Rafa's ready to get his French on

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The second Grand Slam event of the year is set to commence Sunday in Paris, where the great Rafael Nadal will seek an Open Era-record fifth straight French Open championship.

The reigning women's champ in the "City of Light" is Ana Ivanovic, but all eyes will certainly be focused on Rafa, who will try to become the first player, male or female, in the Open Era (since 1968) to rattle off five straight titles on the famed red clay at Roland Garros.

The legendary Bjorn Borg captured six French Open titles in an eight-year span from 1974-81, but the stoic Swede never won five straight. He did manage to nail down four in a row from 1978-81, en route to establishing himself as the greatest clay-courter ever...until Nadal came along.

Note: Only Rod Laver, Borg, Andre Agassi and Nadal have won both the French Open (clay) and Wimbledon (grass) in the Open Era. But Nadal is the only male player ever to have held Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces simultaneously: 2008 French Open (clay), 2008 Wimbledon (grass), 2009 Australian Open (hard).

Rafael Nadal has never lost at Roland Garros, going a perfect
Nadal had been riding a lofty 33-match winning streak on his beloved dirt until losing to his great rival Roger Federer in this past Sunday's finale at the Madrid Open. The Swiss upset a fatigued world No. 1 Spaniard in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, at Madrid's spanking new Magic Box complex. The surprising victory marked Federer's first title of any kind since last October and gave the Swiss his first victory over a Top-4 player since be beat Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semis last September.

Note: In 2007, Federer also halted Nadal's record 81-match clay-court winning streak, in Hamburg.

But in Paris, Nadal has never lost on the crushed red brick, including victories over Federer in the last three finals. The Mallorcan southpaw gave the Swiss icon a comprehensive 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 beatdown in last year's title tilt at the lone clay-court major.

Nadal was the second seed, while Federer was the top seed at the last three French Opens, but those roles will be reversed this time around, with Nadal as the top seed and the former top-ranked Federer as the two seed.

Will it make a difference?

Note: Nadal corralled his first French Open title by beating Argentine Mariano Puerta in the 2005 finale.

By the way, the 13-time major champion Federer still needs a French Open title to complete that elusive career Grand Slam, and one more major victory would place him in a tie with Pete Sampras for the most ever Grand Slam singles titles by a male.

Roger Federer has lost to Nadal in the last three French Open finals.
Federer is the reigning five-time U.S. Open champion, and has won at least one major title every year since 2003. And the sweet-swingin' Swiss will also look to extend his record by reaching a 20th straight Grand Slam semifinal. He pushed his record to 19 back in January on his way to reaching the Australian Open final, which he lost in five sets to, who else, Nadal.

And in addition to the French Open, Nadal also beat Federer in last year's epic Wimbledon final, in what many consider to be the greatest tennis match of all-time.

Nadal himself already owns six major titles at the ripe old age of 22. He'll turn 23 in two weeks, on June 3, during the '09 French fortnight.

As usual, Nadal and Federer could only meet in the final in Paris next month, and if they do it would mark an eighth Grand Slam final between the two superstars. For the record, Nadal has won five of their Open Era-record seven clashes. No two men have met in more Grand Slam finals.

Quiz Time: Who holds the record by losing only 32 games en route to a French Open title one year?

Over on the women's side, there's no Nadal-like, or even Federer-like for that matter, performer on clay since the retirement of Justine Henin.

Simply put...it's a free-for-all among the ladies.

Ivanovic will be on hand to defend her title, but she's nowhere near the favorite heading in, having struggled mightily since her French Open success from a year ago.

Dinara Safina is the hottest player on the women's tour and reached the Roland Garros finale a year ago.
That label (that of the favorite) would have to go to red-hot Russian Dinara Safina, last year's Roland Garros runner-up to Ivanovic.

Safina will head to Paris having reached three straight clay-court finals, including back-to-back titles in Rome and Madrid over the last two weeks. The younger sister of men's former world No. 1 Marat Safin recently became the No. 1 player on the women's circuit, supplanting Serena Williams atop the list last month.

The 23-year-old Safina has appeared in two of the last four Grand Slam finals, going 0-2, including a loss to Serena in this year's Aussie Open title bout.

And speaking of Serena, she's expected to be on hand in Paris, but she'll do so with a sore knee, an injury that forced her out of the Madrid event last week.

Serena has won the last two majors -- the U.S. Open and Oz Open -- and owns 10 major titles for her career. Her lone French Open title came back in 2002, which also marks her lone title match in Paris. She hasn't reached a French Open semi since 2003.

In addition to Safina and the former world No. 1s Serena and Ivanovic, some other contenders in Paris would have to be Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva, and Jelena Jankovic, with honorable mention going to Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki, who just this week became the first-ever Danish player to crack the women's Top 10.

Venus is a seven-time major champion, including the last two Wimbledon crowns, but she's never titled in Paris (on her least favorite surface), and has reached only one career final at RG, losing to Serena in the '02 all-sister finale. As a matter of fact, the former No. 1 Venus hasn't advanced beyond the quarterfinals in Paris since reaching the final there seven years ago.

Serena Williams owns 10 major titles, but only one French Open crown.
Her chances this year? I'd have to say slim.

FYI: The Williams sisters have combined to win the last three Grand Slam events (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Aussie Open).

The reigning Olympic gold medalist Dementieva is a two-time major runner-up, including a trip into the French Open final in 2004, when she lost to fellow Russian Anastasia Myskina. Remember her (Myskina)? Me neither.

Dementieva is capable of winning any tournament on any surface, but she typically seems to wilt at some point during a major, whether it be early (four losses within the first two rounds at the French Open) or late.

Her chances? I would say they're better than Venus'.

Jankovic, last year's U.S. Open runner-up to Serena, has been picking up the pace lately, and certainly could make it into the French final with a favorable draw. But, like Dementieva, something always seems to keep the Serbian slugger from becoming the bride instead of the bridesmaid.

The athletic Jankovic reached the French Open semis the last two years, and maybe this is the year she breaks through to her first-ever final in Paris.

Stay tuned.

The 19-year-old Azarenka, the best Belarusian player since Natasha Zvereva, has been one of the hottest players on the women's tour this year, having won three titles already, including a big one at the "Fifth Major" in Miami, where she stunned Serena in the final.

And the 19-year-old Wozniacki is also climbing the rankings ladder, by virtue of appearing in no less than four finals (1-3) already this season, including one last week in Madrid, where she succumbed to Safina. Wozniacki titled on some green clay in Ponte Vedra Beach last month.

Former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic is still seeking her first Grand Slam title.
Azarenka and Wozniacki would both appear to have a shot at the title in Paris, but we might have to wait another year for either one of these talented young women to make the ultimate run in Paris.

Some other women to keep an eye on are Svetlana Kuznetsova and former world No. 1s Maria Sharapova and Amelie Mauresmo. The only reason I mention Mauresmo is because she'll be the heavy French crowd favorite and has been playing some decent tennis of late.

Kuznetsova has appeared in three career Grand Slam finals, having won the 2004 U.S. Open title and finished as the French Open runner-up to Henin in 2006. She also reached a U.S. Open final in 2007, but failed to prevail against the impeccable Henin.

We probably shouldn't expect too much from a rusty Sharapova, who just returned to singles action this week for the first time in nearly 10 months. She'd been sidelined with a right rotator cuff injury that wound up requiring surgery last year.

The three-time major champ still needs the French to complete a career Grand Slam, but clay is her least favorite surface. Her best showing in Paris was a semifinal appearance two years ago.

Quiz Answer: Borg lost a mere 32 games on his way to the 1978 championship at Roland Garros.

Back to the men, Nadal may have lost to Federer last week, but the muscular Mallorcan is still 19-1 on clay this year and an unreal 150-7 on the surface since 2005. He's never lost a best-of-five set match, nor has he been pushed to five sets, on dirt with his unstoppable combination of movement, heavy topspin, physicality and, of course, confidence.

Nadal and Federer can expect some stiff opposition in Paris from the likes of U.S. Open runner-up Andy Murray (perhaps), Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Verdasco.

Murray has been one of the best players on the circuit since last summer, but the quality Brit has yet to be a factor at the French, going 2-2 for his career, including a third-round exit there a year ago. If this was hardcourt or grass I'd give Murray a shot, but he's not on hardcourt or grass, which, to me, makes him a non-favorite at this Parisian fortnight.

Novak Djokovic has succumbed to Nadal at the last three French Opens.
Djokovic is a threat to win every tournament, even though he typically gives way to Nadal or Federer at some point. The former Aussie Open champ and former U.S. Open runner-up reached the semis the last two years in Paris, losing to Nadal both times. He also fell to Nadal in a French Open quarterfinal in 2006.

Bottom line...Djokovic needs to avoid Nadal. (He and everyone else.)

Del Potro is one of the fine young stars on the ATP, but he's never fared well in Paris, going 1-3, including a second-round setback there last year. He has, however, come into his own since the middle of last season and wouldn't surprise anyone by charging deep into the second week at RG.

The hard-hitting Verdasco has been solid all season, with his highlight match actually being a loss at the hands of Nadal in Melbourne, as the two Spaniards fought for five sets in a classic Aussie Open semifinal, eventually won by Rafa. Verdasco loves the clay and could trek into the final if everything falls into place.

Does Andy Roddick have a shot in Paris? Of course not. Roddick's a solid player on the ATP, but his best-ever showing in Paris was a third-round appearance eight long years ago. He skipped last year's French and has suffered four first-round exits in seven trips to the French capital.

Can a Frenchman capture his home Slam for the first time since Yannick Noah in 1983? Gilles Simon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, who is iffy for the major due to a left knee injury, give the hosts their best chances. Simon and Tsonga expect to be on hand, but I don't see either one of these men winning seven straight on clay in this potent field.

A darkhorse on the men's side could be Chilean strongman Fernando Gonzalez. But he's a very dark horse, indeed.

And like the 2008 semifinalist Monfils, world No. 10 Russian Nikolay Davydenko is also questionable for the event after pulling out of a tournament in Austria this week with a nagging foot injury.

Note: Players from the clay-court Meccas that are Spain and South America have won nine straight and 11 of the last 12 men's titles in Paris.

If you think it's been a while for a French winner on the men's side, the last time a French-born woman won it all in Paris was Francoise Durr way back in 1967. Mary Pierce won under the French flag in 2000, but she was born in Canada and resides in Florida.

On the prediction front, I like Nadal, of course, to make it five Coupe des Mousquetaires in a row, and the red-hot Safina to hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen and finally break through with a major win among the women.

Note: The last person not named Nadal to win the men's title in Paris was Argentine one-hit wonder Gaston Gaudio, as a non-seed, back in 2004.

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Scott Riley
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