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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Prospects remain bleak for American men in Paris

Nearly four months after the Australian Open, the second major of the year is upon us. Here are five storylines to follow during the French Open, starting with the potential of the latest installment of the best rivalry in sports:

1. Will Rafael Nadal extend his dominant run?
He's already generally considered the best clay-court player of all time. And as the reigning champion at three of the four majors -- with a 5-2 record against Roger Federer at Grand Slam events -- Nadal is on pace to become part of the greatest-in-history discussion by the time he reaches his mid-20s. (A victory at the U.S. Open, where he's never made it past the semifinals, would complete his career Grand Slam and help his cause in the best-ever debate.)

But though he's recently proved to be an all-surfaces maestro, Nadal's genius was first revealed on the soft clay on which he was raised. He turned 19 during his triumphant run at Roland Garros in 2005, and hasn't lost there since. Four of his first six major titles came on the terre battue, and the French Open is the one major on the calendar where Nadal is the story. If the world No. 1 were to lose at the U.S. or Australian Opens or Wimbledon, it would be significant, but not cataclysmic, news; his wins at the French, by contrast, are considered inevitable. Since the start of the 2005 season, Rafa has amassed an astounding 150-5 record on clay. This year, Nadal could become the first singles player, male or female, to win five straight Roland Garros titles (Bjorn Borg won six, but not consecutively). Nadal's pursuit of history is the top story of the fortnight, and if he fails to collect another Coupe de Mousquetaires, it would be the shocker of the season.

2. Is R-Fed refocused?
Roger Federer is the reason why, for the second time in five years, Nadal enters the French Open fresh off a loss. Federer beat Nadal in straight sets in the Madrid final last Sunday, though the significance of that result is debatable. Nadal apologists (Napalogists?) argue that their man was weary from a four-plus-hour semifinal win over Novak Djokovic the previous day, and that the high altitude was to Federer's advantage. Regardless, it bodes well for the world No. 2 that he was able to capitalize on Nadal's fatigue. "I got the win I needed badly," Federer said afterward of collecting his first title of the season.

Federer's recent struggles have been documented and analyzed exhaustively: Nadal administered a humiliating 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 shellacking in the French final last year, and then a month later wrested the Wimbledon crown from the five-time champ. Federer salvaged his season by winning his 13th major title at the U.S. Open, but was reduced to tears after losing another Grand Slam final to Nadal in Melbourne this winter. Then in March, Federer destroyed a racket during a semifinal loss to Djokovic in Miami, an on-court display of frustration as uncharacteristic for him as an errant forehand used to be.

If Federer can make it back to the final and win it (or at least avoid suffering the indignity of another thrashing), he'll be in good shape going into the summer, as he pursues the all-time major wins record. If he struggles in Paris, an already turbulent season will start looking even rougher.

3. Is Safina a "real" No. 1?
It has been argued for a while that the ATP and WTA Tour world rankings system disproportionately values prolificacy over quality of victories, but the formula was exposed as particularly flawed this spring, when Dinara Safina ascended to the No. 1 spot. Safina is not the first player to lay dubious claim to that ranking (see: Jankovic, Jelena), but the "world's best player" moniker rings particularly hollow for the Russian given the way she was comprehensively dismantled by Serena Williams in this year's Australian Open final.

The 23-year-old Safina is a superb athlete and quality player who enters Roland Garros on a two-tournament winning streak. Safina made her first major final at the French Open last year, losing to Ana Ivanovic -- who herself then enjoyed a relatively short-lived stint as the world's No. 1. If Safina can win Roland Garros, the Grand Slam title would legitimize her ranking. Though as the 10-time major champion Serena said in April after ceding the top spot to Safina: "We all know who the real No. 1 is."

4. What are the home team's prospects?
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Nadal, Federer or Djokovic hoisting the winner's trophy on June 7. Actually, you could shorten that list to just Nadal. But the French men's team is deep, with two players -- No. 7 Gilles Simon and No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- both capable of thrilling the home crowd, Yannick Noah-style, by making a run at the second weekend.

The women's situation is murkier. Mercurial Marion Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon finalist, ranked No. 13, could go far into the second week or flame out in the first round; neither would be surprising. Two-time major champion Amelie Mauresmo is herself an enigma -- a physically imposing player with a fragile psyche. After struggling with injuries for the past couple of seasons, she faces lower expectations from her adoring home crowd than in past years, and that lightened burden should work to her advantage. The up-and-coming star is the plucky teenager, Alize Cornet, who made the third round last year and the round of 16 at this year's Australian Open.

5. Are the Americans a lost cause on clay?
The typical U.S. player's run at Roland Garros lasts about as long as a John Lackey start. It's been 10 years since Andre Agassi's saved-by-the-rain five-set victory over Andrei Medvedev in 1999, the last time an American man won in Paris. That U.S. title drought isn't going to end this year. A second-week showing would be a good one for top Yank Andy Roddick, who's fresh after a six-week layoff for his wedding and honeymoon. The Americans' prospects are brighter on the women's side. Serena Williams is seven years removed from her lone Roland Garros title, but she is always a threat. If she's healthy and capitalizes on a (sadly) Henin-free field to win the title, she'll be halfway to the calendar year Grand Slam. And then, watch out.