Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The second Grand Slam event of 2007 will commence Sunday in Paris, as the French Open will swing into action with Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin on hand each looking for three-peats at the world's premier clay-court tournament.
Nadal has won two straight French Opens, including a title match victory over Roger Federer last year, while Henin is also riding a 14-match winning streak at Roland Garros, including a championship bout decision over Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova last season. The five-time Grand Slam titlist Henin actually owns three French Open crowns, with the other coming in 2003. She's won the event three of the last four years.
The fiery Nadal's main competition in Paris figures to come from the world No. 1 Federer, who just halted the Spaniard's amazing 81-match clay-court winning streak with a title tilt victory last week at the Hamburg Masters. The super Swiss surprised Nadal in three sets, including a bagel effort (6-0) in the deciding stanza. Nadal hadn't lost on his beloved red clay since Russian Igor Andreev toppled him in Valencia over two years ago.
The two-time French Open champion Nadal has suffered only one defeat in his last 82 matches on clay.
Nadal is still an impressive 5-1 lifetime against Federer on the dirt, including a four-set victory versus the Swiss in last year's French final. The gritty Spaniard is 7-4 all-time against the "Fed," but the Swiss has won three of their last four encounters, including an even 1-1 split on clay.
Federer owns a whopping 10 Grand Slam titles, but still needs the French Open to complete a coveted career Slam. He's the reigning Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Aussie Open champ, having beaten Chilean slugger Fernando Gonzalez in January's Melbourne finale. The awesome Swiss nailed down a fourth straight Wimbledon crown last year by defeating Nadal in a blockbuster All England Club final.
A big Federer victory in a couple of weeks would give him a stranglehold on all of the Grand Slam hardware and would once again fire up that "greatest ever" conversation.
Nadal, meanwhile, will try to become the first men's three-peat winner at Roland Garros since the great Bjorn Borg (the true king of clay) captured four straight titles from 1978-1981. Borg is the only man in the Open Era to win it at least three straight years. Only three other men have won the tournament three years in a row: Max Decugis 1907-09 & 1912-1914; Paul Aym? 1897-1900; and Andr? Vacherot 1894-96. And, like Borg, Aym? won it four straight years, but that was well over 100 years ago.
FYI, the iconic Borg was a career 49-2 at the French, including six titles in eight trips to RG.
Back to the ladies.
The top-ranked Henin seems like the favorite, unless eight-time major titlist Serena Williams continues her 2007 winning ways. Williams practically came out of nowhere to corral the Aussie Open title back in January, as she throttled U.S. Open champ Maria Sharapova in a lopsided finale in Melbourne.
Henin will seek a fourth French Open title in five tries.
Serena secured her lone French Open crown in 2002 by beating her big sister Venus in an all-sibling/all-American final, and she hasn't competed at Roland Garros since falling in the quarterfinals there back in 2004. The powerful American missed the last two editions of the major due to injuries.
Henin will try to become the first women's three-peat winner in Paris since Monica Seles turned the trick from 1990-92. Seles is the only woman to win it three straight years in the Open Era. Five other women have won it at least three years in a row: Hilde Sperling 1935-37; Helen Wills-Moody 1928-30; Suzanne Lenglen 1920-23; Jeanne Matthey 1909-12; and Adine Masson 1897-99.
Last year, Henin reached all four Grand Slam finals, going 1-3. She lost to Amelie Mauresmo in the Wimbledon and Aussie Open title matches and succumbed to Sharapova in the U.S. Open championship encounter. The diminutive Belgian is a stellar 28-4 lifetime at the French.
Back to the men.
Aside from Federer and Nadal, who are some of the other contenders in Paris? Well I think it's safe to say that the list does not include any Americans. Former U.S. Open champion and 2006 U.S. Open runner-up Andy Roddick and James Blake have all but proven they cannot capture a major event that's played on crushed brick. The former world No. 1 Roddick has never advanced beyond the third round in Paris, including a first-round exit there a year ago, while Blake has also failed to get past the round of 32, with his best showing coming last year. Blake thrives on hardcourts, while Roddick's best tennis comes on hardcourts and grass.
Verdict: No shot.
Nadal and Federer's main competition figures to come from the likes of Russian Nikolay Davydenko, the aforementioned Gonzalez and brilliant Serb Novak Djokovic. Davydenko is a grinder that loves to play on the dirt; the Aussie Open runner-up "Gonzo" is always dangerous on this surface and has played solid ball this year; and the Miami Masters champion Djokovic is probably the closest thing to Federer on the tour.
Federer needs Roland Garros to complete a career Grand Slam.
Another serious threat could be resurgent Argentine Guillermo Canas, a runner- up to Nadal in Barcelona last month and a two-time winner against the mighty Federer already this year. Canas reached the quarters in two of his last three trips to RG, with his last appearance there coming in 2005 due to a 15-month doping suspension.
An additional list of contenders could include a couple of Toms -- Robredo and Berdych -- as well as former world No. 1 and two-time major titlist Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian and former top-ranked and two-time Grand Slam champ Marat Safin. I'm probably just bein' kind puttin' Hewitt and Safin on this list, but Robredo, Berdych and Nalbandian (if healthy) could make some noise in the "City of Light."
Like Nadal, both Nalbandian and Canas are adept on clay and have proven that they can beat Federer.
Honorable mention (a.k.a. long shots) among the men: Richard Gasquet and Mikhail Youzhny. Sorry, Carlos Moya (who did capture the French Open nine years ago).
Where have you gone Magnus Norman?
Back over on the women's side, Henin and Serena can expect challenges from Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic and Mauresmo. The rising Jankovic is fresh off her clay-court title in Rome, where she upended the '06 RG runner-up Kuznetsova in the final.
The two-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova just returned from an injury layoff this week, so it's hard to gauge where she's at right now. But you have to think that if she's in the draw, the tall Russian superstar will be a factor, even on her least favorite surface.
Sharapova, who's appeared in the last two majors finals (1-1), was a fourth- round loser in Paris last year after playing in back-to-back quarters there in '04 and '05.
The steady Kuznetsova can play with anybody, she just seems to lack the nerves of steel that separate the upper-echelon champs (i.e. Henin and Serena) from the rest of the aspiring No. 1s.
The 2002 champion Serena will make her first French Open appearance since 2004.
The world No. 4 Jankovic, at 37-10 this season, already owns three titles this year and has been one of the top-five performers on the circuit all-season long.
The former world No. 1 Mauresmo, of course, is a contender in any event she enters...it just doesn't seem like her home major is one of them. The two-time major champion has never fared better than the QFs in Paris and has exited in either the first or second round six times. She failed to get past the fourth round in each of the last two years after landing in the quarters in both 2003 and 2004.
Other women to keep any eye on are Czech Nicole Vaidisova, Serbian Ana Ivanovic, Russian Nadia Petrova, Swiss lefthander Patty Schnyder and the five- time Grand Slam champion Venus. Vaidisova soared all the way to the French semis last year, while the nifty Schnyder stunned Serena in Rome just last week.
Honorable mention (a.k.a. darkhorses) for the women: Anna Chakvetadze and two- time Grand Slam runner-up Elena Dementieva, who reached the Roland Garros finale back in 2004.
Where have you gone Iva Majoli?
The French always seems to be the one major that can offer up a surprise victor by the end of the fortnight, at least on the men's side (i.e. Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Gustavo Kuerten in 1997, etc.). But that won't be the case in 2007. Federer or Nadal will prevail in Paris, and I'll put my money on Nadal, even though Federer just peppered the weary Spaniard in Deutschland.
On the women's side, Henin and Serena look like the obvious favorites...and they are. But you can only pick one and I'm pickin' Henin, which means I'm feelin' a pair of three-peats in Paris.