Commentary

Henin hopeful clay surface will help her overcome mundane season

Justine Henin has ruled the clay surface for the last few years. But a rejuvenated Serena Williams has been dominant thus far in 2008.

Originally Published: May 4, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Tournament: German Open
Surface: Clay
Draw: 64
Prize money: $1.34 million
Top seeds: Justine Henin, Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic

Justine Henin is a three-time winner in Germany and one of the great performers of all time at this event. But as has been the case so often in the past year, Serena Williams is sitting in her quarter of the draw.

Just a few weeks ago, Williams demolished the world No. 1 in Miami, 6-2, 6-0. Additionally, Henin is playing in her first clay tournament of the year, having pulled out of Charleston with a right knee injury.

Can Henin circumvent a wealth of talent and win this Tier I event for the fourth time? Here's how we predict the German Open will play itself out.

First Quarter: Henin-Serena Williams, part 14
Henin bailed from the Tier 1 tourney in Charleston, S.C., last month, not wanting to risk injury to her right knee, so Berlin marks her first tournament since a crushing 6-2, 6-0 defeat to Williams in the quarterfinals of the hard-court Sony Ericsson Open more than a month ago. A friendly draw early means she can ease into the last eight.

Williams claimed the Miami title and did the same in Charleston, improving to 19-1 this season. Though potentially tricky foes await in the second and third rounds in resilient teens Alize Cornet and Agnieszka Radwanska, it's hard to pick against Williams.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Stredel/AFP/Getty ImagesSerena Williams has encountered Justine Henin in the quarterfinals of the draw the last four times they have met.
Williams then would battle Henin for the 14th time. She's 1-4 against the three-time defending French Open champion on dirt, where Henin is most comfortable. Then again, Henin's campaign has been less than impressive.

Prediction: Williams

Second Quarter: Dangerous floaters abound
Two floaters meet in the opening round: Diminutive Slovak Dominika Cibulkova, a finalist in Amelia Island, tangles with Ukraine's Alona Bondarenko, who's twice pushed Maria Sharapova to the limit this season. (Sharapova, warring with the WTA, is absent in Berlin.)

A third, Gisela Dulko, a winner in Fes, Morocco, yesterday, gives underachieving Nicole Vaidisova a test in the Czech's first outing under new coach David Felgate.

Victoria Azarenka, the Prague finalist, has a potential second-round clash against the struggling sixth seed, Anna Chakvetadze, and Anabel Medina Garrigues, the Fes runner-up, features, too.

Kuznetsova, last year's finalist, is the clear favorite.

Prediction: Kuznetsova

Third Quarter: Jankovic's consistency
Jankovic has been her usual consistent self, reaching at least the quarterfinals in every 2008 event she's played. The smiling Serb has a smooth-looking section, with the steady Katarina Srebotnik or unpredictable Russian Maria Kirilenko hoping to change that if either of them faces Jankovic in the third round. Kirilenko lost five straight matches before winning a small clay event in Estoril, Portugal in April.

Austrian Tamira Paszek, unable to duplicate last year's success so far, has a potential second-round tilt against seventh-seeded Elena Dementieva. The 17-year-old upset Dementieva at Wimbledon, but the multilingual Russian triumphed 6-2, 6-0 in Beijing later in 2007.

Prediction: Jankovic

Fourth Quarter: Agnes Szavay's revival and Ivanovic
Of the tour's budding stars, Szavay arguably promised the most in 2008: The 19-year-old won a title, reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals and compiled a 56-14 record in 2007. The Hungarian, though, lost three straight matches and five of six at one point, finally turning things around by making back-to-back quarterfinals in Amelia Island and Charleston. Her route to the quarters appears accommodating.

Ivanovic has a potentially intriguing encounter with Amelie Mauresmo in the second round -- the result could be lopsided.

Prediction: Ivanovic

Semifinals: The Hard Hitters
Williams and Kuznetsova are armed with two of the hardest-hitting games in women's tennis. Williams has a 4-1 edge in their head-to-head matches, and the superiority is probably greater when it comes to performing under pressure, as witnessed in Miami. Williams took the third set of their semi 6-3.

Similarly Ivanovic has the mental edge over compatriot Jankovic, leading the series 5-1.

Prediction: Williams, Ivanovic to advance

Final

To be blunt, it's hard to stop Williams when she's on a roll, so if the younger of the tennis-playing sisters is anywhere near her best, a straight-set job is on the cards.

A closer look at Ivanovic's path when she reached the Australian Open and French Open final reveals a cushy draw. Confronted by the likes of Henin, Sharapova (not on a clay court) and Williams, the 20-year-old fizzles.

Prediction: Serena Williams

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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