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Friday, May 22, 2009
Gaining, losing ground at Roland Garros?


With the French Open getting under way Sunday, pundits everywhere are making predictions about the outcome of Roland Garros. Let's do something a little different and examine the cases of the two players (one male, one female) who have the most to gain and the two with the most to lose in the coming days.

The man with the most to gain is a no-brainer: It's Roger Federer, even though the prospect of Rafael Nadal winning the event for a record-shattering fifth straight time (thereby extending his undefeated-at-Roland-Garros streak to 35 matches) is nothing to dismiss lightly. Federer is playing for what surely would be universal acclaim as The Greatest of All Time if he were to win the French Open. He wouldn't have to hit another ball for the rest of his life (or at least until Nadal begins to close on his record-matching 14 Grand Slam singles titles).

We all know the line of reasoning: By winning Roland Garros, Federer would not only complete a career Grand Slam -- something only five men have accomplished, Andre Agassi being the latest -- he would equal Pete Sampras' record of 14 major singles titles.

The men's player with the most to lose: Andy Murray. He has made great headway toward closing the gap on the Big Three (Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic), but a little doubt still creeps in when you talk about Murray and the majors. Although he was a finalist at the 2008 U.S. Open, he stumbled in Australia and needs a good French Open to keep the momentum going.

The woman with the most to gain is Dinara Safina. She has taken a lot of grief for assuming the No. 1 ranking without having won a major, yet she has played more consistently excellent tennis over the last 12 months than any other woman, and by far. In her last four majors, she made two finals (Roland Garros, 2008 and Australian Open, 2009) and a semi (U.S. Open, 2008).

But the whispers are audible, and the pressure is on. Does she really have it in her to win the big one? Today, she had this to say:

"Well, I think if I continue playing like I've been playing for the last three weeks, I have a very good chance, so I want just focus one step at a time, you know. I'm really looking forward [to] it, but when it comes, I don't know. God knows. Maybe here. Maybe. But I will do my best."

The woman with the most to lose is Ana Ivanovic, the defending champ who's seeded No. 8 in Paris. The wheels fell off Ivanovic's game shortly after she won her first major in Paris last year, and there really hasn't been much sign of her turning things around. She can't afford to lose in Paris, especially early. If she does, she'll be back to a champion's equivalent of square one.

Given the disappointing, stressful 12 months that followed Ivanovic's victory here last year, you almost want to tell Safina: Be careful what you wish for.