No favorites, just possibilities in France
Is it time to mandate steel-reinforced boots for WTA players having a night out? First Serena Williams steps on a broken glass in a bar, setting off a string of related injuries that have kept her out for 11 months. Then Kim Clijsters hurts her ankle dancing at her cousin's wedding, barely recovering in time for her first-round French Open match Tuesday.
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Such is the state of the women's field that Clijsters still comes in as "the one to beat." That much was conceded by Maria Sharapova last week, though the Russian was extremely wary of making any projections about the tournament. She's not alone because this may genuinely be the most anarchic women's Grand Slam field in history.
Some will say there are 10 potential winners. Others say that's ridiculous -- there are at least 20. Five have won majors before -- Clijsters, Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone. Others who have come close, like world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and last year's finalist Samantha Stosur, are also in the mix, along with a number of budding and faded threats.
There are, of course, some equally conspicuous absences -- Serena Williams, Venus Williams, the prematurely (re-)retired Justine Henin and former finalist Dinara Safina. But that has become par for the course over the past year or two. The reason this fortnight is even more open than usual is because the obvious picks have not been playing convincingly, and those with impressive lead-ups generally have yet to prove themselves at the majors.
Players like Kuznetsova, Stosur, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Vera Zvonareva are mired in various degrees of slumps. Emerging threats like Petra Kvitova and Julia Goerges could get to the later stages, but would face a whole new level of pressure, far different from the happy-to-be-here feel to Kvitova's run to the Wimbledon semis last year. Injuries have also been a factor, affecting the preparations of Victoria Azarenka, Ivanovic and, of course, Clijsters.
So with question marks around every potential name, there are no favorites at this event, only possibilities. By default, it has fallen to Clijsters to lead the field, even though she, too, has some nagging doubts around her.
She told the story of the ankle injury last week, setting the story straight on her footwear. "A lot of people thought I was in high heels, but I wasn't in high heels," Clijsters said. "I was in bare feet, because I was wearing high heels and I couldn't dance in my high heels. So then I landed on another girl's foot and I twisted my ankle.
"Then while I'm walking off, limping, somebody stepped on the outside of my small toe, as well, and I still have a problem there," she said.
"I was having a really good time until then!"
For all her success since returning in 2009 from motherhood and retirement, a rusty Clijsters has been prone to unexpected letdowns every now and again -- perhaps her biggest danger over the next two weeks.
Despite being a two-time finalist here, Clijsters also names clay as her least-favorite surface. If nothing else, that betrays a lack of full confidence in her ability to win this event, particularly in this current state. "I just prefer the impact that your strokes have on a hard court," she said. "I know that if I hit a shot, forehand inside out on a hard court, you know, eight out of 10 it won't come back. On clay, five out of 10 or eight out of 10 it will come back, and then I have the next shot."
Three-time Grand Slam champ Sharapova is even less comfortable on clay, which is why she is also a hesitant pick despite being in good form after struggling for so long with her shoulder. Though she pointed to her improved legwork as an important part of her Rome victory, Sharapova is still vulnerable when forced to go on the run.
"You don't have as much grip on the clay as you do on a hard court. Just moving around and just letting your body be more comfortable with it. It takes a lot of time," she said. "It helps a lot when you play actual matches instead of just practicing, because you're put into in different situations in an actual match. You have to recover, you know, from a more difficult spot on the court, and you've got to move forward, go back.
"Also, the points are longer, so you might have to be a little bit more patient from the beginning of the point."
Like Clijsters, she begins her quest for a first French Open on Tuesday, and the two are seeded to meet in the quarterfinals.
But penciling in the draw sheet is likely to be a fruitless task this fortnight. The women's field has all the earmarks of a tournament that will be punctuated by upsets and counter-upsets, with a couple of players somehow leapfrogging their way to the final with a mixture of luck and skill. Defending champ Francesca Schiavone showed how to do it last year, in style.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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