May 24, 2008

Serena is the pick to rule Roland Garros

by: Richard Pagliaro (

Serena Williams isn't into exclusive labels — at various times in her career the former World No. 1 has defined herself as entertainer, actress, designer and diva while refusing to be boxed in as solely a tennis player — but she starts this French fortnight with one tag tougher to shed than a tattoo on the tip of her tongue: the favorite to raise the French Open title trophy on the tournament's final Saturday.

"I think every player benefits from Justine's absence because Henin has been the Nadal of the women's game at the French Open," ESPN analyst and 1993 French Open finalist Mary Joe Fernandez said. "I think Serena is the one to beat now. We covered her in Charleston and she seemed to get better and better with every match she played on clay. Now, it seems like she enjoys the challenge of playing on clay, of sliding and she's starting to use more angles. I think she's got all the weapons I think it's just a matter of the belief that she can come back and win against a lot of other players who can give her a struggle. In my mind if Serena plays well, I think she can win again."

Take a moment to review her Roland Garros history. On the salmon-colored stage of Roland Garros, Williams has endured emotional extremes as disparate as the images of the Mona Lisa and mug shot.

She defeated sister Venus, 7-5, 6-3, in the 2002 French Open final to claim her second career major championship. The next year, the defending champion felt the wrath of French Open fans during the infamous 2003 semifinal against Justine Henin. Six points separated Williams from her fifth consecutive Grand Slam final. As she stepped up to serve holding a 4-2 lead in the third set of that compelling clash a singles semifinal showdown suddenly got very crowded as Henin held up her hand to call for time-out during Williams' serve. Williams asked chair umpire Jorge Dias for a first serve, but did not get it and didn't win a point the rest of the game as many members of the crowd at Phillipe Chatrier Court jeered her. Henin fought back with a ferocity and Williams wilted amid the hostile howls in losing five of the final six games to fall from the tournament. Since that match, Williams has only played Paris twice in the past four years, losing in the quarterfinals to Jennifer Capriati in 2004 and to Henin last June.

So why is Williams the prime pick to rule Roland Garros?

The Henin Factor — 5-foot-5 3/4 Henin loomed as large of an obstacle red clay as the Eiffel Tower placed in the path of a high hurdler. With Henin's retirement, the 26-year-old American is well aware this is her best chance to reign in Paris again.

Clay Court Success — Williams captured the Charleston title on Har-Tru last month, beating current No. 1 Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals, in winning her first clay-court title since the 2002 French Open. It took a tenacious effort from Safina to edge Williams, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6(5) and snap her 17-match winning streak in Berlin. Williams followed that effort by reaching the Rome quarterfinals.

Getting Dirty — Williams' willingness to play more on clay this season is a clear indication she's physically and mentally prepared for an assault on Paris. She has played three Tier I clay-court tune-up tournaments this spring, which are the most Tier I clay events she's played since 2002 when she won Roland Garros. She arrived in Paris early and is acclimated to the surface.

The Draw — Williams resides it the same quarter of the draw as 2007 French Open finalist Ana Ivanovic and though they've only met once with Williams scoring a straight-sets win in the 2006 U.S. Open, the second-seeded Serb does not match up well with Williams. The eight-time Grand Slam champion's superior serve gives her an edge in starting rallies and her quicker court coverage and explosiveness hitting on the run gives her a decided advantage against the slower Serbian in running rallies. The biggest threat to Williams in the bottom half of the draw is Jankovic, who knocked Williams out of the Australian Open quarterfinals in January. The pair have split their six career meetings and Jankovic enters Paris fresh of capturing her second consecutive Italian Open title. However, Jankovic has yet to reach a Grand Slam final and her soft second serve is attackable and puts her on the defensive on any surface. Anastasia Myskina, whose second serve could be a bluff at times, is the last woman to win the French Open with a serve as pedestrian as Jankovic's serve.

The Arsenal — Conventional wisdom among some top players in recent years is Williams is most vulnerable on the slow surface that nullifies some of her prodigious power, blunts a bit of the edge she earns on her first serve and exposes her occasional inconsistency by forcing her to hit more balls in a rally than she's accustomed to hitting. Don't buy into that hype. In the early stages of her career, Williams was primarily a hitter, but she's grown into a more complete player with a wider shot spectrum in her arsenal and an understanding of how to use it. If you watched her win Charleston you saw a player much more willing to work the width of the court with shorter, sharper angles — particularly off the backhand side — then she typically plays on hard court. The fact remains Williams' serve remains the most potent weapon in women's tennis and if she can use her kick serve...

Her strength of spirit has sometimes served as a parachute Williams has relied on to bail herself out of tight spots in past majors when she lacked the necessary match play as preparation, but this time she appears to have cut that cord and committed herself to doing the on-court work necessary to fuel her full flight to the French Open final. Conditions could be a factor: if rain slows transforms the terre battue into a soggy track it can diminish Williams' power, but if the weather remains dry Williams should get through to the final four.
"I feel like my scale is going up right now. I feel like so far I've probably gotten to a 5 or a 6 but I'm still able to climb up," Williams said of her current level of play. "It's probably the best preparation I've had since 2002. I'm really comfortable out there on the clay, so it's great. I'm definitely 100 percent fit. I'm feeling a lot better than last week."

When she's fit and fully focused, Williams brings more than championship credentials to the game, she brings one of the most explosive and entertaining styles to the sport, she brings athleticism and she brings an abundance of attitude. At her best, Serena competes with the ruthlessness of a hard-core competitor shooting for a shutout. If she can endure the inevitable ebbs and flows that come on clay and play with the patience she's displayed throughout the spring season look for Williams to win her ninth career major in Paris.

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