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Red-hot Rafa ready for clay season finale

Red-hot Rafa ready for clay season finale
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First Published: Wed, May 19 2010. 09 46 PM IST

Rafael Nadal: The Spaniard is in top form this clay season after losing two months to a knee injury last year. Reuters
Rafael Nadal: The Spaniard is in top form this clay season after losing two months to a knee injury last year. Reuters
Updated: Wed, May 19 2010. 09 46 PM IST
It’s that time of the year when red is in, dirt on shirt or skirt is the new accessory and the year’s second Grand Slam extravaganza, the French Open tennis championship, begins 23 May. The draw is still a day away, but the field looks pretty wide open.
That is what makes this year’s Roland Garros exciting. Four-time winner Justine Henin is back, but Kim Clijsters’ withdrawal is a disappointment. Rafael Nadal is on energy boosters and Roger Federer will return as the defending champion for the first time. After more than a decade on the professional circuit, the Williams sisters head on to the field as the top two ranked tennis players.
Here is a list of our favourites.
MEN
Roger Federer
After some listless performances, losing to players outside the top-10 early on in the clay season, Federer showed signs of his brilliance in the final in the Madrid Open, though he lost to Nadal. As he told reporters later, “The claycourt season will not be judged here, but in Paris.” As the defending French champion, Federer will hope to erase any asterisk against his 2009 win when Nadal lost early in the fourth round. No tournament wins outside the Australian Open this year, but the guy has won three of the last four Grand Slams; he’s just a different player in Grand Slams. Yet, it’s hard to root for the world No. 1 when Nadal is blazing hot.
Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal: The Spaniard is in top form this clay season after losing two months to a knee injury last year. Reuters
Having clinched his 18th career ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title in Madrid (the highest by any player) and become the first player to win all three ATP Masters 1000 clay court tournaments in the same year, Nadal is the undisputed king of clay. If you ever needed more proof, that is. But the four-time French Open singles champion, who has now moved to No.2 in ranking, has played a lot of tennis for someone who spent the better part of last year nursing a knee injury. Unless his knees cave in, we don’t see a challenge knocking on Nadal’s door.
Fernando Verdasco
Spain’s No.2 tennis player and this year’s winner at the Barcelona clay event is one of the most athletic players on the tour. Verdasco packs quite a punch with the ability to run down every ball. Heavy groundstrokes make him a formidable opponent on both hard and clay courts. He has not had much success against Nadal, but he can push his opponents to the hilt. He couldn’t get past the fourth round last year in Paris, but his performance on clay this year has been credible. A listless loss against Jurgen Melzer in the third round of Madrid Masters notwithstanding, Verdasco makes it to this favourites list.
Robin Soderling
Last year, he became the first player to beat Nadal at the French Open and retained his composure to back it up with two more victories to make it to the final. Can the 6ft 4-inch tall Swede repeat his dream run this year? When the next best set of Spanish tennis players after Nadal tend to go weak in the knees on big occasions, especially against Nadal, Soderling has the mental ability to beat any player on a good day. And clay is his favourite surface.
Fernando Gonzalez
Although Gonzalez has had better success on hard courts, he can do serious damage on clay. On a good day, he doesn’t get intimidated by top-ranking players. Last year, he narrowly lost to Soderling in a hard-fought semi-final. His 2010 clay court season has been unimpressive, but he’s rested and has enough match practice on clay, thanks to all the clay events he played after the Australian Open. Don’t expect him to set the draw on fire, but watch out for him.
Dark horse: Ernests Gulbis
The 6ft 3-inch Latvian has made a lot of noise in the warm-up events leading to Roland Garros. He came from a set down to beat Federer at the Rome Masters and followed it up with two hard-fought wins, only to lose to Nadal, becoming the first player this clay season to take a set off the latter. He almost beat Federer again in Monte Carlo. This might be his year if he gets a good draw.
WOMEN
Justine Henin
She’s back in business, armed with arguably the best backhand in the game and a new, improved serve. She’s making frequent trips to the net—ironically on her favourite surface clay—as seen in her Stuttgart victory; her first since her return. She’s won the French Open four times, more than any other current player. Her early loss at the Madrid Open notwithstanding, she’s our pick to lift the Suzanne Lenglen trophy on 5 June.
Serena Williams
Last year, she won three titles; two of them were Grand Slams. Forget the surface on which she plays, Serena is just a different player in Grand Slams. Her only French Open title came in 2002, but she goes into the 2010 edition as the top ranked. She had two match points against Jelena Jankovic in the semis at the Rome event and lost a close match. At Madrid, she lost to Nadia Petrova after committing 41 errors. When she wins, it’s usually on her account. When she loses, more often than not, it’s because of her high errors. If she can keep those in check, Serena is tough to beat on any surface. But you never know...
Jelena Jankovic
One of the better players to have never won a big four so far, Jankovic has been playing confident tennis this summer. She has the game, though, to win in Paris. She moves well across slow courts, with good ground strokes and a decent serve. The problem lies in her head. Though she’s won 12 titles, she’s reached just one Grand Slam final and has always fallen short on the big occasion. She’s made it to the semis twice in Paris, in 2007 and 2008. Provided she keeps calm and her focus right, she has the ability to do some damage.
Samantha Stosur
You typically don’t expect an Australian to glide gracefully on clay, but if Stosur’s performance in this year’s clay season is any indication, she’s poised for better times at this year’s French Open. She has already made it to the semis here once, in 2009. With a clay title at Charleston, US, and a final appearance at Stuttgart losing to Henin, the women in her draw should be worried, very worried.
Dark horse: Aravane Rezai
This hard-hitting local girl goes into the French Open having won the biggest title of her career at Madrid. With a potent first serve, powerful ground strokes especially on her backhand (that troubled Venus Williams in the Madrid finals), a solid baseline game and a will to win, Rezai will have home crowd advantage.
The French Open will be telecast live on Star Sports from Sunday.
kayezad.a@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, May 19 2010. 09 46 PM IST