Beware the flying Belgian
Back in May 2008 as the build-up continued to the French Open, Justine Henin was the strong favourite to win the tournament. The Belgian had won the previous three competitions at Roland Garros and had won four in all on the red clay. But then Henin shocked the tennis fraternity by announcing at the age of 25 that she was hanging up her racket and was retiring, throwing the tournament wide open, which was eventually won by the diminutive Ana Ivanovic.
Two years on and Henin is back, and her run to the final of the Australian Open in January, where she was edged out by Serena Williams, the world No 1, demonstrated that she has lost little of her brilliance. She is the 22nd seed for this year's tournament, but she is undeniably the dark horse to win her first grand slam title since returning to the WTA Tour. Her pedigree on clay is proven by her past results, and when the draw was made on Friday you can be sure that virtually every top seed would have been looking anxiously to see where Henin had come out, and whose section she was in.
In that sense Maria Sharapova, the 12th seed, was the unlucky one as the Russian is due to face Henin in the third round in Paris. A re-match of the Australian Open in January with Serena looks like a tantalising prospect in the semi-finals for Henin. The French Open is traditionally the most unpredictable of the grand slams on the women's circuit, and having someone of Henin's pedigree on clay returning, makes it difficult to see beyond her lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen silverware on June 5.
One reason why the action at Roland Garros over the past few years has been so wide open is because the clay surface is the one surface that the Williams sisters do not dominate on. Serena has won the women's title once, in 2002, while the French championship is the one award missing from Venus's trophy cabinet. Both are fallible on clay and it is a surprising statistic that since Serena beat her sibling in the 2002 final neither has made it back to the final two since.
Serena has only one semi-final to show for her endeavours in Paris since then, while Venus reached the quarter-finals twice in that period. The clay surface proves to be a great equaliser as it marginalises the Williams' power and gives their opponents a chance if they can play with guile. Svetlana Kuznetsova, last year's champion, will fancy her chances of a strong showing in the tournament, with Caroline Wozniaki, the third seed, and Venus Williams, if indeed she lasts that long, looking the most likely obstacles to prevent her reaching a second successive final.
Other than Henin, the most talented player on clay is arguably Dinara Safina. The Russian should have won last year, but nerves and her famously volatile temperament let her down badly in the final against Kuznetsova. Safina was handed a favourable draw and will not meet the winner of Henin's predicted clash with Serena Williams before the semi-finals. Whether she can stay composed this time is a question only the 24-year-old can answer, but she has the talent to be a serious contender. email@example.com
1 Serena Williams USA 2 Venus Williams USA 3 Caroline Wozniacki DEN 4 Jelena Jankovic SER 5 Elena Dementieva RUS 6 Svetlana Kuznetsova RUS 7 Samantha Stosur AUS 8 Agnieszka Radwanska POL 9 Dinara Safina RUS 10 Victoria Azarenka BLR
Published: May 23, 2010 04:00 AM