With Henin retiring, the women's side is wide open; Nadal looks to keep dominating the men on clay
By Wyman Meers
Barely more than a week before the start of the French Open, which is chronologically the second of professional tennis’s four most coveted events, Belgium’s Justine Henin announced her retirement.
|Jankovic and Nadal are the picks to win
More stunning still was the timing of Henin’s announcement. The retirement was effective immediately, meaning that Henin – who has won four of the last five titles at Roland Garros, including three in a row – would not compete in Paris. She would have been a heavy favorite in a quest for a historic fourth consecutive title, regardless of recent struggles, and Henin’s choice to end her remarkable career seemed unfathomable.
Yet there she was, quitting the game on the eve of the tournament that requires more fight of its champion than any other. Could this really be the same woman who had used the red clay courts in Paris to strikingly illustrate that, as Mark Twain said, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog?”
For all her precise footwork and brilliant one-handed backhands, it was Justine Henin’s desire that won her four French Open championships. Unexpectedly, if not entirely suddenly, that spark was gone. Now, as the sport’s elite head into Paris, Henin’s decision to leave the game resonates across generations and gender lines via a single question: what is worth fighting for?
The man and woman who can resolutely answer that question over two weeks of grueling competition in Paris will find the immeasurable reward that Henin has now cast aside.
Henin’s absence blows the women’s field wide open, not only removing the player with a stranglehold on the tournament in recent years but also eliminating the only player with a game naturally suited to success on the terre battue. It is telling that American Serena Williams is now the only former ladies champion in the field. If healthy, Williams may very well be the player to beat this year in Paris. Serena is in fighting shape and more than motivated to return to the top of the women’s rankings, but a recent back injury is cause for concern.
Also nursing a minor injury – this time to her calf - is Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova. Sharapova ascended to the top ranking in the wake of Henin’s retirement. Perhaps appropriately in advance of the French Open, because if fight is the key ingredient to winning the title in Paris this year, certainly there is no woman more determined to win each match than Sharapova. Her steel will earned her a semifinal berth in last year’s event and she’s confident enough this year to advance even further.
Yet the red clay courts in France simply do not favor the game of either Serena Williams or Sharapova, who prefer quicker surfaces for their powerful groundstrokes. The next generation in women’s tennis has been slow to emerge, but change is afoot and now may be the time that a new Grand Slam champion is crowned on the women’s tour.
Third seed Jelena Jankovic has historically withered on the game’s biggest stages; however, she has steadily improved her play over the course of the clay court season, culminating in a repeat title at the Italian Open in Rome. The slow red clay compliments Jelena’s naturally fine defensive skills, making the French Open her best chance at a major breakthrough. Not to be ignored is Jankovic’s countrywoman and the second-ranked player in the world, Ana Ivanovic, who finished runner-up to Henin in Paris last year and then to Sharapova in Australia to open the 2008 season. Ivanovic’s form has not been convincing in advance of the tournament, but she is a capable and increasingly confident player who would pose a serious threat in the later rounds.
Surprises in Paris could easily come from German Open champion Dinara Safina; unpredictable talent Vera Zvonereva, who has been playing well again; former finalists Venus Williams and Elena Dementieva; or a legion of rapidly rising young women, such as France’s Alize Cornet, Ukrainian Alona Bondarenko, Hungary’s Agnes Szavay, Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska and Belarusian Victoria Azarenka.
Another former French Open runner-up, Svetlana Kuznetsova, hits extremely powerful and heavy shots that are well-suited to clay. Kuznetsova already owns one Grand Slam trophy, the 2004 U.S. Open, which she won during a transitory time in women’s tennis where veterans were not dominating but young players weren’t yet established enough to challenge for majors. Svetlana knows from experience how to take back roads to a major title and may be more ready for a run at the French Open than many realize.
No player, male or female, personifies the word fight better than three-time men’s defending champion, Rafael Nadal. His unwavering attack and relentless defense on the red clay is already the stuff of legend. Another title in Paris, where he has yet to lose a single match, will turn legend into legacy.
Although Nadal has not appeared quite as invincible this spring as in recent years, there is no reason to believe that anyone has game enough to outlast him over five sets on the dirt. Nadal has lost only one match on clay leading up to this year’s French Open, a defeat that probably owed as much to a bad case of blisters as it did to the play of Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former French Open champion in his own right. Spoilers like Ferrero may pose a bigger threat to Nadal in the early rounds than his peers atop the men’s ranking would in the latter stages of the tournament. If another clay court specialist can take down Nadal, the rest of the men’s field will certainly find themselves in a fight for the title.
No one wants to keep fighting and collect the French Open title more than Roger Federer, the reigning men’s No. 1 who has struggled mightily in 2008. After several years of dominating the ATP Tour, the amazing Swiss is off to a miserable start this season, having collected only one title all year. Reports that Federer was plagued by a mild case of mononucleosis began to surface, presumably explaining his newfound penchant for blowing large leads and an inability to close out matches.
The French Open is the only major tournament missing from Federer’s resume and, ironically, he turns now to the surface that has been his most bitter enemy in hopes of salvation. Federer’s game was honed on the red clay and, unlike previous champions who were unable to win in Paris, Federer is quite adept on the surface. Federer’s ability on clay is confirmed by two consecutive runner-up appearances in Paris. In fact, Federer has been second to only one man in recent memory, losing to Nadal in each of the last three years. Federerr enters this year’s campaign with clay-court guru Jose Higueras at his side, hoping for a return to the final where the third time might truly be the charm. A victory in Paris would solidify Federer’s claim to the honorary title of “Greatest Ever” and erase all the bitter memories of the first half of this year.
Federer’s bitter year has been third-ranked Serbian Novak Djokovic’s boon, and the brash-yet-popular contender enters Paris fighting for endured prominence at the top of men’s tennis. Djokovic won the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, the Australian Open, as well as a Masters Series event in Hamburg on clay. Djokovic’s stirring start to the season has confirmed his talent and ability to challenge Nadal and Federer for major titles, but a win in Paris would give him a second major championship on arguably his worst surface and mark the beginning of a serious run toward what many believe is Djokovic’s destiny this season: supplanting Federer atop the men’s rankings. Win or lose, however, Djokovic will want to bring his best fight to the red clay in order to once and for all shed his reputation as a quitter who can’t handle the pressure of a close contest.
Nadal, Federer and Djokovic stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the men’s tour. Their three-way battle is the most interesting story in tennis and odds are that one of these men will walk away with the French Open title. Like the aforementioned Ferrero, however, there are players that could play spoiler.
Another Spaniard, Nicolas Amalgro, has played well this season and will be a tough test for the top players. Hometown favorites Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils have the French flair for amazing wins and surprising losses. Bolstered by the infamous crowd support in Paris, these Frenchmen are more than capable of beating higher-ranked players. Two-time Slam champ Marat Safin has shown flashes of his best tennis in recent weeks. Also, American Sam Querry may not be as troubled by the slow dirt as many of his countrymen, but he had the misfortune to draw Federer in the opening round. If the trio of men’s favorites were to all be denied the title, however, steady Russian Nikolay Davydenko or hard-hitting Spaniard David Ferrer are the most likely dark horse candidates for the championship.
The battle lines have clearly been drawn deep in the red clay for this year’s event, yet a few past major champions are noticeably lacking fight. Americans Andy Roddick and Lindsay Davenport pulled out prior to the start of the event. Roddick is hoping to rest a sore shoulder in advance of Wimbledon, while Davenport withdrew for undisclosed personal reasons. In the tournament physically but a shadow of her former self is France’s favorite daughter, Amelie Mauresmo, who could not manage to challenge for the title during her best years and seems unlikely to pose much of a threat this year either.
Each player in Paris is capable of greatness if they know the reason for their fight. It is a truth that promises for memorable matches throughout the duration of this year’s competition. Moreover, it is a truth that is not limited to the one man and one woman who will ultimately hoist the French Open trophies, for while there is only one prize there can be many victories.
Even those destined to lose must be determined to fight. Just ask three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, who needed a wild card to gain entry into the main draw for the final French Open of his career. Regardless of how far he progresses, there is no doubt that Kuerten will fight for every moment he’s allowed on the red clay, reminding fans and players alike of his run to the 2001 title. The iconic image of Kuerten using his racquet to carve a heart in the French dirt and lying down at its center gives physical form to the fighting spirit that it takes to win the second Grand Slam on the tennis calendar. Whether the tennis court serves as canvas or as boxing ring, players best be ready for a fight. They will need to look inwards to find their love of the game, their love for the clay and their love of the city. Without such clarity, like Henin, you may as well stay home.
Maria Sharapova d. Victoria Azarenka; Jelena Jankovic d. Serena Williams
Jelena Jankovic d. Maria Sharapova
David Ferrer d. Roger Federer; Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic
Rafael Nadal d. David Ferrer