2010: A French Odyssey

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2010 Grand Slam season will resume on Sunday when the French Open swings into action, with Roger Federer and Svetlana Kuznetsova on hand to defend their titles.

Federer made some history in Paris last year when he broke through with his first-ever French Open crown, which he ultimately earned with a victory over surprising Swede Robin Soderling in the final. Rafael Nadal wasn't around to capture a fifth straight Roland Garros championship after Soderling stunned the "King of Clay" in the fourth round there. Unfortunately for Rafa, he played with some very sore knees at last year's Parisian fortnight.

The Nadal loss, of course, opened the door for the Fed, who'd lost to the powerful Spaniard in the previous three French Open finals, which prevented Federer from becoming the sixth man in the history of the sport (tennis, that is) to capture all four major events in his career.

Note: Rafa also defeated Roger in the French Open semis back in 2005, which marked the first of four straight wins for the Spaniard against the super Swiss in Paris.

Roger Federer currently holds three of the four Grand Slam titles, including the French Open.
When Federer handled Soderling, he not only became only the sixth man to corral a career Grand Slam, he also tied Pete Sampras' record of 14 major titles, a mark Federer has since trekked past by two.

On the women's side a year ago, the steady Kuznetsova vanquished her fellow Russian Dinara Safina in the final to capture her first-ever French Open title and second career major championship. Sveta was the Roland Garros runner-up to the great Justine Henin three years earlier.

Can Federer and Kuznetsova repeat in a couple of weeks?

I doubt it.

Did You Know: Before 1925, the French Championships were reserved to residents of France, and played on grass?

The reigning Aussie Open, Wimbledon and French Open champion and world No. 1 Federer is clearly one of the greatest players of all-time, and he may even be the best ever (there's an argument for that), but he's not the best player of all-time on clay. And that's where Nadal comes in.

It didn't quite work out for Rafa in Paris last year, but he's healthy once again and currently in the midst of tearing through the European clay-court season.

Nadal, not the 16-time major titlist Federer, will be the heavy favorite heading into RG. Rafa has only ever lost one main-draw match in Paris and will be seeking his fifth title there in six years.

The 23-year-old Nadal will head to Paris having won three straight clay-court events, including a pair of ATP Masters ones in Monte Carlo and Madrid. He straight-setted Federer in this past Sunday's mouth-watering final in Madrid, as he humbled Federer on clay for a 10th time in 12 tries. Federer was the reigning Madrid champ, having upset Nadal in last year's finale at the state- of-the-art Magic Box.

Rafael Nadal will seek his fifth French Open title in six years.
Isn't it hard to believe that Federer can be 2-10 against anybody on any surface? But it's true.

Nadal's triumph in Madrid was a record-setting one, as he became the all-time leader in Masters titles with 18, surpassing the once-wigged-one -- the legendary Andre Agassi (17).

The former top-ranked Nadal, who is back up to No. 2 in the world following his most recent success in Europe, improved to a dominant 14-7 lifetime against Federer.

Nadal and Federer could be challenged by a few other guys at RG, most namely Novak Djokovic and Fernando Verdasco.

Djokovic still owns just one Grand Slam title, which came at the 2008 Aussie Open, but the cocky Serb can win on this surface (clay, that is).

But can he get past both Nadal and Federer in order to do that?


The third-ranked Djokovic has been to a pair of French Open semis during his career, but was a third-round upset victim there a year ago.

Is his window closing at RG?

It probably was never open.

The world No. 9 Verdasco has been hot on clay this year, as evidenced by a recent title in Barcelona and a runner-up finish to his countryman Nadal at the Monte Carlo Masters, which marked his first-ever trip into a Masters finale.

Obviously, Verdasco's chances would be much, much greater without Nadal and/or Federer in the draw. But we could say that about quite a few guys, couldn't we?

Other fellas in the top 10, like former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, Soderling and French fave Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, really don't figure into the title equation...especially Roddick.

Roddick will head to Paris without having played even one match on red clay this year. He was scheduled to play in Madrid last week, but pulled out of his opening match there due to an illness.

Four-time champion Justine Henin will play at Roland Garros for the first time in three years.
The 2009 Wimbledon runner-up enjoyed his best-ever showing in Paris last year, somehow sneaking into the fourth round. But I wouldn't expect that type of run from him again this year. A-Rod still needs to play on hardcourts or grass, or the occasional green clay, which is much faster than the red stuff, in order to get his best results.

The flashy Tsonga will be playing in front of the home crowd, but clay is not his speciality, and Jo-Willy's played very little tennis at Roland Garros during his injury-slowed career.

Soderling, meanwhile, soared all the way into the final last year, but can he get all the stars to align once again and make it two in a row?

Not likely.

Soderling has played great tennis since the second half of last season, but the likes of Federer and a healthy Nadal should keep him out of the second weekend this time around.

Other quasi-contenders in Paris could be fourth-ranked Aussie Open runner-up Andy Murray, Spanish clay-court specialist David Ferrer and rising Croat Marin Cilic.

The two-time Grand Slam runner-up Murray may be No. 4 in the world, and is the most recent major runner-up (to Federer), but clay is not his best surface, although he did make it into the French quarters a year ago.

Ferrer, unlike Murray, is completely comfortable on the crushed red brick, as evidenced by his ATP-leading 28 clay-court wins this season.

The speedy Ferrer has reached a pair of French Open quarters, with his most recent one coming in 2008.

Cilic seems to be getting better by the day, but his game is best-suited for hardcourts and grass, and not the dirt. But I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the second week, based on his quality play this season.

Novak Djokovic is a threat to win just about any tournament, but he's only captured one major title to date.
The men's field will have to do without a pair of top-10 stars in Paris, as U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro and two-time French Open semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko are on the sidelines with wrist injuries. The 6-foot-6 DelPo stunned the great Federer in last year's U.S. Open finale.

Back over on the women's side...

Kuznetsova could be in the mix in Paris, but I wouldn't expect another title there this year. She simply just hasn't been playing that well.

I think, rust and all, the favorite has to be Henin, who hasn't played in Paris since 2007, but, if healthy, is the "Queen of Clay."

The former top-ranked Belgian, like Nadal, is a four-time French Open champ, and was the reigning three-time titlist there when she "retired" from tennis in the spring of 2008, just two weeks before Roland Garros kicked in two years ago.

The seven-time major champion returned to the WTA Tour in January and was the Aussie Open runner-up to her arch rival Serena Williams. The currently 20th- ranked Henin picked up her first title in two years three weeks ago in Stuttgart, and appears to be primed for another title run in Paris.

Kuznetsova is the reigning champ and Henin looks like the favorite in Paris, but there are several other contenders for the French crown, including the 12- time major winner Serena.

The world No. 1 Serena is the reigning Aussie Open and Wimbledon champ. She doused Henin in the Aussie finale back in January.

Serena has only captured one French Open title during her brilliant career, and that came eight long years ago. She can dominate on hardcourts and grass, but is certainly vulnerable on clay. Her French title run in 2002 also marked her lone final at RG.

Serena Williams is a 12-time major champ, including her lone French Open title in 2002.
That's surprising.

Serena's former No. 1 big sister Venus will be in the field, but she's never been a favorite to run the table in Paris, on her worst surface.

The 2009 Wimbledon runner-up and seven-time major champion Venus lost to her little sister in her only trip to the French final, back in '02.

The former world No. 1 Safina will be back for another crack in Paris, where she's finished as the runner-up the last two years.

Safina has been on the mend in recent weeks, recovering from a back problem, and probably doesn't figure into the title equation in Paris right now.

Other top-10ers in the mix could be world No. 3 U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, fourth-ranked former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and sixth-ranked two-time major finalist Elena Dementieva.

The Danish Wozniacki, with a lack of the big weapons, has somehow managed to climb all the way up to No. 2 in the world. But I'm not likin' her chances in Paris. Just call it a hunch.

The former U.S. Open runner-up Jankovic can play on any surface, especially hardcourts and clay, and has been hot in recent weeks, including a clay-court runner-up finish in Rome this month. Keep your eye on this Serb.

Jelena Jankovic is a former world No.1 and should go deep into the draw in Paris.
The Russian Dementieva can title, for sure, on any surface, probably as long as it's not grass. She has a French Open runner-up finish to her credit (2004) and is always a threat to go deep into the draw.

Did I forget about Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova or Ana Ivanovic?

You know I didn't.

Azarenka has been quiet leading up to the French, while the former No. 1 Sharapova (injuries) has been a non-factor at the majors now for about two years.

Ivanovic is a former French Open champ and runner-up, but she's all but fallen off the tennis map since capturing her French title just two years ago and finishing as the runner-up to Henin back in 2007.

U.S. Open champion, former two-time French Open runner-up and former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters, currently ranked 10th in the world, will miss the '10 French due to a foot injury.

Predictions: I have to go with the red-hot Nadal to hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the men, and Henin to secure the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen for the ladies. Does anyone else have any better picks at this point?

Nadal will try to become only the second man in the Open Era (since 1968) to secure five French Open titles. My tennis hero, Bjorn Borg, piled up six between 1974 and 1981, including four straight from 1978-81.

Chris Evert is the women's French Open titles leader in the Open Era, with a whopping seven.

The 2010 Les Internationaux de France de Roland Garros (official name) will commence Sunday in the "City of Light."

Where have you gone, Marty Verkerk?

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley
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