Gettin' dirty in the City of Lights

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2001 edition of the French Open will commence next week, and Grand Slam hopefuls Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati of the United States will be among the favorites at Roland Garros.

Agassi and Capriati are the only players with a shot at winning the Grand Slam this year after securing singles titles at the first Slam of the season -- January's Australian Open.

Defending champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil and red-hot Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero will be among those presenting a serious threat to Agassi in the men's draw, while fellow American Venus Williams and powerful Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo will be among the Capriati hunters on the women's side.

Roland Garros
A general view of Court One at Roland Garros, home of the French Open located in Paris.
(Photo by Empics)
Agassi is the only man since "Rocket" Rod Laver in the 1960's to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in his career after capturing the elusive French crown in 1999, and he currently leads the 2001 ATP Champions Race, with Ferrero and Kuerten right on his heels in second and third place, respectively.

With a friendly draw, the 31-year-old Agassi could make a nice run in south Paris, but I believe that Kuerten, Ferrero and 1998 French Open titlist Carlos Moya have the best chance of coming out on top this year on the storied red clay.

Kuerten put himself on the tennis map with his surprising victory at Roland Garros in 1997, then notched his second French crown by stopping currently-struggling Swede Magnus Norman in last year's final.

"Guga" has been the undisputed "King of Clay" over the last two years, but the young Ferrero, a.k.a. "The Mosquito," has been making a charge of late, including a big upset of the Brazilian in the Tennis Masters Series-Rome final earlier this month.

Ferrero's a tour-best 22-2 on clay this year. Kuerten's 21-2 on the dirt.

A now-ailing Ferrero, who also just reached a final in the Masters Series event in Hamburg where he was shocked by countryman Albert Portas in a five- set championship match, needs to get healthy in less than a week, as he's currently nursing a groin injury suffered in Germany.

If Agassi, Kuerten of Ferrero should falter in Paris, don't be surprised if the Spanish Moya nails down his second French championship in four years.

Although he has yet to win a title this year, the resurgent Moya has been playing fine clay-court tennis and appears primed for another run at Roland Garros.

Some of the other men who will be drawing attention in Paris will be all-time Grand Slam king Pete Sampras, reigning U.S. Open champ Marat Safin, 1996 French Open titlist Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and dangerous Aussies Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt.

Sampras, of course, has claimed every Slam except the French.

That trend will continue this year, as Pistol Pete is a shadow of himself when stationed on the slo-o-o-o-w clay. His best-ever showing in Paris came in the form of a semifinal appearance in 1996, and he hasn't moved past the second round since a third-round exit in 1997.

Andre Agassi
Shown here hoisting the 1999 French Open trophy, Andre Agassi knows how to win on clay, and currently leads the 2001 ATP Champions Race.
(Photo by Empics)
The great Sampras has suffered a pair of first-round losses in his career at Roland Garros, including one last year against huge-serving Aussie Mark Philippoussis. Another first-round setback could be in the offing this year.

As far as Safin, Kafelnikov, Rafter and Hewitt are concerned, I think Hewitt has the best chance to make some noise in Paris, as he's been playing the best clay-court tennis of the four this year. Safin and Kafelnikov have just been flat out brutal of late, while the popular Rafter has been nursing injuries and gotten in very little work heading into the fortnight.

If the host nation wants it's first male champion in 18 years (Yannick Noah, 1983), it'll have to look to Sebastien Grosjean or 2001 Australian Open runner-up Arnaud Clement. Grosjean has himself in the Top 4 of the Champions Race, thanks in part to an appearance in the Aussie Open semis four months ago (lost to Clement in an epic five-setter in Melbourne), with quality play in recent months, but Clement has floundered since his stellar Aussie showing and appears to be a non-factor heading to Paris.

If Ferrero's not 100 percent at Roland Garros, Kuerten's my easy pick to run the table there.

On the ladies' side, the comeback queen that is Capriati will look to corral her second career Grand Slam title after stunning the tennis world by beating world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the 2001 Australian Open final.

Capriati, however, will have some stiff competition in Paris, with my other top contenders coming in the form of fellow sluggers Venus and Mauresmo. Venus has won two of the last three Slams, with her success at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, while Mauresmo is winning, or almost winning, just about everything in sight so far this season.

Obviously, the French Mauresmo will be the heavy crowd favorite on her home dirt. The emerging star is still a brilliant 31-3 with four titles this season, despite being cooled off by Yugoslavia's Jelena Dokic in the Italian Open final in Rome.

Mauresmo will be my pick to prevail on Philippe Chatrier Court (formerly Court Central).

If Mauresmo, Capriati or Venus somehow aren't up to the challenge at Roland Garros, Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams will be among those on hand eager to grasp the trophy. Hingis, Davenport and Serena have never titled at the French Open, and I would expect that trend to continue, as my Big Three of Capriati, Venus and Mauresmo just look too strong right now.

As for your defending women's champion -- France's own Mary Pierce -- don't look for her to go too deep in the draw as injury problems and an overall lack of activity this season will all but assure her early exit in Paris.

There'll be some other past champions on hand at Roland Garros, but you won't see any additional hardware for 1989 winner Michael Chang, 1993 and 1994 champion Sergi Bruguera, three-time winners Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, and 1997 titlist Iva Majoli.

And I did not forget to mention other men's Champions Race Top-10ers Jan- Michael Gambill, Roger Federer and Albert Portas, or women's Top-10ers Anna Kournikova, Elena Dementieva and Amanda Coetzer, as everyone in this group is either injured or has no shot in Paris, with the exceptions of maybe Federer and Portas. Federer is the very dangerous rising Swiss, while Portas is fresh off the unlikely TMS championship in Hamburg.

Kuerten will try to become the fourth man over the last 28 years to capture at least three French Open crowns, joining the legendary Bjorn Borg (6), the legendary Ivan Lendl (3) and the almost-legendary Mats Wilander (3). Four women have hoisted the trophy at least three times since 1974 -- the great Chris Evert (7), the brilliant Steffi Graf (6), Sanchez-Vicario (3) and Seles (3).

Guga will also try to become the first male repeat champion since Bruguera turned the trick in 1994.

If Pierce can miraculously get her act together and grab another title in Paris, she'd become the first ladies repeat winner since the incomparable Graf in 1996.

Let's get ready to enjoy arguably the best Grand Slam event of 'em all -- the vastly underrated French Open. Not only is it, in my opinion, the most difficult tennis tournament to win because of frequent unbearable heat inside what amounts to a dirt bowl and the longest of rallies brought on by the slowest of tracks, but when you're not watching world class tennis at Roland Garros, you're left to take in the magical City of Lights.

The Australian Open is clearly the least-important major; Wimbledon is too uptight and often bogged down by bad weather; and the U.S. Open is just plain too commercial.

I know it's cliche, but here goes: Vive La France!

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