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French Open

French Open preview

The French Open starts today with a pair of distinctly different story lines.

On the men's side, there's the familiar claycourt dominance of Rafael Nadal, angling for his fourth straight title at Roland Garros. But for the women, the surprise retirement of No. 1 player Justine Henin on May 14 has left the title up for grabs.

"It just changes the whole complexion of the French Open because she's been the most dominant player there in the last three years and four of the last five," ESPN analyst Mary Jo Fernandez said last week. "So it opens up the door for everybody. Anybody in the top 10 has a chance there.

Will new No. 1 Maria Sharapova or perhaps No. 5 Serena Williams make their move to follow Henin as the champion in the year's second major?

Will this finally be the year that the men's perennial top-ranked player, Roger Federer, gets past French Open nemesis Nadal?

Here are some points to consider as the balls start bouncing.

Nadal stands tall

The numbers amassed on clay by the men's No. 2 player are mind-boggling — 21-0 at Roland Garros; winner of 108 of his past 110 claycourt matches; and the best winning percentage over a four-year span since the Open era began in 1968, 122-4 (Bjorn Borg was 102-4 from 1977-80).

That includes 8-1 on clay and 10-6 overall against Federer, whose 12 majors leave him just two short of Pete Sampras' mark.

Despite the overwhelming statistics, Nadal showed a hint of vulnerability two weeks ago. He lost on clay to Juan Carlos Ferrero in the second round in Rome, though he was hampered by blisters on his feet.

Also, Roger Federer gave Nadal a good run before losing last week in Hamburg 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3. "I thought Federer played the best match he's ever played against Nadal on clay … in Hamburg," ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "Last year I know he beat him there but Rafael was clearly struggling physically."

He's not struggling now. And Nadal remains the man to beat.

Best of the rest

Maria Sharapova, above, has inherited Justine Henin's top ranking — now she'd like to take charge of the French Open just as Henin did. It remains the only major Sharapova hasn't won, but the 21-year-old from Russia enters on a hot streak — 27-2 with three titles. Serbia's double threat — Ana Ivanovic (No. 2) and Jelena Jankovic (No. 3) — also have a shot. Ivanovic hasn't won a major but reached the final of the French Open last year and the Australian Open in January. Jankovic is also looking for her first major title, but just won the Italian Open for the second straight year and is No. 2 in tour match wins.

Among the missing

Both semifinals at the Rome Masters on May 10 ended early because of players quitting, setting the tournament record with five retirements in all. Maria Sharapova (left calf) withdrew from the Italian Open on May 17, a day after Serena Williams pulled out with a back problem.

The French hit list

No. 6 Andy Roddick (right shoulder), No. 10 Daniela Hantuchova (foot stress fracture),

No. 14 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (right knee), No. 21 Tatiana Golovin (lower back), No. 26 Lindsay Davenport (personal), No. 32 Sania Mirza (right wrist), No. 70 Meghann Shaughnessy (left knee), No. 113 Meilen Tu (hip).

In Henin's footsteps

The big story is which woman will walk through the door opened by Justine Henin. "I think we have to look to Serena," ESPN's Mary Jo Fernandez said. "She's had a good season. She got hurt in Rome (in early May), but hopefully it's not too serious, and I now I think she'll be the one to beat."

It's hard to overlook Serena Williams' eight majors championships. She also is the only past French Open women's champion playing, having won it in 2002. She has been strong on clay, with a 9-1 record in '08. So the question is whether her back has sufficiently healed since the Italian Open.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com.

Superb Serb

After defeating Roger Federer in Australia, Novak Djokovic, above, went on to win his first major. Ranked No. 6 a year ago heading into the French, the 21-year-old Serb is No. 3. He reached the semis last year in Paris and has made it at least that far in his past four majors. And he's playing better than Federer, with a 28-6 record with three titles in 2008.

Federer faltering

The Swiss superstar normally arrives at the French in prime form, with at least two titles each of the past six years. His combined record from 2005-07 heading into the tournament was 103-9 with 13 titles.

But this season began with an upset loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open and Federer rolls into France looking mortal — 26-7 and just one title.

Still, says ESPN's Patrick McEnroe, "I think this is the time of year where he'll start to get back to being his dominant self. And Djokovic has the most points of any player this year. With those three there, it's now a three-man race — as opposed to just a two-person race on the men's side."

Roland Garros by the numbers

2007 men's champ

Rafael Nadal of Spain, who will try to join Bjorn Borg (1978-81) as the only men to win four consecutive French Open titles.

2007 women's CHAMP

Justine Henin of Belgium, who recently announced her retirement and will not compete. She won the past three French titles.

No. 1-ranked man

Roger Federer of Switzerland, bidding to complete a career Grand Slam with his 13th career major that would move him within one of Pete Sampras' record.

No. 1-ranked woman

Maria Sharapova of Russia, who has won the other three major singles championships once each and will try to complete a career Grand Slam.

When/ Where: Today-June 8; Roland Garros, Paris

Finals: Women's singles, June 7; Men's singles, June 8

TV: NBC, ESPN2, Tennis Channel

Live today: 5 a.m.-noon, Tennis; noon-5 p.m., ESPN2

French Open preview 05/24/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 24, 2008 9:45pm]

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