December 28, 2010
As much as men's tennis has been unfailingly predictable in the form of its benevolent two-headed monster of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the women's game has been equally erratic and inconsistent, with seemingly no grounding force.
The only constants of a sort have been the Williams sisters. It's hard to believe that it was 13 years ago when Venus burst onto the international scene when she reached the final of the U.S. Open. Of course, Serena won the Open in 1999, and the two appeared as if they'd rule the sport for a decade.
It nearly happened. From the 1999 U.S. Open through 2003 Wimbledon, the siblings won 10 of 16 Grand Slams, and Serena seemed poised to break all Slam records. Injuries and some increased competition - namely Justine Henin - derailed that notion, yet Serena still may go down as one of the top three women players of all time.
Serena now has 12 Slam trophies and Venus seven. Yet only one of those combined 19 titles has come in Paris. Younger sister Serena won the French Open in 2002 but has not reached the final since. With an Australian victory already in hand this year, Serena would love to reach the halfway mark of a Grand Slam by claiming the title at Roland Garros.
And though her clay-court season has been mediocre, she is poised to make a run for a second French championship. After all, with her ability to win major titles after extended layoffs, judging Serena's chances at a Slam from her recent performance is pointless.
That is, if she applies her trademark toughness and superior mental advantage to survive the grueling two weeks of dirtball tennis. There is no better competitor in women's tennis than Serena. She has the rare ability to become decidedly more aggressive when facing a break point or when coming from behind in a set.
If she can continue to stay in attack mode during the French fortnight, hitting those annoying extra few balls that the clay demands, she'll make a strong run for the title. The way her draw is laid out, she'll encounter few players capable of throwing her off her rhythm.
Her greatest challenger likely will be Henin. The Belgian has won the French Open four times - her last victory coming in 2007, just before her bizarre and sudden retirement.
This is the match everyone wants to see. While not nearly on a par with Nadal and Federer, there is still something unique and compelling when these two champions square off. And the away it appears, little will prevent them from an encounter in Paris.
Too bad it will be in the quarterfinals.
Unfortunately, the luck of the draw finds these two in the same half. So if form holds, the duo will meet in the final eight. This will likely be the highlight of the women's tournament.
Clay is the surface on which Henin has the strongest chance of upending her vanquisher at the Australian Open back in January. If they do indeed play, look for Serena to be relentless with her pressure, charging the net often. Henin would likely use her ability to create angles whenever possible to disrupt Serena.
Whoever emerges from this sure-to-be-tense affair, no matter how lopsided a score, will have a relatively clear path to the final. The rest of the top portion of the draw lacks a player emotionally and mentally strong enough to deny Serena or Henin the prize.
The other half is a bit deeper with potential finalists. Elena Dementieva, who knows how tough a foe Serena is after losing that heartbreaking Wimbledon semifinal last year, is in good position to reach the final. In her portion of the draw are Venus - who rarely plays well in Paris, never reaching the semifinals - and third-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.
Wozniacki has had a very disappointing 2010 thus far after her spirited run to the U.S. Open final in September. If Dementieva were to advance to the semis, she'd probably meet Svetlana Kuznetsova, perhaps the quietest multiple Slam winner. She's the defending champion and also won the 2004 U.S. Open.
If Dementieva and Kuznetsova battled in the penultimate round, look for it to be a long, protracted, messy affair. Both are prone to lapses in judgment due to occasionally fragile emotions - think of Novak Djokovic on the men's side - and it would be fascinating to watch them tussle.
In the end, though, this is Serena's tournament to lose. It seems almost every Slam is. With only one major roadblock - Henin - in her way and a resolve to prove that she can win that elusive second title on clay, the American superstar will be halfway to a calendar Grand Slam in two weeks.