Sunday, May 16, 2010

French Open champion: Henin or...?

Because clay neutralizes power, and because so many players struggle on clay, clay tournaments are considered prime breeding grounds for upsets, and--as we have seen so far in this clay season--they certainly are. Sam Stosur was not expected to win Charleston, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez was not expected to win Rome, and Aravane Rezai was not expected to win Madrid. To add to the drama of the victories, both Martinez Sanchez and Rezai were unseeded.

I can't say I was shocked by any of these wins: Stosur is more confident now and has become more comfortable on clay, and-as far as I was concerned--it was only a matter of time before both Martinez Sanchez and Rezai won something significant. Still, to have all three tournaments go to non-favorites is rather unusual.

The other premier clay court tournament, in Stuttgart, was won by Justine Henin.

And that is as good a segue as any for introducing my question: Will Henin win the French Open, or will someone else prevail through seven rounds in Paris? Henin has had some bad luck lately, breaking her finger in Fed Cup play, and developing a throat infection. Assuming she is healthy by the time play begins in Paris, she still seems a pretty good bet to hold the trophy.

Defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is having a terrible clay season, and cannot be considered a contender. Last year's hottest clay court player (and French Open finalist) Dinara Safina is trying to find her way after sustaining a serious back injury. Kim Clijsters hurt her foot in Fed Cup play and won't even be in Paris. 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic is starting to improve on her poor 2009 and 2010 results, but I can't imagine her making enough of a leap to win a major.

With those four out of the way, we are left with Elena Dementieva, Jelena Jankovic, and Serena and Venus Williams. Prior to the start of clay court season, many people would have narrowed that list down to just Dementieva, Jankovic and Serena. Venus, however, has really come alive during the European season, and--given her both her resurgence and her experience as a major champion--I'm putting her in the mix (and besides--never count out a Williams sister).

Having said that, I do believe that Serena has a bit more of a chance than Venus. Serena won the French Open once, in 2002. She made the semifinals the following year, but hasn't gotten past the quarterfinals since then (in 2005 and 2006, she wasn't there). Last year, she lost an extremely close quarterfinal match to eventual champion Kuznetsova. If Serena Williams were to win at Roland Garros, she would be halfway through a potential Grand Slam, with two (for her) winnable majors remaining. That provides a lot of motivation, as well as a lot of pressure.

Dementieva and Jankovic are contenders, despite the doubts some fans have about them. Each is outstanding on clay, each has improved her serve, and each has big match experience. I know they both seem to find ways not to win majors, but this is new year and a new opportunity, and they are just too good to leave off of the list. It wouldn't surprise me at all if one of them won.

In the background is Sam Stosur. We know, after last year's semifinal run in Paris, and after this year's Charleston tournament, what she can do, but how will she hold up under the pressure? She's a contender, nevertheless.

And then there's Caroline Wozniacki. She had the misfortune of injuring her ankle in Charleston, but I think a bigger problem is that she did not heed the lesson provided by Jankovic: Wozniacki has played in a lot of tournamnents, and she may have reached the burn-out point.

There are other players who can make good runs in Paris, or who could--at least--create some upsets. Aravane Rezai, if she doesn't buckle under the  Mauresmo Curse, could do some real damage. Last year, she made it to the round of 16, during which she was obliterated by Safina. But that was last year. Francesca Schiavone, who resurrected her career after a big "Is retirement near?" slump, is always dangerous on clay (her countrywoman, Flavia Pennetta, generally is, too, but she is having a tough time this season). The stylish Martinez Sanchez certainly poses a threat, and--if she should suddenly get her game back together in the next week--so does Sara Errani. Nadia Petrova is great on clay, and could also make a signfiicant run in Paris.

Both Lucie Safarova and Alexandra Dulgheru have made great strides this season, and both excel on clay. Vera Zvonareva is still trying to find her optimum fitness level after returning to the tour, but she still can cause trouble in early rounds. Shahar Peer is also capable of pulling an upset.

Finally, we come to Justine Henin. Henin has a new, more aggressive game, which seems to have been crafted for Wimbledon competition, but we will see some version of it in Paris. Henin is still Henin, but some of her opponents are no longer as intimidated by her as they used to be, and the decrease in her psychological advantage could make her make her vulnerable. Or not. We'll know more when we see her draw.


Jen said...

Thanks for the insightful preview, Diane. I expect that if Henin is healthy and on form, the rest of the draw will be unable to deal with her. Don't let her reach the second week!

Outside of Justine, I am looking for Jankovic and Dementieva -- two of my personal favorites -- to put together impressive runs. But they would likely need someone else to knock Henin out to actually win the title. They often play very well against her, which makes for delightful tennis, but the result does not change.

Stosur and Rezai will be exciting to watch, for sure. Looking forward to the event and to your commentary. Thanks!

Diane said...

I, too, think Henin will probably need to be removed early if someone else it to win, but then, part of me knows that both JJ and Elena can beat her, and I'd like to see them do it.

I don't give up easily, Jen. I waited and waited for Patty to beat Justine, and then happened to be in the stands when she did it.

Diane said...

Oh, and thank you, Jen!

Jen said...

Ah yes, Charleston 2006. I believe I recall your glee, Diane! And Patty deserved her one win in nine matches lifetime ;> She put Jelena to shame (0-10), although Elena has two wins -- in 13 meetings however!

If Henin is back to her pre-retirement strength (still something of an open question), it's worth noting that she has been triumphant in 29 of her last 30 matches at Roland Garros going back to 2003! Her only loss was early in the 2004 French to Tatiana Garbin, when Justine was afflicted with the energy-sapping virus that wiped out most of her season. Waiting to see more clay court magic from her -- will it happen?

Anonymous said...

I think there's nobody who can beat Henin on clay. She's hadmore ups than downs since her comeback and only a handful of players stood a chance against her. Carlos predicted that her game would reach 100% by the time the French Open comes and judging by what wh've seen in Stuttgart there's no doubt it will be so.
Henin is a specialist on clay and there's practically no competition for her.
JJ and Elena just do not have the game to do it mainly when it comes to mental side of things.

Diane said...

Justine is absolutely the one to beat, and at Roland Garros, it really is hard to think of her not having every advantage. And she makes it look so easy!

Anonymous said...

Okay, Justine is the Queen of Clay, but she can be beaten. Just like with Venus on grass.

Jen said...

Diane, actually there is one advantage Justine will presumably not possess at Roland Garros. Her current world ranking is #23. I doubt they will deviate from that, given that Henin's loss to Rezai removed some of the pressure to seed her more accurately. So she could run into very good players much earlier than she would with a top 8 seeding, for instance. C'est la vie -- Justine will likely cope. Dementieva is probably dreading the release of the draw, though!

Overhead Spin said...

Diane and others, posting a nice little interview from Martina N on women's tennis and contenders for the FO (thanks to GVGirl on twitter for this)

Diane said...

Thanks for posting that, Karen.

Overhead Spin said...

You are welcome Diane. It is funny that Martina is saying the same thing that we have been saying for a long time. There is considerably more depth in the women's Tour than there is on the men's Tour. When you look at the paucity in numbers of men who have won a Masters Series shield and look at the level of the women who have won a Premier tournament, you have to say that the WTA is a well rounded organisation. The problem is getting that message out there. The Williams Sisters at the top have some believing that it is because there is no depth in women's tennis, yet Federer and Nadal at the top shows depth in the men's field. Give me a break already.