Roland Garros Draw Analysis: The Women

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Q1: Boy, it’s great to have Justine Henin back in the mix, isn’t it?  With the four-time Roland Garros champ’s return comes an on-court artistry that was sorely missed during the 27-year-old’s nearly two-year layoff.  The Belgian’s return also renews the promise of one of the game’s great rivalries: J. Henin vs. S. Williams.  The pair has faced off 14 times since 2001 (Serena holds a slight 8-6 advantage in the career head-to-head, including her 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 win in the AO final in January), and anytime they walk on-court together the potential for fireworks is palpable.  They have a history in Paris, having squared off in the ’03 semis and ’07 quarters.  Henin prevailed on both occasions — the most memorable being the semifinal matchup, after which a tearful Serena accused her foe of foul play after Henin infamously raised her hand during one of the American’s serves.  “I was a little disappointed with her,” said Williams.  “It wasn’t the turning point of the match.  I should have still won the game. But to start lying and fabricating is not fair.”  Their second RG clash lasted only 78 minutes, Serena coming out on the short end of a 6-4, 6-3 decision.  Luckily for us, a rematch may just be in the works.  Henin and Williams find themselves together in the same quarter (a talent-ridden one at that) in the top half of the RG draw and could meet in a battle for the semis.  Of course, for that to happen, Serena, who only recently returned to the court after an extended injury timeout that stretched from Melbourne in January to Rome in early May, would have to get past the likes of Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli.  For her part, Henin would have to survive potential matchups with Maria Sharapova or surging Sam Stosur.  But Serena’s semifinal showing in Rome shows that her knees are up to the task on clay.  Plus, it’s hard to imagine the inconsistent Sharapova (despite her Strasbourg run) holding up over two weeks, and Henin recently topped the Aussie Stosur in the Stuttgart final.

OUR PICK: JUSTINE HENIN

Q2: Jelena Jankovic says she’s almost feeling “like a butterfly on the court again.”   That’s good news for Old Aches & Pains, who’s usually griping about one ailment or another.  The No. 4-ranked Serb took out both Serena and Venus Williams en route to the Rome final (before falling to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez) and reached the Madrid quarters. The two-time French Open semifinalist would love nothing more than to bag her first Slam title in Paris.  But she’s not the only player in her quarter of the draw with her eyes on the prize.  Agnieszka Radwanska is worth keeping an eye on, although the Pole has never ventured beyond the Round of 16 at RG and hasn’t exactly torn it up on dirt coming into the event.  ’08 French Open champ Ana Ivanovic (who’s fallen from No. 1 to No. 41 but reached the Rome semis), Vera Zvonareva, former No. 1 Dinara Safina and rising Belgian Yanina Wickmayer will also be in the hunt, but the back-challenged Safina hasn’t played much, and Wickmayer is coming off elbow surgery.

OUR PICK: JELENA JANKOVIC

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Q3: Talk about wide open.  Defending titlist Svetlana Kuznetsova has reached just one final since winning it all in Paris last spring (def. Safina 6-4, 6-2) and could face challenges from the likes of countrywoman Maria Kirilenko (who beat her in Rome on her way to the quarters), Warsaw semifinalist Na Li of China and Italian Fed Cup heroes Francesca Schiavone (Barcelona titlist) and Flavia Pennetta (Marbella titlist).  No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki‘s ankle will surely be put to the test on the RG clay, and it would be a near miracle if it stood up over seven matches.  Since her injury in Charleston, the Dane simply hasn’t been herself, as evidenced by her retirement against eventual finalist Zheng Jie in Warsaw.  It’s anyone’s guess here in an unpredictable quarter that might just produce a surprise semifinalist.

OUR PICK: SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA (When it comes down to it, it’s hard to pass over a defending champion)

Q4: At first glance, this should be Elena Dementieva‘s quarter.  The ’04 French Open finalist brings big-match experience in a draw rife with injuries and inconsistent play.  At 28, there’s certainly a sense of urgency here.  But since early-season trophies in Sydney (def. Serena Williams 6-3, 6-2) and Paris (def. Lucie Safarova 6-7(5), 6-1, 6-4), the ’08 Olympic champion has been held titleless, and hasn’t shown much on clay.  She’s in a quarter crowded with Victoria Azarenka, France’s Aravane Rezai (who scalped Henin, Jankovic, Safarova and Venus Williams in taking the Madrid crown), Rome winner Martinez Sanchez of Spain, fellow Russian Nadia Petrova and the soon-to-be-30-year-old Venus (who won on clay in Acapulco and reached the Madrid final).  It would be easy to envision a Dementieva vs. Williams quarterfinal, but given Petrova’s relative success at RG (’03 and ’05 semis) and the fact that Venus hasn’t won a non-grass-court Slam since ’01, we’ll go with an all-Russian Dementieva vs. Petrova quarterfinal.

OUR PICK: ELENA DEMENTIEVA

SEMIS: HENIN DEF. JANKOVIC, DEMENTIEVA DEF. KUZNETSOVA

FINAL: HENIN DEF. DEMENTIEVA

FIRST-ROUNDERS TO WATCH:

PATTY SCHNYDER VS. VENUS WILLIAMS (Schnyder has more career wins on clay than any other active WTA player)

VANIA KING. VS. SHUAI PENG

JELENA JANKOVIC VS. ALICIA MOLIK

DINARA SAFINA VS. KIMIKO DATE KRUMM

SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA VS. SORANA CIRSTEA

KAROLINA SPREM VS. MARIA KIRILENKO

JELENA DOKIC VS. LUCIE SAFAROVA

ALLA KUDRYAVTSEVA VS. CAROLINE WOZNIACKI

MELANIE OUDIN VS. ANABEL MEDINA GARRIGUES

ALEKSANDRA WOZNIAK VS. IVETA BENESOVA

GISELA DULKO VS. VICTORIA AZARENKA

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