<
>

Pressure is finally off Mauresmo

5/25/2009 - Tennis
Amelie Mauesmo has historically succumbed to the pressure of her hometown Grand Slam. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A few years ago, there was no end to the clay-court dark horses or so-called dangerous floaters. Nowadays they seem to be dwindling.

However, when the French Open draw takes place Friday, you can bet the elite will be taking a closer look to see if any of the below are nearby. (Well, it doesn't really matter for four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal, does it?)

Just imagine 13-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, hoping to break through in Paris for the first time, facing 2004 champ Gaston Gaudio in the first round, or women's No. 1 Dinara Safina meeting the rapidly ascending Sabine Lisicki.

Now for a closer look at the possible spoilers.

Men

Juan Monaco
Rank: 52
Best French Open result: Fourth round (2007)
Last year: First round

He's a humble guy who hustles on every point, irrespective of the surface.

No wonder Nadal is good pals with Monaco.

Monaco excels most on clay, and the 25-year-old pulled off one of the upsets of the current dirt season by eliminating Big Four stalwart Andy Murray at the Rome Masters.

Monaco, born in the same Argentinean city as domestic No. 1 Juan Martin Del Potro, has also knocked off Spaniards Tommy Robredo (two titles on the Latin American clay-court swing) and David Ferrer (finalist in Barcelona) in the past month and a half. He's slowly regaining the form exhibited early last year, before an ankle injury struck and sent his ranking tumbling from 14th.

Ivan Ljubicic
Rank: 43
Best French Open result: SF (2006)
Last year: Fourth round

After Ljubicic thumped down all those aces in 2005 and 2006, many a fan would have expected the savvy Croat to reach more than a solitary Grand Slam semifinal before turning 30.

And who would have guessed the apex would result at Roland Garros?

It did, in 2006, and guess what? Ljubicic's best result at a major since came at the French Open last year. Ljubicic orchestrated one of the biggest surprises of the tournament, rallying from two sets down to eliminate Nikolay Davydenko, who'd destroyed Marat Safin a round earlier.

Having said he'd consider retirement if the wins didn't start piling up post Dubai, the former world No. 3 reached clay-court quarterfinals in Monte Carlo and Madrid. Victims included Del Potro and the drifting (big time) Gilles Simon.

Albert Montanes
Rank: 35
Best French Open result: Third round (four times)
Last year: Second round

It's already been two seasons in one for the racket-abusing Montanes. He lost his first six matches, including three in succession on his preferred surface of clay in Latin America, prior to a semifinal revival in Casablanca.

In Monte Carlo, Montanes took a set off Novak Djokovic, and extended the Serb to another tiebreaker in Rome.

He then had one of those weeks to remember in Estoril, winning his second title (all six of his appearances in finals have come on clay) after saving a match point against Simon in a three-hour quarterfinal and fending off two match points in the finale versus James Blake. Montanes is armed with a picturesque one-handed backhand, but his slap forehand does more damage.

Igor Andreev
Rank: 27
Best French Open result: QF (2007)
Last year: Second round

Andreev, he of the monstrous forehand, remains an enigma. Shouldn't the Russian be reaching the quarterfinals, or thereabouts, at any tournament he contests on clay?

Not so in 2009.

His only noteworthy performance came in Casablanca, where Andreev landed in the semis. Even then, as the top seed, Andreev stuttered badly in his first two encounters. A shocking first-round defeat to Argentine Martin Vassallo Arguello ensued in Monte Carlo, and Andreev was upset by that clay-court specialist Mardy Fish in Rome.

Injuries hampered Andreev in Belgrade and Madrid, but the 25-year-old can do damage if healthy and in the right mood. Federer (think U.S. Open last year) and Andy Roddick (think French Open two years ago) will attest to that.

Gaston Gaudio
Rank: 359
Best French Open result: W (2004)
Last year: Did not play

A last kick at the can for Gaudio, the gloomy Argentine who took advantage of Guillermo Coria's choke job to win the French Open before Rafa's reign began.

Gaudio, still only 30, was in semi-retirement mode in 2008, losing the two matches he played (in straight sets, one bagel each time, surprise, surprise).

This year, Gaudio has prevailed in only one top-level encounter, though he won a challenger in Tunisia in early May by overcoming the vastly improving Portuguese Frederico Gil in the final. He got his wish when French Open organizers handed him a wild card.

Lethal with his one-handed backhand, a focused Gaudio could give a scare to a higher seed.

Women

Amelie Mauresmo
Rank: 16
Best French Open result: QF (twice)
Last year: Second round

The French probably don't expect much from Mauresmo this year, so the pressure is most certainly off. And let's not forget Mauresmo has fond memories of Paree lately, defying the odds to claim an indoor title in February by eliminating the likes of top-10 regulars Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva.

Mauresmo, 29, tuned up for Roland Garros with an impressive semifinal showing in Madrid, ousting Dementieva again, tenacious Chinese baseliner Zheng Jie and Hungarian Agnes Szavay. (Is Szavay back from the abyss?)

The flux atop the women's game persists, which should help Mauresmo further.

Flavia Pennetta
Rank: 14
Best French Open result: Fourth round
Last year: Fourth round

It took awhile, but last year Pennetta finally went from a player who could win only small tournaments (with weak fields) to one capable of producing on the biggest of stages.

The Italian ensured a double whammy for the Williams sisters in Paris, beating Venus Williams the same day Serena Williams fell, and found herself in the fourth round. The 27-year-old went one better in New York, achieving a maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal on a 23rd attempt.

Pennetta, on the verge of becoming the first Italian woman to crack the top 10, boosted her credentials in Stuttgart, Germany, this month by downing Jankovic and threatening Safina.

Carla Suarez Navarro
Rank: 22
Best French Open result: QF
Last year: QF (debut)

Not since Grand Slam champions Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez has Spain had sizable hope for a women's pro. Suarez Navarro figures to be a serious contender at Roland Garros in the future, but for now, the term "giant killer" springs to mind.

Suarez Navarro, with her one-handed backhand an obvious weapon, became the first women's qualifier to reach the French Open quarterfinals in seven years when she marched to the final eight in 2008 (on her Grand Slam debut, no less).

The 20-year-old subsequently derailed Venus Williams in the second round of the Australian Open -- getting plenty of help from Williams, mind you -- and reached a clay-court final and semifinal in Spain last month.

Sabine Lisicki
Rank: 38
Best French Open result: Second round
Last year: Second round (debut)

Lisicki, in possession of a big serve, has folks in Germany plenty excited. With a 10-1 record in her last 11 completed matches, why not?

The 19-year-old won the Premier Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., in April without dropping a set, defeating Venus Williams (there she is again) in the third round and crushing Danish hotshot Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Lisicki followed it up by pushing Jankovic to three sets in Stuttgart, though she was forced to retire in the quarterfinals in Estoril due to a shoulder injury.

Then reports in Germany indicated Lisicki was hospitalized with severe abdominal pains last week, though appendicitis was apparently ruled out.

Her camp says Lisicki has been practicing and should be in Paris.

Alisa Kleybanova
Rank: 23
Best French Open result: Second round
Last year: Second round (debut)

Like Suarez Navarro, Kleybanova has a knack for causing an upset or two. One of eight Russians in the top 30, the 19-year-old topped Ana Ivanovic in a veritable slugfest at the Australian Open, and guess whom she took out in the second round in Madrid? Yes, poor old Venus once more.

Kleybanova's game appears to be suited to faster surfaces, yet the right-hander admits she prefers clay (because it's easier on the body) and reached a first career semifinal in Fes, Morocco, this month.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.