver. She has been in so many Tier I finals and semi-finals, but she has trouble completing the big task. I'd love to see Patty win the French Open, but given her mental fragility, it just isn't likely to happen.

Mary Pierce has been out for weeks with an injury, so even if she makes it to Paris, she won't be in any shape to be a serious competitor. Maria Sharapova has yet to master the clay surface, and anyway, she isn't sure she will be at the French Open, also because of an injury. Lindsay Davenport, who has never even hoped to win the French Open, has already withdrawn because of her back. That leaves Venus Williams, who is always dangerous, but I don't see her getting into the finals.


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