Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2004 French Open will commence in less than a week, and there appear to be no clear-cut favorites at the world's premier clay-court event.
Juan Carlos Ferrero and Justine Henin-Hardenne are expected to be on hand to defend their coveted titles, but an injury-slowed Ferrero has appeared in only six tournaments so far this year (without a title) and Henin-Hardenne hasn't played any tennis since succumbing to a viral infection early last month.
Ferrero destroyed Dutchman Martin Verkerk in last year's Roland Garros men's final, while J H-H blitzed fellow Belgian star Kim Clijsters in straight sets for the ladies' championship. Clijsters was the runner-up to Henin- Hardenne in three of the last four Grand Slam finals, but she'll have to skip the '04 French extravaganza as she continues to recover from a nagging left wrist injury, which means there won't be a third straight all-Belgian Grand Slam final.
To me, it looks like seven men have a legitimate chance to title in Paris, while perhaps six women could do it in the other draw.
Right off the top for the men you have world No. 1 Roger Federer, clay-court wizard Guillermo Coria and, of course, Ferrero. Federer currently holds the Australian Open and Wimbledon belts and stopped Coria's incredible 31-match clay-court winning streak by beating the speedy Argentine in four sets in this past Sunday's Hamburg Masters "dream" final. That huge victory probably makes the "Fed" the early favorite in Paris, despite the fact that he's been a first-round loser in his last two appearances at Roland Garros. As a matter of fact, the silky-smooth Swiss has never made it past the quarterfinals at RG, going a disappointing 7-5 in his previous trips there.
The mighty Federer currently holds the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles.
The dangerous Coria is still a remarkable 31-1 in his last 32 matches on clay, as he hadn't lost on the dirt since bowing out against the upstart Verkerk in last year's French semis before losing to Federer over the weekend.
The free-swinging Ferrero has battled injuries, as well as chickenpox, this season, one in which he's just 14-6 and still seeking his first title of the year. He has reached at least the semifinals in all four of his trips to the French, including back-to-back finals appearances over the last two years, but due to his lack of '04 preparation, I'm not crazy about his chances at the upcoming edition. Sorry "Mosquito" but I can't pick you to repeat in your current rusty state.
This still leaves us with a few more contenders, such as 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya, gritty Argentine David Nalbandian, young Spaniard Tommy Robredo and Aussie Open runner-up Marat Safin.
Moya has excelled on clay this season, as evidenced by his two titles on the dirt, including a big one in Rome just two weeks ago when he bested Nalbandian in the final of the Italian Masters. But let's keep in mind that Moya hasn't reached a Grand Slam semifinal since 1998.
Nalbandian is still seeking his first title since 2002, but he always seems to come close and maybe he'll break through on the south side of Paris next month. Keep in mind that if he winds up meeting Federer he owns a 5-2 lifetime record against the high-flying Swiss.
The flashy Robredo is always a threat on clay and he recently titled in his hometown of Barcelona (just three weeks ago), beating Argentine dirt-baller Gaston Gaudio in the final.
The 2000 U.S. Open champion Safin is still a mystery. He has all the tools and can thrive on any surface, but despite a solid 20-10 record this season, including a runner-up finish to Federer in Melbourne back in January, can you truly count on him to win seven straight matches at the world's most difficult event (Roland Garros)? Only time will tell for the hot-headed Russian, who came up a third-round loser in Hamburg last week after complaining about the balls used and the early hour of the match, saying that he's "not a morning person" after losing to Austrian lefty Jurgen Melzer. Does this guy really want to be No. 1? Doesn't sound like it.
Last but not least, how about the great Andre Agassi? I think he'll be lucky to reach the second week in Paris, having played in only one event in the seven weeks leading up to the French, which resulted in a shocking first-round loss against unknown Serbian Nenad Zimonjic in Austria this week. The lowly Zimonjic, ranked 339th in the world, stunned the 1999 French Open champ in the opening round of the ATP event in St. Polten.
The eight-time Grand Slam champion Agassi is still seeking his first title of any kind since April...April 2003. That's 13 months!
I like Federer and Coria, but let's go with the Fed to win his third Grand Slam title in four tries.
Back to the women.
Henin-Hardenne seems like the logical choice at Roland Garros, seeing how she's ranked No. 1 in the world, is the reigning French Open champion and is a sizzling 25-2 this year, including her perfect run in Melbourne in January. But the diminutive star has been slowed by illness in recent weeks and will head to Paris without the benefit of having played any red clay-court tennis this year. We'll just have to see how that works out for the feisty Belgian, who, if she gets her game together in the opening week, could conceivably roll in the second. J H-H has already gone on the record to say that she's not at 100 percent heading to Paris.
Keep your eye on French crowd favorite Amelie Mauresmo. The red-hot star has won her last nine matches, including back-to-back titles in Berlin and Rome. Her latest title came at the expense of 2001 French Open champion Jennifer Capriati in Rome, where the American was one point away from winning the Italian Masters, only to give way to Mauresmo in a third-set tiebreak.
There's only one problem for Mauresmo, she typically stinks at her home major, going 13-9 at the French, including three opening-round and three second-round setbacks. She did reach the quarters there a year ago, however, and could be knocking on the door now, especially if you consider her current hot streak on the tour.
As for Capriati, she's a three-time Grand Slam champion, but don't expect a fourth anytime soon. I don't think she has the proper fitness to rattle off seven straight wins in Paris, again.
A healthy Serena will seek her second French Open title in three years.
How 'bout the mighty Williams sisters? Serena always has a shot, but I don't believe that to be the case for Venus, who will head into the French nursing an ankle injury sustained in Berlin two weeks ago, an injury that prevented her from meeting Mauresmo in a marquee final at the Ladies German Open two weeks ago. Venus recently nailed down two titles in as many events and was riding a 15-match winning streak before she was unable to take the court against Mauresmo in Berlin. She has a chance to make a run in Paris, but she'll obviously have to get past the likes of Henin-Hardenne, Mauresmo, Serena and Capriati, something she didn't have to do to collect her recent hardware in Warsaw and Charleston.
If completely healthy, I like Serena to nail down her second Roland Garros title in three years, having claimed her first one in 2002 by beating Venus in an all-sibling final. Serena lost to J H-H in an entertaining semifinal in Paris a year ago, one in which the American fell apart after the French crowd became hostile when she questioned an obvious timeout call by the Belgian just before one of her booming serves.
For my money, Serena and Henin-Hardenne currently have the best rivalry going in the sport.
Another player to keep your eye is rapidly-rising Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, who's appeared in finals in three of her last seven tournaments and has won big matches against the likes of Henin-Hardenne and Venus this season.
So it looks like a handful of women have a shot in Paris, but the true players should be J H-H, Mauresmo and Serena.
And by the way, the legendary Martina Navratilova asked for and received a wild card to play singles at Roland Garros...something she hasn't done since 1994. Don't be surprised when she loses in the first round, as she's already 0-2 in a pair of singles matches this year, with tournament-opening losses coming against Milagros Sequera (who?) and Amy Frazier.
Martina, you are truly a legend, but stick to the doubles from here on out. You're 47 years old for cryin' out loud.
Can you say ego trip?
Did I forget to mention any other top names, such as U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Gustavo Kuerten or Lindsay Davenport? Come on, you know better than that! None of these players will win Roland Garros 2004, and that includes the three-time champion "Guga," who has yet to regain his once- dominant clay-court form following hip surgery a couple years ago. And Roddick will be happy if he wins one match on the sloooooooow red clay, considering he's 2-3 lifetime at RG, including opening-round setbacks in each of the last two years. The former world No. 1 Hewitt has never titled on red clay, and Davenport hasn't made it past the fourth round at the French since 1999.
Just for the record, the official name of the tournament is Roland Garros, and not the French Open!