A win in Paris will give him five consecutive titles.

By Rich Rodriguez
Outsports.com
Spring has sprung and that means one thing: clay-court tennis and the season's second major, the French Open. It's a time when the ubiquitous power games on both the ATP World Tour and WTA Tour take a back seat to strategy, guile, and downright dirty ballin'. The rallies are long, the matches longer, and only the mentally tough can claim the ultimate prize. Let's take a look at the top contenders to take home the year's second Grand Slam!

So how do you pick against arguably the greatest clay-court baller in the history of tennis who'll be gunning for a record-setting fifth consecutive Roland Garros crown? Well, you don't.

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Rafael Nadal is shooting for his fifth straight French win.

Rafael Nadal began the year with a bang grabbing his sixth major at the Australian Open, defeating Roger Federer for the fifth straight time and leaving the Swiss in a post-match pool of tears.

He went on to win Masters 1000 shields at Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, and Rome and was on a 33-match win streak on the slippery stuff until his defeat to Fed in Madrid last week. These accomplishments, coupled with his 41-4 record and five titles, already put the world's top baller above and beyond the list of favorites for Paris. But here's the clincher: Rafa has never lost in Paris, going 28-0 since winning his first title in 2005, nor has he ever been pushed to a fifth set there. Can he be stopped?

The 2009 season probably didn't start out the way Novak Djokovic would have expected. He lost his Aussie Open crown back in January after retiring from his quarterfinal match against Andy Roddick with heat-related illness (one of a number of career mid-match retirements.) But Nole finally earned his first title of the season in Dubai; made the finals of Masters 1000 tourneys in Miami, Monte Carlo, and Rome; then pushed Rafa to the brink during a 4-hour slugfest in the Madrid semifinals before going down in defeat. He has the aggressive game and movement to perform well on the terre battue but hasn't shown the belief that he can beat Rafa on clay. Yet.

After his heartbreaking loss to the Rafa in Oz, Roger Federer's season hit (by his lofty standards) some turbulence when he was unable to reach a final in his next four tourneys, losing to the likes of Nole and Andy Murray. Moreover, the Swiss maestro announced he and his long-time girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, were pregnant with their first child (due this summer) and by April were married. Pundits and fans alike wondered if these life-altering events would cause more distractions for the 13-time Grand Slammer. Well, he answered those questions with a resounding 6-4, 6-4 victory over his Spanish nemesis on clay to win the title in Madrid. Can he carry this momentum and confidence towards his first Roland Garros title and tie Pete Sampras' record haul of 14 majors?

Others to watch:

Andy Murray: This Brit baller would be the first to admit clay is his least favorite surface having never gone past the quarterfinals of any clay-court tourney until this year. Andy made it to the final four in Monte Carlo before going down to eventual winner Rafa but then lost in the opening round in Rome and the quarterfinals last week in Madrid. However, he reached a career high No.3 in the ATP World Tour rankings (the first Brit ever to reach this milestone) and already owns three titles this year so his game is certainly on the upswing. He'll most likely struggle early on but if he gets through, a second week appearance isn't out of the question.

Juan Martin del Potro: Not only is this Argentine big (6'6" big) but he has a game to match. Juan Martin del Potro won his first two career titles on clay (Stuttgart, Kitzbuhel) so he knows his way around the slippery stuff. Plus, he earned the biggest win of his career back in March when he knocked Rafa out of Miami in the quarterfinals. His movement, though, can still be suspect and may be exposed by quicker ballers on clay.

Fernando Gonzalez: This Chilean veteran is quietly having a solid clay season winning his home tourney at Viña del Mar and reaching the semifinals of Barcelona and Rome. Fernando made the final of a major once before, going down to Fed at the 2007 Aussie Open.

Tommy Robredo: Another veteran by way of Spain, Tommy owned the South American clay-court swing reaching the semifinals at Viña del Mar then winning the next two tourneys at Costa Do Sauipe and Bueno Aires.

Women


The ladies' draw for Roland Garros, like the WTA Tour itself, continues to be wide open with any number of ballers positioned to take home the major clay-court championship.

Dinara Safina is having a career season so far. The Russian began the year by reaching her second major final but was absolutely obliterated by Serena Williams. Then in April Dinara joined Maria Sharapova as the only Russian ladies ever to hold the top ranking; however, unlike Maria, Dinara has the dubious "honor" of being a Slam-less World No.1. This could all change in the coming Paris fortnight, though. The 23-year old can play big ball on clay as evidenced by her runner-up appearance in last year's French Open final (losing to Ana Ivanovic) and consecutive title runs at Rome (earning her first win over Venus Williams) and Madrid this season.

Svetlana Kuznetsova is another former French Open finalist from Russia who lost her bid for the title to the now-retired Justine Henin. The 23-year old had been struggling mightily early this season but a coaching switch seems to have ignited her powerful baseline game.
After making the semifinals in Miami, Sveta reaching the finals of her next two tourneys defeating Dinara to win Stuttgart (incidentally, her first final win in her last 12 attempts and first title of the year) but falling to her compatriot in Rome. She knows what it takes to win a major having won her first, and only, Grand Slam at the 2004 U.S. Open but her infamous nerves have been her own undoing. Can she finally push through in those key moments down the stretch and hoist her second major trophy?

Believe it or not, tennis' current Queen of Grass Venus Williams likes the clay. In fact, the 7-time Grand Slammer even flew to Acapulco straight from winning Dubai to capture the crown in the Mexican city. She also made the semifinals in Rome losing to Dinara and, of course, made her lone trip to the final dance at Roland Garros losing to sister Serena in 2002. V has less margin on her groundies than her little sis' so when she loses patience during those long clay-court rallies, her shots can start to spray. If she can strike the right balance of controlled aggression, she may be looking at a first French Open crown.

Serena Williams has had a miserable clay-court season. The Aussie Open champ hasn't won a single match on the crushed brick and is currently on a 4-match losing streak dating back to her final loss to Victoria Azarenka in Miami. So why is she still a favorite in Paris? Well, quite simply, she's SERENA WILLIAMS.
The 10-time Grand Slammer is a former champ in the City of Lights and has shown time and time and time again that a lack of match wins, play, or fitness will not smother her desire to win. The big question mark is her recent knee injury, which she sustained in Miami. If she's fully recovered and focused, the sky's the limit.

Others to watch:

Jelena Jankovic: JJ began the year as the top lady baller but quickly fell from the perch after a shocking fourth round defeat in Oz. It took the Serb four months to eventually land her first title in Marbella but has failed to get past the quarterfinals in her next three tourneys. However, the clay is ideally suited to JJ's counter-punching game so if she can get through the first week cleanly she could do one better than last year's semifinal result.

Caroline Wozniacki: This rising Dane reached the final of her first two clay-court tourneys winning in Ponte Vedra but losing to Sabine Lisicki in Charleston. Her results tailed off a bit afterwards but Wozzi came storming back reaching the final in Madrid last week losing to Dinara. At only 18-years old, she already owns 4 career titles, has a solid 35-11 record, and became a newly-minted top tenner this week.

Victoria Azarenka: Another recent addition to the Top 10, this Belarusian basher earned the biggest win of her young career taking out Serena Williams to win the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Although her game flourishes on hard-courts, Vika's aggressive mindset and penetrating groundies could see this teenager go deep in the draw.

Ana Ivanovic: The ladies' defending champ has been a ghost of her former self in 2009. The once reigning World No.1 was booted from the Aussie Open's third round and has only managed two quarterfinal appearances to date. She pulled out of Madrid with a knee injury, which doesn't bode well for a repeat performance of last year's win. But if she won it once, who knows?

Picks
Men's Semifinals: Nadal vs. Gonzalez, Federer vs. Djokovic
Final: Nadal vs. Djokovic
Winner: Nadal
Women's Semifinals: Safina vs. Venus, Kuznetsova vs. Wozniacki
Final: Safina vs. Kuznetsova
Winner: Safina

Rich Rodriguez writes the Down The Line tennis blog.

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