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French Open women's side is wide open; Rafael Nadal still the men's favorite, but Roger Federer has fresh confidence

When it comes to French Open favorites, you might as well round up the usual suspects: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the men's side, Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic on the women's. But with the French beginning today at Roland Garros, a few potential twists for the men and women are worth watching. For starters, Nadal, normally invincible on clay and unbeatable in Paris, fell to archrival Federer in straight sets in the Madrid Open final May 17. That ended his 33-match winning streak on clay. And it started a flurry of speculation that second-ranked Federer, who has reached the final at 14 of the past 15 majors, might finally have a shot at unseating Nadal, ranked No. 1 and the top seed, who is gunning for a record fifth straight French title. On the women's side, four-time winner Justine Henin (2003, 2005-07) is retired, leaving 2002 winner Williams — who quit after losing the first set of her first match at Madrid, citing a lingering right knee injury — and Serbia's Ivanovic in the spotlight. Ivanovic, who reached the final in '07, has had some troubles since winning the French last year at age 20. And the door could now be open for Dinara Safina, ranked No. 1 and hoping to make the French, where she is the top seed, her first major title.

"It's a little hard to call," ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said of the women's field during a conference call Wednesday. "But Dinara deserves to be considered the best claycourt player in the world right now. She won Rome, she won Madrid. She's had some good wins.

"I know what Serena said a couple of weeks ago: 'Everyone knows I'm the real No. 1.' But I happen to like (Safina). I like how hard she works. … She's clearly playing better claycourt tennis than anybody.

"The big stumbling block is that only a couple of players have won the French Open on the women's side. One of them is Ivanovic, who would really have to work hard to defend her title, and the other is Serena. Those are the names I'd throw around first and foremost, and I certainly think Dinara deserves to be seeded No. 1 there."

For the men, Nadal finally overtook Federer at No. 1 in the rankings in August. He is seeded first in the French for the first time. What's more, he's 28-0 in the event and has never been extended beyond four sets.

On the flip side, Federer has a chance to equal Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles crowns and become the sixth man with a career Slam. And one fact about him often gets overlooked: He's 23-0 at the French when not playing Nadal. In that matchup, he's 0-4, including three runnerup finishes. But factor in his victory over Nadal in Spain, which ended a 6½-month title drought, and the picture looks a little different.

"I think it helps Roger a heck of a lot more than it hurts Rafael," ESPN commentator and U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. "It gives us a little more to talk about. It gives Roger a little more confidence.

"I really think (Federer is) vulnerable against a lot of players right now on clay. In saying that, though, he obviously found his game, found his range on the forehand. The altitude was certainly a factor to me in why he was able to beat Raf. And Raf was clearly not comfortable in the little bit of altitude in Madrid. … He prefers to play at sea level."

Bottom line to McEnroe: "I don't think it'll affect Raf at all going into the French. I think he's still the heavy, heavy favorite. But I think it bodes well for Roger, not only at the French but I think even more importantly at Wimbledon."

. fast facts

French Open

When/where: The second Grand Slam event lasts 15 days, with play beginning today at Roland Garros, Paris

Surface: Clay

TV today: 5 a.m.-noon, Tennis Channel; noon-6 p.m., ESPN2; 5 a.m. Monday, Tennis Channel

Featured matches today: Men, No. 3 Andy Murray vs. Juan Ignacio Chela, No. 7 Gilles Simon vs. Wayne Odesnik. Women, No. 8 Ana Ivanovic vs. Sara Errani, No. 16 Amelie Mauresmo vs. Anna-Lena Groenefeld.

Finals: Women's singles June 6; men's singles June 7

Last year: Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final, the most lopsided Grand Slam loss of Federer's career. Ana Ivanovic beat Dinara Safina 6-4, 6-3 to win her first major and briefly rise to No. 1 in the rankings.

Prize money: Total about $21.8 million; about $1.4 million each to the men's and women's singles champions.

On the Web:

Grand Slam events: Australian Open champs — Nadal, Serena Williams; Wimbledon — June 22-July 5; U.S. Open — Aug. 31-Sept. 13

Women's No. 1

Dinara Safina, 23, of Russia has been runnerup at two of the past four Grand Slam tournaments. She jumped to the top of the WTA rankings last month, making her and Marat Safin the first brother-sister duo to reach No. 1. She won consecutive titles at claycourt tournaments in Rome and Madrid, and is 14-1 on clay this year. She leads five Russians ranked in the top 11.

Men's No. 1

Rafael Nadal, 22, of Spain, and Bjorn Borg (1978-81), right, are the only men with four straight French titles. Nadal has won 150 of his past 155 matches on clay.

Bay area

men's singles

First round, James Blake (15th seed), Tampa, vs. Leonardo Mayer, Argentina; Blake lost to unseeded Ernests Gulbis of Latvia in the second round last year.

Maximo Gonzalez, Argentina, vs. Mardy Fish (22nd seed), Tampa; Fish lost to No. 25 Lleyton Hewitt in the second round last year.

Bay area

men's doubles

Mike and Bob Bryan of Wesley Chapel won their seventh Grand Slam doubles title at the Australian Open in January. They've won all four Slams; their only French title was in 2003. They lost in the French quarterfinals last year to eventual winners Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay and Luis Horna of Peru. Bob teamed with Victoria Azarenka of Belarus to win the mixed doubles.

Times wires

French Open women's side is wide open; Rafael Nadal still the men's favorite, but Roger Federer has fresh confidence 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 9:34pm]
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