Commentary

Rafa, Henin are favorites, and why not?

Updated: May 21, 2010, 1:43 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Two years ago at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal found himself at the very height of his (and every other) game.

He ruined Roger Federer in the 2008 final on Court Philippe Chatrier, allowing the world No. 1 player only four games -- the fewest number of games won by a top seed in any Grand Slam final in the four decades of the Open era. It was Nadal's fourth consecutive title in Paris; he had played 28 French Open matches -- and won them all.

"What can you do?" Federer asked. "Rafa just played too good."

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty Images It will take a special effort to knock Rafael Nadal out of the French Open.

A year earlier on the same court, Justine Henin hoisted the winner's sterling trophy after dropping only three games to Ana Ivanovic. It was her 17th straight match win at Roland Garros and her fourth championship in five years.

"It's like my garden," Henin said. "I just feel home over here."

It seemed as though they might go on forever, Henin and Nadal, leading lights of the historic venue nestled in the leafy Bois de Boulogne, west of the city center. They were creatures of clay, by far more forceful -- yet comfortable -- on the sprawling burnt-sienna surface than any of their peers.

But Henin walked away from the game two years ago, her heart no longer in it. It was instructive that she announced her retirement before the French Open; it seemed she had too much respect for the tournament that means the most to her. Nadal, his knees and perhaps even his heart aching, fell in the fourth round last year to Robin Soderling.

Now, two and three years removed from their most recent triumphs at Roland Garros, respectively, Nadal and Henin return as favorites. And why not?

Between them, they own eight titles -- one more than all other active players combined. Nadal has crafted a 31-1 match record at Roland Garros. Henin is 35-4. That's about as close to invincible as you can get. Doing the math: They have entered 13 French Opens, all told, and won eight.

On the second day of May, Nadal and Henin captured singles titles -- he in Rome and she in Stuttgart. It was Henin's first tournament victory since her retirement two years ago.

"When I saw Roger Federer winning the French Open, it brought back the fire that wasn't there anymore before," Henin said. "It has been a lot of work, but I'm ready for it."

This past Sunday, Nadal won in Madrid -- clipping Federer 6-4, 7-6 (5) in the final.

"For me, it's a dream to have won the three [tournaments] before Roland Garros," said Nadal, who broke Andre Agassi's record of 17 ATP World Tour Masters titles.

If Nadal wins at Roland Garros and Federer fails to reach the semifinals, Rafa again will be the world's No. 1-ranked player.

Justine Henin: A girl among idols

She grew up speaking French in Rochefort, Belgium, near the country's eastern borders with Germany and the Netherlands.

When she was 10 years old, Henin won an essay contest. The prize was a trip, some 250 miles, to Paris. There, the just-turned-11-year-old and her mother attended the 1992 French Open final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. It had a profound effect on the trajectory of Henin's life.

Only five years later, Henin defeated Cara Black in three sets to become the French Open junior champion. She entered the Belgian Open as a wild card in 1999 and won her debut WTA event. Later that month, Henin returned to Roland Garros ranked No. 121 in the world. In her last days as a 16-year-old, she won three qualifying matches. Henin reached the second round, where she pushed No. 2-ranked Lindsay Davenport to a third set. An arm injury forced her to skip the 2000 French Open, but the next year she obliterated fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters 6-0, 6-4 in the final at Roland Garros.

Eleven years after that memorable first visit, Henin was the French Open champion.

"I was a little girl who was coming to see her idols," Henin said after winning the 2003 title. "I can tell you this morning when I practiced, I just watched the place I was 11 years ago and it was very special."

Four of her seven Grand Slam singles titles have come at Roland Garros, and there is no reason to think she can't add a fifth.

Playing in the Fed Cup last month, Clijsters tore a muscle in her left foot, and she will miss this year's tournament. Henin, who won at Stuttgart with the broken pinkie finger on her left hand tightly taped, seems to be the player to beat. The fact that she lost her first-round match in Madrid to Aravane Rezai didn't change that.

The Williams sisters have only one title at Roland Garros to their credit -- Serena's 2002 win -- and both have struggled with leg injuries lately, although Venus looked solid getting to the final at Madrid. Last year's finalist, Dinara Safina, has been slowed by a bad back, and No. 2-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, whose retrieving game is suited for Paris, has been troubled by a sprained ankle.

Mark Woodforde, half of one of history's greatest doubles teams with Todd Woodbridge and a 2010 Tennis Hall of Fame enshrinee, will be on hand in Paris broadcasting for the world feed.

"Justine has so much variety in her game, which suits the clay," Woodforde said. "Women's tennis, it seems, is so much about hitting it big. She can do that, maybe step in and come over the ball. But what makes her so formidable is she can quickly change and extend rallies with her backhand slice.

"She just has a more thoughtful pattern to her play on clay."

Rafael Nadal: A dream deferred

He grew up on Mallorca, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. After he chose tennis over soccer, Nadal drilled daily on the red clay courts of that sun-soaked island.

Spain -- like Belgium -- borders France, but Nadal learned the game more than 600 miles from Paris. Unlike, Henin, he never enjoyed an early connection with Roland Garros. Strangely enough, his early success came at Wimbledon.

In 2002, at the age of 16, he played in only two junior events. He reached the semifinals of the boys' singles at Wimbledon and later helped Spain to a victory over the United States in junior Davis Cup.

Playing in Challenger events, he improved his ranking enough to make the main draw at Roland Garros in 2003, but an elbow injury knocked him out of the tournament. A month later, at 17, he became the youngest male player to reach the third round at Wimbledon since 16-year-old Boris Becker.

A stress fracture in his left ankle suffered in Estoril forced him to pass on Roland Garros in 2004.

Finally, when he entered his first French Open in 2005, Nadal was viewed as one of the favorites. He had won ATP World Tour Masters events in Monte Carlo and Rome and was already the youngest player to crack the top 10 since Andrei Medvedev a dozen years earlier.

Nadal beat two Frenchmen, Sebastien Grosjean and fellow highly touted teenager, Richard Gasquet, on his way to the semifinals. On the day of his 19th birthday, Nadal beat Federer, the world's No. 1-ranked player, and then, almost anticlimactically, Mariano Puerta in the final. Nadal was only the second player (joining Mats Wilander) to win at Roland Garros in his debut.

He has the perfect game and temperament for clay: biting spins from both wings and a willingness to play as long as it takes.

When Federer finally broke through a year ago with his first victory at Roland Garros, Nadal had already departed. A fifth rematch, however, seems possible; Rafa has won all four of his contests there with Federer. Since winning the Australian Open, Federer has been out of sorts, but reaching the final in Madrid signaled that he remains the second-best clay-court player on the circuit, and his game is typically dialed in for this Grand Slam event.

Nadal, with a lighter schedule than critics have been calling for, has been his typical clay-court self, winning convincingly in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid. This is the first time he hasn't played back-to-back clay tournaments leading into Paris, and it seems to have helped him stay fresh. Nadal became the first player to win all three ATP Masters clay titles in a single season.

Overall, he is 196-16 (.925) for his career on clay, the best winning percentage on clay in the Open era. And because Nadal is again ranked No. 2, he and Federer can't meet until the final at Roland Garros.

"I want to enjoy that now," Rafa said of his win in Madrid. "We'll see what happens in two weeks."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.