Next Stop: Roland Garros

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The second Grand Slam event of the year will commence next week, as the greatest tennis players in the world will descend upon Paris for the French Open.

Gustavo Kuerten and Jennifer Capriati will enter the premier clay-court tournament as its defending champions, but I get the feeling they won't exit the event with repeat performances, or in the case of "Guga," three-peat performances.

Kuerten has won two straight and three of the last five titles at Roland Garros, but he's still in the midst of trying to relocate his formidable clay- court game after missing more than two months of action after undergoing arthroscopic hip surgery in February. The popular Brazilian star has failed to get past the quarterfinals in three tourneys since rejoining the circuit last month.

Guga whipped Spaniard Alex Corretja in last year's French Open final; defeated Swede Magnus Norman in the 2000 title match; and stunned the tennis world by running the table in south Paris as a green 20-year-old in 1997 (Sergi Bruguera).

Suzanne Lenglen court
A general view of the Suzanne Lenglen court during the French Open Tennis at Roland Garros.
Capriati has won three of the last five Grand Slam tournaments overall, including two straight Australian Opens, but she's failed to hoist a championship trophy of any kind since her most-recent Melbourne run back in January.

The Fed Cup-foiling Capriati outlasted Belgian Kim Clijsters in last year's dramatic three-set Roland Garros championship match, including a 12-10 win in the final stanza.

The 26-year-old Capriati is the top seed on the ladies' side this year, while Kuerten is seeded seventh among the men, who boast several serious threats to Guga, such as big ol' Russian Marat Safin, tough German Tommy Haas, the amazing Andre Agassi, rising Swiss Roger Federer, and even 19-year-old American teen sensation Andy Roddick.

Don't expect 2002 Australian Open titlist Thomas Johansson of Sweden to be a factor during the fast-approaching French fortnight, as clay is not his friend.

World No. 1 and reigning U.S. Open champion Lleyton Hewitt is the top seed on the men's side, but the hardcourt ace has never gotten past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Safin, the current ATP Champions Race leader and Aussie Open runner-up to Johansson four months ago, is dangerous on any surface, as is the hard-hitting Haas, and the incomparable Agassi has already captured at least one Grand Slam title on each of the Slams' tracks -- hardcourt, grass and clay.

Agassi completed his career "Slam" by prevailing in Paris three years ago, and he's fresh off his big clay-court Tennis Masters Rome title just two weeks ago.

Andre'll be ready.

If Agassi can nail down a second French title in four years, it would give the time-defying great his eighth Grand Slam title overall.

Speaking of greats, let's not forget the all-time Grand Slam king -- "Pistol" Pete Sampras.

Or maybe we should forget Pete.

The 13-time Grand Slam event winner has piled up seven Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens and a pair of Aussie titles, but let's face it, he's just not a threat to win seven straight matches over a two-week period on dirt.

Gustavo Kuerten
Gustavo Kuerten celebrates with the trophy after defeating Alex Corretja in the final of the 2001 French Open.
That elusive French Open title will remain just that, elusive, as the fading star has first or second-round loss written all over him. Sampras hasn't claimed a championship of any kind since securing a fourth straight Wimbledon title in 2000.

France's best shot on the men's side is probably 10th-seeded Sebastien Grosjean, but he has yet to hit his rather-short stride this season.

A Frenchman hasn't claimed his national championship since the great Yannick Noah jumped for joy adorned by his customary dreadlocks in 1983.

There are other viable threats in the men's draw, including dangerous Spaniards Juan Carlos Ferrero and 1998 champion Carlos Moya, but I really don't see either one of them getting past the likes of Safin, Haas, Agassi, Kuerten or the immensely-talented Federer, who's currently second in the Champions Race thanks to his three-set dismantling of Safin in last week's clay-court Tennis Masters Hamburg final.

I think Roddick is still a darkhorse due to his lack of experience in the "majors."

Former champions Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Michael Chang are expected to be on hand next week, but don't expect either one, especially the used-up Chang, to travel very far in the deepest of draws.

World No. 6 Tim "No Shot" Henman says he feels confident on clay right now, but let's be serious...he's "Soft Tim."

Capriati will be challenged on the ladies' side by fellow juggernaut Americans Venus and Serena Williams, and perhaps even Monica Seles, and the Belgian studs Clijsters and Justine Henin.

Venus and the current-world-No. 1 Capriati have exchanged places atop the WTA rankings on four occasions this season; Serena is arguably the best player in the women's game right now; Clijsters came oh-so close to winning the French a year ago; and the red-hot Henin recently squared off against Serena in two straight finals, including an upset victory over the 1999 U.S. Open champion in Berlin two weeks ago and a loss to the superstar last week at the lofty Tennis Masters Series Roma.

I'm pickin' Serena to weave her way through the draw in Paris, but Capriati, Venus, Clijsters or Henin will be eager to jump in there if the younger Williams falters.

Venus would like to add Roland Garros to her expanding trophy case, which already includes back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, but she's had to battle a variety of injuries this season, and was forced to pull out of last week's lucrative event in Rome just minutes before she was scheduled to play Russian beauty Anna Kournikova, who, by the way, will certainly be a non- factor, tennis-wise anyway, in Paris.

The aging Seles has won three French Open crowns, but that was during her heyday way back in the early 1990's. She soared to Roland Garros titles in 1990, 1991 and 1992, but has reached just one French Open final (1998) since the well-publicized back-stabbing incident in 1993.

France's female hopes will rest on the shoulders of Sandrine Testud and Amelie Mauresmo, but Testud is just not a Grand Slam threat and Mauresmo has always choked in front of the home crowd at the Parisian Slam. Mauresmo was a first- round loser in Paris for a third time last year, and is an unacceptable 6-7 in her home major.

Mary Pierce was the last French woman to win it all in Paris, in 2000.

Pierce plays for France despite being born in Canada (Montreal) and residing in Florida (Sarasota).

Go figure.

Three other former champs will be in the ladies' draw, but additional French hardware will not come for the oft-injured Pierce, the washed-up Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (1989, 1994, 1998) or the out-of-her-league Iva Majoli (1997).

Capriati will try to become the first repeat women's winner since the legendary Steffi Graf turned the trick for a second time in 1996. Graf also won the French back-to-back in 1987-88.

The grunt-crazed Seles is the last woman to rattle off three consecutive titles (1990-92) in the "City of Lights."

The propitious Kuerten will try to become the first man to hoist the trophy for a third straight time since the fabulous Bjorn Borg gathered four straight championships from 1978-81. Borg won six French Opens during an eight-year span from 1974-81, as the steely Swede was a perfect 6-0 in his French finals.

Scott Riley
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