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Countdown to French fortnight

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2003 edition of the French Open will get underway in less than a week with Lleyton Hewitt and Serena Williams as the top seeds, but I'm not so sure that either one of them will hoist the championship trophies early next month.

Hewitt, of course, is the world No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion, while Serena is the women's No. 1 and reigning everything titlist, as she currently holds down all four of the Grand Slams, including Roland Garros.

The gritty Hewitt, however, does not play his best tennis on the slow red clay and has never advanced beyond the quarters at the French, including a fourth- round exit there a year ago.

Serena, meanwhile, captured the hardware last year in Paris, but despite being an incredible 26-2 this season, both of her setbacks this year have come on clay and she's actually lost two of her last five matches, if you don't include Fed Cup (which I chose not to). Believe it or not, she hasn't titled since late March (Miami), having failed in her last two tourney bids (Charleston and Rome).

Serena, who is 16-3 lifetime at Roland Garros, realistically figures to be challenged by five women in Paris -- her big sister Venus, Belgian stalwarts Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo and Jennifer Capriati. The 21-year-old, of course, has met (and beaten) the 22- year-old Venus in the last four "Slam" finals, but another all-Williams affair may not be in the offing this time around.

Serena Williams
Serena is the reigning French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champion.
A now-world No. 2 Clijsters led Serena 5-1 in the third set of their Aussie Open semifinal way back in January before the sturdy Belgian promptly imploded. Serena roared back in dramatic fashion to win, and then topped Venus in the marquee final Down Under.

But Clijsters has otherwise been solid this season, as evidenced by six finals and a trio of titles, including a big one in Rome just last week.

Clijsters' countrywoman Henin-Hardenne, meanwhile, handed Serena her first loss of '03 in last month's final at the Family Circle Cup on the green clay in Charleston and has won two of her six lifetime encounters against the formidable superstar.

Mauresmo is fresh off her huge semifinal upset of Serena last week at the Italian Masters -- the Frenchwoman's first-ever victory against the big American in six tries. So needless to say, Mauresmo is perhaps brimming with confidence, although she typically never plays well in front of the home crowd at Roland Garros, where she's failed to ever trek beyond the fourth round and has bowed out in the first or second round on six occasions.

Ouch!

Capriati soared to her first and only French Open crown two years ago by beating Clijsters in a memorable final, but the boorish star hasn't capture a title of any kind in 16 months when she won a second straight Australian Open championship in January of last year. She's always a threat, but hasn't been able to "seal the deal" for quite some time.

Note: The 27-year-old Capriati is the last woman not named Serena to win a major.

Did I forget to mention Americans Lindsay Davenport or three-time French Open champion Monica Seles? Of course not. Neither one of these women has a shot at hoisting the trophy, considering the newlywed Davenport has yet to play on red clay this year, and the oft-injured Seles has battled a left foot injury more than she's battled opponents this season.

If Serena can sort her way through the crowd at RG, she would become the first female repeat champion since the legendary Steffi Graf in 1996 and the first American-born repeat champ since the great Chris Evert turned the trick 17 years ago.

Back to the men.

The two-time Grand Slam tournament champion Hewitt will go up against an incredible draw, littered with an array of clay-courters...one of which he is not. His toughest competition figures to come from a lot that includes former champion Andre Agassi, silky-smooth Swiss Roger Federer, my French Open favorite Juan Carlos Ferrero, and 1998 titlist Carlos Moya. Throw in defending champion Albert Costa, tough Argentine dirtballers like Guillermo Coria, Agustin Calleri, Gaston Gaudio and 2002 Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian, and things look pretty bleak for Hewitt to corral his first-ever French title. I even left out former three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten, although the Brazilian "Guga" is still searching for his once-brilliant clay-court form after undergoing hip surgery in February of last year.

Guga hasn't titled on his beloved red clay in 22 months.

Lleyton Hewitt
Hewitt has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.
The upstart Argentines accounted for all four of the semifinalists at last week's Hamburg Masters, where the wizard-like Coria prevailed for his first- ever Masters shield by besting his fellow "gaucho" Calleri in the final. Coria became the first Argentine to win a Masters Series event since the great Guillermo Vilas.

Gaudio, meanwhile, leads the tour with 23 clay-court wins this season and his textbook backhand could carry him to at least the quarters at RG.

Argentina is challenging Spain as the Mecca for clay-court tennis.

Did I forget to mention Australian Open runner-up Rainer Schuettler of Germany and popular Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake? Of course not, because none of these guys have a shot at winning seven straight matches in such an outstanding field on the dirt! Roddick and Blake have played poorly on the European clay this spring, and Schuettler's run in Melbourne was probably a fluke.

The Aussie Open titlist Agassi will head to Paris seeking his second French crown and ninth overall Grand Slam title. He captured Roland Garros in 1999 to become just the fifth man to secure all four of the majors in his illustrious career.

The Champions Race-leading Agassi is an incredible 23-2 with four titles this season and will surely be one of the players to beat in Paris, if not the player to beat if he finds his rhythm on the clay.

The 33-year-old American will appear in his 15th French Open, despite his natural dislike of dirt. The last 30-something to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy was Ecuador's Andres Gomez back in 1990, when the South American overcame a young American by the name of...Agassi.

The aforementioned Federer leads the ATP with 38 match victories this year (38-8) and is second only to Agassi with three titles on the circuit. He's a stellar 12-2 on clay this season, including a pair of finals and a title in Munich.

The Monte Carlo Masters champion Ferrero is a sparkling 33-7 this year, including an eye-popping 22-2 mark and a pair of titles on clay. The "Mosquito" was last year's disappointing French Open runner-up to his fellow Spaniard Costa, who does not figure to repeat in south Paris. Does he?

If Costa can somehow repeat his miracle run of a year ago, he'd become the first Spaniard to title back-to-back in Paris since Sergi Bruguera in 1993-94.

Spain has won four of the last 10 French Opens and also accounted for the runner-up five times over that span, including a trio of all-Spanish finals.

Ferrero, who is supposedly healthy after suffering an arm injury a few weeks back, is seeking a trip to at least the French semis for a fourth year in a row. It's time for him to break all the way through and erase the painful memory of last year's upset loss at the hands of his compatriot Costa.

Another Spaniard to keep an eye on is veteran Felix Mantilla, the big surprise champion at the Italian Masters two weeks ago in Rome, where he shocked the world No. 5 Federer in the final. Mantilla is currently playing the best tennis of his career.

Several men decided against competing in Paris for various reasons, including Marat Safin (wrist), Pete Sampras (semi-retired) and Tommy Haas (shoulder).

Six former champions will be on hand, including Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov (1996) and retiring American Michael Chang (1989), who was granted a wild card.

FYI, keep your eye on rising Russian youngsters Nikolay Davydenko and Vera Zvonareva, as both players have enjoyed a great deal of success in recent weeks. The 18-year-old Zvonareva, who took a set from Serena at last year's French, recently titled in Croatia and is shooting for the women's top 20.

Obviously this wouldn't be a French Open preview if I didn't pick some champions. So here goes.

Without the benefit of seeing the draws, I'll take Ferrero and Clijsters...which means I'll have to save my Hewitt and Serena picks for Wimbledon.

Scott Riley
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