Sharapova, Clijsters among French Open favourites

The French Open may be shorn of some of the big names in the women’s game, and Caroline Wozniacki hardly inspires awe as top seed, but this year’s tournament does have some intriguing sub-plots.

First of all, can Maria Sharapova prove everyone wrong by winning the French Open to complete her career Grand Slam set?

The 24-year-old Russian last won a Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open after which she was wracked by a succession of injuries that left her wondering if her career would come to an abrupt end.

But she has stuck with it and has been gradually climbing back up the rankings, with her first clay-court title win in Rome last week lifting her up to seventh, her best placing since she stood at sixth in November 2008.

The French Open has always been the hardest one to play for the gangly Sharapova, who once described her movement on the slow, sliding surface as being like a cow on ice.

But with this year’s tournament looking wide open, she is starting to fancy her chances of actually pulling off an upset win.

“Although I might not be the best mover on clay or the best slider or strongest player with the strongest legs, there is a lot more than these things in tennis and that is the reason why I won,” she said after Rome. “I’m moving better and I feel better and better with every year. I am stronger and this is one of the most important things that has helped me in that I recover a lot better.
I feel stronger.”

Clay has never been a problem for Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, who was brought up playing on the surface and who has twice reached the final in Paris.

But whether she will be fit enough to mount a serious challenge remains in doubt having been sidelined for six weeks after twisting ankle ligaments while at a cousin’s wedding.

She has also been having wrist and shoulder pain and freely admits that she will not be 100% fit going into Paris where she hopes to make it three Grand Slam wins in a row after last year’s US Open and the Australian Open in January.

“The past two weeks of playing tennis have made it clear,” she said on her website. “Playing tennis is going wonderfully, I hit the ball very well.

“I dare and take more risks now. I am not totally without pain, but the strong tape around the ankle gives me sufficient security.”

Surprise winner
With Belgium compatriot and four-time former winner Justine Henin now definitively retired, there is also room for such accomplished clay-court performers as last year’s surprise winner Francesca Schiavone of Italy and the woman she beat in the final, Samantha Stosur of Australia

Also worth a look will be powerful Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, who is up to a career-best fourth in the world after tournament wins at Miami and Marbella.

Wozniacki, meanwhile, will once again be assailed with questions over how she can accept being the number one ranked player in the world despite having never won a Grand Slam title.

The 20-year-old Dane has consolidated her top ranking this year with tournament wins at Dubai, Indian Wells and Charleston but she has still to prove she has the big game to win a Grand Slam title.

Latest indications are that Wozniacki might be considering taking on as coach the legendary Martina Navratilova in a bid to harness her mastery of attacking skills to go with her own defensive prowess.

That partnership could work well according to tennis analyst Mary Carillo, a former US Tour player and a mixed doubles champion in Paris in 1977 with John McEnroe.

“Caroline’s a lover of the long point, and she doesn’t have to be,” she said.

“There are many times when you’re thinking, ‘Just pull the trigger, already.’

“She’s heard from any number of people that she needs to add aggression to her game—maybe it would take somebody like Martina to have it kick in.”

It will be an emotional tournament for French fans with Virginie Razzano opting to play on despite the death on Monday of her fiancé and former coach Stephane Vidal after a long battle with a brain tumour.—AFP

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