Commentary

Devoid of Justine Henin, Williams, Sharapova looking to make their mark

For the first time since 2004, the French Open winning trophy will be hoisted by someone other than Justine Henin. But who steps up and grinds their way through the clay is up in the air.

Updated: May 23, 2008, 1:50 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special ESPN.com

Tournament: French Open
Surface: Clay
Draw: 128
Prize money: $24,519,000
Top seeds: Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova

Justine Henin is back at the French Open.

Fortunately for the rest of the women's field she hasn't changed her mind about retirement -- the Belgian is at Roland Garros for a press conference tomorrow.

In Henin's absence, Sharapova, seeking to complete her Grand Slam collection, is the top seed, but has a tricky path to the semis. Sharapova's half, however, doesn't feature the Williams sisters, Jelena Jankovic or Ana Ivanovic, last year's beaten finalist.

First Quarter: Sharapova and the surging Russians
Sharapova doesn't profess clay is her surface of choice, yet she's a battler and seemingly always improving. Her dirt results haven't been bad in 2008, either, winning in Amelia Island, Fla., and going down in three sets to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Tier 1 Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C. in April.

Three victories over dangerous opponents in Rome followed before a calf injury forced her to withdraw against Jankovic. Her first three foes in Paris are less daunting. Sharapova begins against 104th-ranked Evgeniya Rodina, gets a qualifier or wild card next, and possibly meets the No. 32 seed Karin Knapp, riding a five-match losing streak entering this week, in the third round.

Then things get interesting -- Dinara Safina in the fourth round.

Safina, the kid sister of Marat Safin, claimed the Tier 1 German Open in Berlin in May and eliminated Sharapova in a memorable 2006 French Open fourth-round clash. Safina trailed 5-1 in the third.

In the lower half, Elena Dementieva, on a roll, and the consistent -- at least in 2008 -- Vera Zvonareva, figure to go head-to-head in the fourth round.

Prediction: Sharapova

Second Quarter: The slumping Russians
Svetlana Kuznetsova continues to deceive. Touted by many as a sure world No. 1, the fourth-ranked Kuznetsova exited in the third round in Berlin and Rome to hard-hitting baseliner Alona Bondarenko and the wily Alize Cornet, respectively.

She'll get a chance to ease into the fortnight, thanks to comfortable looking matches during the first three rounds. Former junior world champion Victoria Azarenka may give her a fight in the fourth. Azarenka, 18, led Kuznetsova 6-1, 5-2 on hard courts in Miami in March, eventually collapsing.

Anna Chakvetadze failed to build on her breakthrough 2007. Chakvetadze lost four straight prior to a semifinal appearance in Rome, where she, too, pulled off an escape, against Kateryna Bondarenko in the first round. Hungarian teen Agnes Szavay, showing signs of a revival, just might sneak into the fourth round.

Prediction: Kuznetsova

Third Quarter: The smiling Serb
Can Jelena Jankovic take that final step?

Jankovic has been phenomenally consistent in 2008, reaching at least the quarterfinals in every event she's entered, and winning in Rome last week.

Jankovic's first test comes in the third round if she encounters that little, big-hitting Slovak Dominika Cibulkova. Cornet, the Rome finalist, or another precocious teen, Agnieszka Radwanska, probably follow.

The top half is there for the taking for Venus Williams. After more than a month out, the rusty Williams stretched Jankovic to three sets in Rome.

Two of the highest-profile French women show up, but for how long?

Marion Bartoli wasn't having a great season and is struggling with her wrist, and Amelie Mauresmo, seeded No. 22, is in decline.

Prediction: Jankovic

Fourth Quarter: Serena and Ana
Serena Williams met -- and lost -- to Henin in the quarterfinals at three Grand Slams in 2007. Assuming she reaches the last eight in Paris, her opponent would be considerably less fearsome, maybe erratic Swiss veteran Patty Schnyder.

Williams might have to hit a few balls a round earlier, against the steady Katarina Srebotnik.

Ivanovic, at the bottom end, needs to lift her game: A semifinal appearance in Berlin was sandwiched between early defeats in Miami and Rome.

Following a comfy opener, her next three possible foes are Lucie Safarova, Caroline Wozniacki and Alona Bondarenko. Safarova, although having a horrible campaign, is unpredictable; Wozniacki, the 17-year-old Dane, has risen 30 spots in the rankings to No. 34 since January, when she took Ivanovic to a second-set tiebreak at the Australian Open; and Bondarenko twice worried Sharapova this season.

Prediction: Williams

Semifinals
If looking at head-to-head results, little separates Jankovic and Williams -- they're tied 3-3, with all six matches played on hard courts. Williams, though, is miles ahead mentally, especially on big occasions.

Sharapova and Kuznetsova are tied 4-4. Kuznetsova, unlike Jankovic, is a Grand Slam champion, and clay still suits her better than Sharapova. Remember, Kuznetsova came the closest to ousting Henin at the French Open the last three years, blowing a match point in the fourth round in 2005.

Prediction: Williams, Kuznetsova to advance

Final
Kuznetsova has few problems getting to the finals. Unfortunately, winning them is the hard part. In her last nine appearances, she's 1-8. The only time Kuznetsova triumphed was in August 2007 at New Haven, Conn., Szavay led by a set before retiring.

When she finds her way to Grand Slam finals, Williams, meanwhile, usually finishes off the job -- she's 8-2.

Prediction: Williams in two sets

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.