Venus Gets Close, But
Henin Will Be Too Much
By STEVE SUSI
One Great Season
Aging superstars, nagging injuries and brash newcomers abound in 2010, making this year's French Open the most wide open it's been in a few years.
Will there be a French-born champion hoisting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in front of a gushing center court on June 5? Will Serena Williams pick up her second title or will big sis Venus nab her first? Will the Russian Army outflank the Yanks? Who's going to play the role of the proverbial X-factor?
MORE FRENCH OPEN: Men's Preview
To answer those questions, let's take a look at the X-X Chromosomes side of the draw (OK, that was bad; but the French love Jerry Lewis, so that's all the apology you're getting):
Serena Williams. Evidently inspired by Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in "Superman II," Williams the Youngee claimed Australia earlier this year, the season's first major, over a resurging Justine Henin (see below). She's one of only four past French champions in the draw, so her experience should come into play, as it may have done already Monday in her closer-than-expected win over Swiss Miss Stefanie Vogele, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2. However, a troublesome knee has been her bugaboo this year, which very well may have been the difference in her losses to Jelena Jankovic in Rome and Nadia Petrova in Madrid.
Venus Williams. After bowing out to China’s Na Li in the quarters at the Aussie in January, Venus went on a 15-match tear that included the Dubai and Acapulco titles before falling short to Kim Clijsters at the Sony Ericsson in Miami last month. An appearance in the quarters in Rome and another in the finals in Madrid surely will pay dividends on the terre battue of Paris. With Clijsters out due to a torn foot muscle (zoiks) and little sister Serena already showing some wobbles on clay, this might be Williams the Elder's best chance yet to bring home some Gallic hardware.
Justine Henin. All we can say is 'um, WOW.' If Australia had a Hollywood, it would have probably created something wholly unoriginal like a comic book character movie, and then, hopefully something like we saw in January from the intrepid Belgian, losing a tough one in three sets to arch-nemesis Serena in the final in Melbourne. It would be rather unwise to bet against her in these championships, as she's all over the nuances of the claycourt game like white on rice. Since then, however, the four-time French champ hasn't kept up that pace, what with a weird hand injury keeping her practice time to a minimum. She won the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart against heady competition, but an early adios in Madrid (albeit to eventual champion Aravane Rezai) leaves a few question marks floating overhead. Where there's no question, however: Henin is the class of claycourt tennis in the women's game, and she knows better than anyone out there what it takes to win at Roland Garros. With a low seed this week, she'll probably have to call on that experience more often than we've seen in her previous trips to the French, but overlook this underranked No. 23 player in the world at your peril.
Jelena Jankovic. For a while there, we thought we'd have to get accustomed to Jank ruling the roost in the women's game. Then she got lost for a while. She's back in the top five, courtesy of an outstanding showing in Rome — beating the Sisters Williams on her way to the finals, where she ultimately fell to Maria Martinez Sanchez. Look for the Serb to do well this year, but nothing less than on-fire status will get her to the semis.
Aravane Rezai. What could be better for a 23-year-old French gal than to win going away in Madrid the week before her home country's major? If you're unfamiliar with this 5-foot-5 cannon from St. Etienne, do yourself a favor and tune in to her toute de suite. She was unstoppable in Spain last week, mowing down the likes of Henin, Jankovic and Venus without concern for life or limb. I'm pretty sure we haven't seen anyone this small with so much power since Truman took office. If her groundstrokes are on, she's indomitable from both sides as well as at full stride, which wowed 'em in Madrid — but you ain't heard nothin 'til 15,000 Frenchmen roar in unison at one of her blazing passing shots. Simply put, watch out for Aravane Rezai. If she can keep it going, as she did Sunday with a first-round 1-and-1 win over Egyptian Heidi El Tabakh, she could be the new French Perfection.
Sam Stosur. This upstart Australian's made the quarters or better at her last five tourneys, and last month, did the Charleston after winning the Family Circle Cup in South Carolina.
Caroline Wozniacki: Can the third-ranked player in the world realistically be considered a dark horse? If she’s got a bum ankle and no real victories this spring you can. Still, she made the finals at last year's U.S. and started the claycourt season 8-0 before her injury forced her exit from Warsaw.
Shahar Peer: She's playing well so far this season on clay (semis in Stuttgart and Madrid) and has made fourth-round appearances at the French (in 2006 and 2007). If the breeze blows just right, the Israeli ranked 18th in the world can pull a rabbit out of her hat and surprise someone.
Ana Ivanovic: Does her semis run in Rome portend a resurgence of this elegant Serb who’s already won here in the 16th Arrondissement? Men all over the world are praying so.
Francesca Schiavone: The 23-year-old Italian has backhand-sliced herself to 20 wins at Roland Garros, including a quarterfinal and three consecutive fourth-round appearances from 2004-2006. In April she won on clay in Barcelona, so she's shown the WTA she knows what to do in the red dust.
Prediction: It's less predictable than the past six years, because, honestly, the trophies have been pretty equally distributed thus far this season. The Williams sisters have shown drawbacks (nothing worrisome by any means, but still, they've been beaten this year, so the sharks are circling), Henin's no longer the lead-pipe lock she once was, and a fearless class of youngsters like Rezai could throw a wrench in the works for bettors everywhere.
My crystal ball shows a Henin-Venus final for the ages, with the Belgian lugging a slightly heavier carryon bag than her opponent does at Charles DeGaulle. Her mastery and sheer genius on clay — and sizable knowledge of her familiar foe's tendencies — make Henin too tough this year.
In 1989, Steve earned High School Tennis All-America honors. Since then, his life's gone straight downhill. Today, he is founder and chief creative officer of New York branding consultancy Brand Spanking New York. Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter — he's at @BrandSpankingNY.