Women's Q&A heading into Roland Garros
Will Justine Henin win her fourth crown at Roland Garros? Is this the year France's own Amelie Mauresmo breaks through on the terre battue? Bonnie DeSimone answers those questions in her preview of the women's French Open.
It's been almost four months since Serena Williams stormed to a title at the Australian Open. The plot has thickened on the women's side. Here are 10 questions we've been pondering as heading into the most intense stretch of the season, with two Grand Slam events in the next six weeks.
The three-time Roland Garros champion has been liberated literally by her divorce and figuratively by the exit of countrywoman Kim Clijsters, ridding Henin of the annoying and inevitable contrast between Clijsters' pep-rally persona and Henin's academic seriousness. Henin's game is crisp and her attitude less crispy these days, as if she's realized some of the damage done by her past perceived shrugs to the world. More specifically and ominously for the field, she has what baseball people would call "quality wins" this season against just about every other player who would be considered a threat here -- Jelena Jankovic (twice on clay, once on hard court), Svetlana Kuznetsova (who did beat her in Berlin last week), Nadia Petrova, Patty Schnyder, Amelie Mauresmo, Anna Chakvedatze -- everyone, that is, except the subject of the next question:
Some would say that Serena Williams' own tendons and ligaments, rather than anyone else's groundstrokes and volleys, are the biggest threat to her bid to sweep the majors in the same calendar year. Yes, the '02 French Open titlist hasn't played much on clay heading into Paris, but we've given up trying to read her smoke signals. Her public comments indicate that she wants this tournament very badly, which is a big part of the battle for her.
The story line of this prodigal daughter's struggles on her home dirt -- she's never reached the semis -- have become semi-tiresome. But the truth is that it's a whole new landscape for Mauresmo in 2007. She is a two-time Slam winner now, freed of old jinxes, and will be graded on the curve because she missed time recently after an appendectomy. She won't be expected to make a breakthrough, and that's precisely why we wouldn't be stunned if she does. Neither would analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. "Maybe she can relax a little bit and play her best tennis," Fernandez said. As an aside, you think the American women have trouble on clay? With No. 17 Tatiana Golovin out of the French, Mauresmo might be carrying the tricolor flag alone by the first weekend, and they're supposed to be good at this.
It's no secret that Maria Sharapova's formerly effective serve, and possibly her spirit, have been on the disabled list since the Australian Open final. She returned from hamstring and shoulder injuries this week and will put her game under the microscope again at the Slam event whose surface least suits her -- Sharapova has yet to get past the quarters at Roland Garros. That means the bar will be set lower for her in Paris, but she'll still have to take care of business in the early rounds in order to squash talk of a continuing tailspin.
In a weird geopolitical coincidence, the male and female players who appear to have the best chance to unseat royalty at Roland Garros are from the same small country. Jankovic hasn't generated quite the buzz of her fellow Serbian sensation Novak Djokovic, but her career-high No. 4 ranking has been earned on the strength of a more demanding schedule than anyone else in the top 20. After her implosion against Henin in the U.S. Open semis last year, Jankovic needs to prove she's ready for prime time, and this would be the ideal venue to do it.
We doubt it. Unless it's her sister. However
She's been maddeningly inconsistent this season and her loss to the raw Aravane Rezai in Istanbul this week wasn't a confidence-builder.
We tend to discount No. 15 Patty Schnyder in Slams (four quarterfinal finishes, one semifinal appearance in 43 majors; she also hasn't missed a Slam since '97) but she's beaten Serena Williams and Martina Hingis, a late scratch from the French, on clay recently.
We nominate No. 25 Alona Bondarenko of the Ukraine, who beat Kuznetsova on her way to the Warsaw final and played Jankovic toe-to-toe in Rome earlier this month.
By this, we mean you, Berlin winner Ana Ivanovic; we mean you, Charleston finalist Dinara Safina; we might even mean you, baseliners Shahar Peer, Nicole Vaidisova and Anna Chakvetadze. Please answer "present" at roll call or we'll temporarily confiscate your "promising'' labels and your tiaras.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.
2007 FRENCH OPEN
May 27-June 10
Women: Justine Henin
Men: Rafael Nadal
• Henin wins third straight title
• DeSimone: Henin's personal journey
• Garber: Third set hard to come by in final
• Top 10 facts about Henin
• Federer-Nadal daily watch
• Making the case for Rafa, Roger
• It's Federer vs. Nadal in French Open final
• Garber: Another record for Roger
• DeSimone: Rafa rolling toward third final
• DeSimone: Ivanovic coach-free for final
• Who will win women's final?