French Open Preview

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604077231. RETURN OF THE CLAY-COURT KING?: He’s 31-1 lifetime at Roland Garros. But after four straight title runs on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne, Clay King Rafael Nadal was finally taken down in ’09, and the Spaniard could only watch from afar as Roger Federer put the finishing touches on a career Slam. However, after snapping an 11-month title-drought with his sixth straight Monte Carlo Masters crown and triumphant runs in Rome and Madrid, a healthy Nadal is once again reincarnated as his former invincible self. With his Swiss nemesis in a bit of a tailspin, Rafa will arrive in Paris a clear favorite to reclaim his throne.

2. DRIVE FOR FIVE: The sole purpose of Justin Henin‘s comeback is to retool her game and capture the one and only Slam that eluded her the first go-round —Wimbledon — right? But are we really to believe that the French Open is but an afterthought for the 27-year-old Belgian? Ce n’est pas possible. JuJu has historically played her best tennis on the crushed brick of Court Philippe Chatrier, and it’s hard to imagine that (bandaged pinky and all) the Stuttgart champ will arrive in The City of Lights with anything but the kind of single-minded focus that could lead the future Hall of Famer to her fifth RG title.

3. WHAT’S EATING ROGER?: Pressroom prognosticators initially smirked when, early on, defending champ Roger Federer insisted that he wouldn’t be the odds-on favorite on the terre battue of RG. But he became more convincing with each passing day. After thumping Andy Murray in Melbourne for Slam No. 16, Fed has been anything but lights-out. Following Masters Series losses to Marcos Baghdatis in Indian Wells and Tomas Berdych in Miami, the proud papa of two opened the clay campaign with un-Federer-like performances against Ernests Gulbis in Rome and Alberto Montanes in Estoril. He did manage to reach Madrid final, but lost to Rafa in straight sets 6-4, 7-6(5).  However, to catch a glimpse of just how resilient the 28-year-old is, all you have to do is turn back the clock to his title-less spell of ’08-’09. How did the All-Time Slam King turn it around? He won Roland Garros.

4. WALKING WOUNDED: Bring in the M.A.S.H. unit. Caroline Wozniacki sprained her ankle in Charleston. Kim Clijsters tore a muscle in her foot during Fed Cup and won’t play RG. Justine Henin broke a pinky finger in practice. Serena Williams says her knee hasn’t fully healed. Sister Venus continues to rehab the knee ailment that kept her from playing Fed Cup. Maria Sharapova is still struggling with an elbow injury. As usual, Jelena Jankovic insists she’s not 100 percent healthy. Former No. 1 Dinara Safina has been haunted by a back injury that, if re-tweaked, might spell the end of her career. Yanina Wickmayer recently underwent the knife to have a bone spur removed from her left elbow. With much of the WTA’s elite limping toward Paris, has the women’s draw ever been more wide open? Will a fresh face emerge?  (Last year, we saw some new names break through at the Slams — Wozniacki, Wickmayer, Melanie Oudin, etc. — but in the end, the old guard held its ground.  Either way, the door has been left ajar for the Agnieszka Radwanskas, Victoria Azarenkas and Sam Stosurs of the world.)

5. YOU CAN’T KEEP A WILLIAMS DOWN: Considering that she hadn’t played a match in three months, Serena Williams‘ semifinal posting in Rome was downright miraculous. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised: the world No. 1 has long possessed an uncanny ability to cherry pick her schedule and step it up when it really counts. If her three-and-a-half-hour win over Vera Dushevina in Madrid is any indication, the 28-year-old’s knees are ready to withstand the rigors of clay. Eight years removed from her only RG title, she’s still among the favorites. (And don’t look now but big sis Venus — who turns the big Three-Oh a week after RG — is at No. 2.)

6. WHO SAYS AMERICANS CAN’T PLAY ON CLAY?: James Blake has never ventured beyond the third round in Paris. And despite a career-best fourth-round showing in ’09, Andy Roddick (who skipped RG warm-ups in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid) sounded somewhat defeatist when he told IT: “At the French Open, if we’re being realistic, I know there’s a roof as far as what I can do.” But to rule out the U.S. altogether would be a diss to 6-foot-9 John Isner and 6-foot-6 Sam Querrey, who recently faced off on dirt in the all-American Belgrade final. They’re not the quickest corner to corner, but neither big man shies away from the high-bouncing topspin groundies that often hop off the clay directly into their wheelhouse.

7. SKETCHES OF SPAIN: As if the Spaniards weren’t deep enough (think Rafa, Ferrer, Ferrero, Robredo, Lopez, Montanes, Almagro, etc.), Fernando Verdasco has steadily morphed into an elite competitor. Just two years ago you likely would have associated the Madrileno more with his Cristiano Ronaldo-wannabe hairdo or his Calvin Klein underwear ads than with his explosive, title-hungry play. But the No. 9-ranked lefty has nicely transitioned from pretty boy to power player and is hoping to follow up on a career year by bagging his first Slam. He opened the clay season with semis-or-better showings in three straight events, including the Barcelona title.

8. MOSCOW ON THE SEINE: With 11 players in the WTA’s top 50 (the most of any nation) the Russians remain an indomitable presence. But there are some concerns. The post-’09 French Open edition of Svetlana Kuznetsova has failed to dazzle (the defending champ has reached only one final since). While she’s as fierce a fighter as ever, the injury-plagued Maria Sharapova (she of the revamped serve) has wrestled with consistency. And it’s hard to fathom the plummeting former No. 1 Dinara Safina doing much. That leaves the likes of ’04 finalist Elena Dementieva, ’03/’05 semifinalist Nadia Petrova and Vera Zvonareva to carry the flag in Paris.

9. MURRAY UP AND WAIT: Andy Murray‘s trials and tribulations have been well documented (thanks to a micro-focused UK press corps). The freefalling Scot —a RG quarterfinalist last year — has sputtered since reaching the AO final in January. The world No. 4 lost opening-round matches in both Miami and Monte Carlo, and was sent packing in the third round in Rome. But don’t expect Murray to disappear any time soon. At 22, he’s too young and talented a mover/ball striker to fall off the charts.

10. CHANGE OF VENUE?: “Roland Garros cannot stay the way it is.” Those are the words of French Open tournament director Gilbert Ysern, who’s among those feeling claustrophobic in the Slam’s current footprint on the western edge of Paris. While its Slam brethren keep expanding (the Aussie Open’s Melbourne Park redevelopment, Wimbledon’s new roof, the sparkling new Indoor Tennis Center in Flushing), RG battles a crumbling infrastructure, leaving organizers to consider a new home. Added Ysern, “It would be heartbreaking to leave Paris, but we have to consider it.” (BTW: There was once talk of moving the U.S. Open to suburban New York, and numerous suitors have attempted to whisk the AO away from Melbourne.)

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