Saturday, May 22, 2010

Roland Garros Preview: The Big Bang

If you tried to collect and present all the "scientific" theories, equations and notions which, when cobbled together, might somehow explain the myriad possible final outcomes of this year's Roland Garros, it'd probably be enough to make even Sheldon Cooper's head spin.

Needless to say, though, the majority of all those contingencies boil down to and around this query: Is La Petit Taureau in the hand worth more than Serena in the bush? Unintended double entendre aside, that idea SHOULD pretty much set up the storyline for this second slam of 2010. Problem is, it's REALLY only the beginning.

So forgive me if I attempt to throw as many potential theorems against the wall as I can over the next few minutes in the faint hope that one will eventually have found a way to stick when all is said and done in Paris two weeks from today.

"The Henin Hypothesis": the belief that the best women's clay courter of the past quarter-century will rediscover her desired level of comfort and inner fire on a consistent basis at the site where her legend was born, causing history to repeat itself and for her to once again reign supreme over all challengers.

In Stuttgart, Justine Henin certainly looked the part of a four-time Roland Garros champ. At the first slam of the season in Melbourne, she weathered many a storm en route to the final. Most expected that the intangible advantage that the Belgian enjoyed during her first career would eventually return. It was just a matter of time. But it hasn't, at least not on a consistent basis. Not from one tournament to the next, one match after the other, or even sometimes for consecutive games or points. In a wonderful piece in Sports Illustrated this week by S.L. Price, Henin's attempt to reclaim the fire that made her a great champion by igniting her desire with positivity rather than the negative fuel the once made her so driven is a project that remains uncompleted. Coach Carlos Rodriguez sees an "instability" in Henin today that wasn't there before, one that sometimes results in absentminded, loose play on the court, and is evident off it by her acknowledging of a search for a defining reason for her tennis desires... something that used be characterized by what she was fighting against and who she was trying to prove something to. What I always used to define as Henin's "embracing of the 'black hat'" is touched upon in the article, and the same questions that I raised back when she first reconnected with her family are still nagging ones today. Being less isolated and focused, while attempting to not be the "dark" figure she used to be, has left Henin without the single-minded focus that made her a champion. Winningly distracted by "life," her own and that of those less fortunate that she came into contact with during her 19-month retirement, can she ever be the same intense, driven-at-all-costs-including-her-family player again? Should she even WANT to be, since she enjoys HERSELF more now than she did then. No. There has to be a better way.

It's a good realization for a human being to embrace, but for a world-class athlete who rose to great heights by empousing a Me-vs.-Them worldview it's a potentially crippling condition. The inner champion's strength is rocked (or is, at the very least, ficke... or "unstable"), and the aura that the idea of the "lone champion" once fed into is weakened in the process. Greatness is still possible, but with greater "humanity" comes more fragility, both perceived and in reality. What's resulted, thus far, is the Henin we've seen in 2010. A world-beater one week, then a player who can be challenged by most any player in the world the next. She's no longer looking down on the WTA field. She's joined them, and the fear that LPT 1 instilled in lesser opponents (say, Aravane Rezai) is no longer a given on the other side of the net these days.

"The Theory of Schroedinger's (Black) Hat": the theory that postulates that Henin is both the odds-on favorite to win Roland Garros because of her "black hat-clad" past in Paris, yet thoroughly vulnerable at the same time due to the shakiness the new "white cap-topped" Henin has shown in LPT 2. In the words of Emily Dickinson, "I like the look of agony, because I know it's true." Henin's RG opponents have seen the Belgian's human underbelly in her tennis comeback, and they now have reason to BELIEVE that they have a chance to cause her to appear as such again.

Reasserting her old clay court dominance in Paris would be a good step toward reclaiming that part of her tennis career. But it all starts between Henin's ears. Does she REALLY believe that she can be the "better" player that she envisioned being when she started her comeback? And by "better" does she mean her actual tennis game, or how she feels about herself as a person when she prepares and competes? Can Henin the Champion and Justine the Caring Human Being coexist in the same petite frame? Maybe we'll get a better idea over the next two weeks.

"The Serena Effect": the knowledge that since Roland Garros is a grand slam event, Serena Williams has a better-than-even chance to win it, Henin or no Henin.

No player in her generation has lifted more slam trophies than Serena, and she's currently enjoying her best run of slam results since her "Serena Slam" in 2002-03. Her results prior to a slam mean little, and are only important to guage Williams' health, fitness and ability to play her way into form over the more important two week stretch to come. Williams had some good moments in Rome and Madrid, as well as bad. But she got match play, showed an ability to pull herself together for comeback wins (some necessary because of her own inability to close out matches) and comes to Paris seemingly in no worse physical shape than she was a few weeks ago. That could be bad news for the rest of the women's field as her quest for a true Grand Slam is still in play, and the Australian Open champion would likely be the favorite to take Wimbledon and the U.S. Open if she could pocket her second career RG crown.

After waiting for the entirely of both their careers for it to happen, Henin and Wiliams finally met in a grand slam final in Melbourne in January. It was a day of reckoning for both women. Even though it was only one moment in time, it had the feel of a rare moment of purity in the sport. Carl Jung defined synchronicity as "the coming together of inner and outer events that cannot be explained by cause and effect that is meaningful to the observer." Deepak Chopra terms it "a momentary reprise from chaos" (the real kind, not the kind spun by the Serbian dervish). The result of the Australian Open final, a three-set win by Williams, was nothing more than a single big match soon after Henin's return from a year and a half away from the sport. But it meant something more.

The sequel could be about ten days away. The Big Bang in Oz resulted in the American further solidifying her mantle as the best player of the past decade, as well as whetted the appetite for more Serena vs. Justine battles for the tour's biggest titles. It won't happen in Paris, though. At least not in the final. With Henin's ranking slipping out of the Top 20 last week, her #22-seed means the two could meet in the QF. Clay is the Belgian's best surface, but has traditionally been the one where Serena has been least successful. Thus, the Big Bang in Paris will have to come a few days BEFORE the final. But the result will likely be the same. Assuming the rematch occurs, the winner will have staked out a claim for this title -- Serena by showing she CAN win again at Roland Garros and doesn't need to replicate such play during the months between slams, and Henin by proving that she's still capable of pulling some of her old Parisian magic out of his tennis bag even when she's not making "the loneliness of the long distance runner" her daily Facebook status -- and it'll be diffcult to see the quarterfinal winner doing anything other than lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen two matches later.

"The Parisian Paradox": the notion that if neither Williams nor Henin overcome their personal hurdles in Paris that Roland Garros will suddenly transform from a grand slam that supposedly crowns the best clay court player in the world into a larger-scale version of one of those pre-tournament "tune-up" events that were so unpredictable this spring. The winner will be a grand slam champion but, then again, the likes of Iva Majoli and Anastasia Myskina have won RG crowns in the past, but hardly enjoy the historical status normally reserved for the game's "ultimate" champions.

If the Big Bang doesn't happen, though, this tournament will become supremely wild. The bottom half of the draw already presumes we'll likely have a finalist that few would have expected a few weeks ago, and if the top half follows suit the final Saturday could produce a pairing that resembles some of those old Austrailan Open women's championships in the 1970s when the tournament was held at the end of the year when all the top players had called it a season (Barbara Jordan vs. Sarah Walsh in '79, anyone?). 2008, when Henin's retirement threw the tournament into chaos (though Chaos didn't win it, her Serbian countrywoman did), could resemble a quaint get-together by comparison.

Amongst the possible outcomes:

"The Serbian Corollary": with opportuntiy abounding yet again, either Jankovic or Ivanovic will once again take center stage and emerge victorious after many had forsaken their slam chances not that long ago.

"The Myskina Paradigm": a streaky player suddenly gets hot, and stunningly becomes a grand slam champion.

"The Majoli Anomaly: a favorite chokes in the clutch, and an almost non-entity slips through the open door to achieve a career height that NO ONE saw coming... then will promptly disappear from the major tennis scene almost as quickly as she arrived.

"The Rezai Polarization": only one Pastry has won this title in the Open Era (Mary Pierce in '00), but the polarizing and pulverizing Rezai shows that she saved her Madrid Mojo in a wine bottle and celebrates with an entire nation in the final, exhilerating new fans while creating even more post-match enemies along the way.

"The Russian (Decay) Aversion": rarely have the Hordettes arrived at a slam in worse shape. But in a rare twist of fate, the "underdog" and "surprise" Russian contingent gathers itself collectively to produce its third RG champion in the last seven years.

"The EuroClay Indeterminacy": many "new faces" won on the clay in Europe, and the likes of one of the Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez & Co.'s of the tennis world show that it isn't about peaking in Paris, it's about playing well consistently over the entire clay season. A new champion is not born, but is instead slowly hatched.

"The Arantxa Reaction": Paris has been the site of a slew of tennis coming out parties over the years on the women's side. Arantxa Sanchez and Monica Seles, both known quantities to varying degrees coming into Roland Garros those years, won their first slam crowns in this tournament. It happens again if the likes of a Wozniacki, Azarenka or some other European potential star puts everything together over the next two weeks and changes her career forever after.

And there are so many more possibilities. Not that'll they'll likely come into play. I still think it'll be either Henin or Serena standing alone in the end.

The Sports Illustrated article pondered whether Henin might be able to use something such as Serena's comments to Jelena Jankovic after their match in Rome, which referred back to the Belgian's "lying/cheating" refusal to acknowlege that she'd raised her hand to delay a Williams serve back in 2003, as fuel to inspire her toward greatness once again in Paris. Maybe, but I'd like to think that rather than use that "negative" energy she might want to focus on the love 3rd set she endured during her Madrid loss to Rezai. Rather than try to prove something to Williams or others, maybe Henin would be better served by trying to prove something to herself. Ill or not that afternoon in Spain, Henin should not be losing a 3rd set at love to a lippy player with a sometimes-big game who'd never won anything of consequence until a week ago. She should be putting such a player in her place, and a true champion should be inspired to something better by proving to herself that that result was an aberration that she will never allow to happen again.

For no matter what happens from here on out in her second career, Henin's biggest opponent will not be whomever is looking back at her on the other side of the net. It'll be the young Belgian who won seven slam singles crowns and dominated the WTA tour even while physically having to look up at everyone she faced off against. If Henin is in need of something to fight against/for, she should make it her own previous accomplishments in the sport. She'd be hard-pressed to find something else as worthy of living up to in LPT 2 than LPT 1 itself.

Serena has no such worries about pressure or proving anything. She knows what she is, and everyone else does, too. If she were to come out on top two weeks form now, her legacy will simply grow that much deeper... and set the stage for a summer of Grand Slam speculation over the next few months.

The Big Bang is waiting. History will get to entertain what comes after that.

Here's a quick breakdown of the draw, quarter-by-quarter:

(1)S.WILLIAMS QUARTER: welcome to the "Quarter of Death," as a good argument can be made that the top three favorites to win this tournament ALL reside in this single section of the draw. Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Samantha Stosur are all either the best player on the planet, the greatest Roland Garros champion of her generation or the only player to reach two finals during this spring clay season (not to mention being a RG semifinalist a year ago). And none of those players are named Maria Sharapova, either. And, yes, SHE's in here, too, along with Australian Open semifinalist Zheng Jie (with Sharapova having just won in Strasbourg, and Zheng being RU in Warsaw this weekend). Essentially, most of the theories about who's going to win this slam will be swirling about within this group of thirty-two players. On the bright side, we're probably going to get a load of great matches out of this, from Henin/Sharapova to Henin/Stosur, and S.Williams/Peer to S.Williams/Henin or S.Williams/Stosur. On the down side, only one of those "favorites" can reach the semifinals.
RANKS: 1.Henin... 2.S.Williams... 3.Stosur... 4.Zheng... 5.Peer... FLOATERS: Srebotnik & Peng

(4)JANKOVIC QUARTER: oh, hey, JJ seems to have fallen into a bit of good luck here. Most of the other players capable of stealing away this semifinal spot from her are either out-of-form, battling injuries, potential headaches, or some combination of the three. If she can attack matches with the same mindset she has been lately, she should get a shot to play for her first Roland Garros final against the survivor of the top quarter, who'll likely be tired from a series of battles (unless it's Serena, who might just be finally rounding into peak form). Not that there aren't other capable players here, but the likes of Safina (tentatively returning from her back injury), Zvonareva (her results have been flagging, and perhaps her ankle is still a problem), Hantuchova (she had a great start on the clay, but has since tailed off) and Wickmayer (elbow problems) don't come to Paris looking as if they're ready for a two-week run. Might Radwanska take advantage of an opportunity, as she so often does? How about Ivanovic, who at least managed a Round of 16 result in '09 and looked better in Rome than she has in nearly two years? Either way, this is Jankovic's quarter to win or lose.
RANKS: 1.Jankovic... 2.Zvonareva... 3.Safina... 4.Wickmayer/Hantuchova... 5.A.Radwanska... FLOATERS: Ivanovic & Suarez-Navarro

(3)WOZNIACKI QUARTER: again, this draw would be far more balanced if half the contenders in the Serena Quarter were divided amongst the other three. As it is, this quarter is one big crapshoot. The two top players are '09 champ Kuznetsova and C-Woz, but the Contessova has been a mere figment of a slam contender's imagination in '10, and the Dane has turned what was supposed to be a "minor" ankle injury into a month-long slump filled with retirements and straight set losses when she decided to take just one week off when she was injured. Early exits -- maybe even in the 1st Round -- for both wouldn't be shocking whatsoever. Wozniacki vs. #31 Dulgheru (who just defended her Warsaw title) is a 3rd Round match-up whose result might finally force Caroline to take a week off. If the "False Idols" fall, it'll be free-for-all to reach the semis. Oz semifinalist Li Na is here, but after reaching the SF in Warsaw can her body possibly hold up for three solid weeks of play without suffering some sort of breakdown? Flavia Pennetta has a SF-worthy draw, but her results have been curiously casual since her Fed Cup heroics. Fellow Italian Francesca Schiavone might have a better shot. The intriguing choice here might just be Lucie Safarova, though. She's had a great clay season, and has the goods to make a Final Four run (and with a few breaks, maybe even more)... but it's no given that she gets out of the 1st Round against Jelena Dokic, even though the Aussie just returned to action last week. Anything could happen. In that match, and this entire quarter.
RANKS: 1.(vacant)... 2.Li... 3.Kuznetsova... 4.Safarova... 5.Wozniacki/Dulgheru... FLOATERS: Vinci/Razzano & Cirstea

(2)V.WILLIAMS QUARTER: this quarter isn't as top-heavy as Serena's, but it promises to be quite intriguing. Melbourne aside, Venus has been the most consistent player all year. Elena Dementieva, now in slam #46 without a title, has played pretty dreadfully the last two months, and might face off with U.S. Open conqueror Melanie Oudin in the 2nd Round. Also in the mix here are Rome winner Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, Madrid champ Aravane Rezai and past RG semifinalist Nadia Petrova (who just got a win over Serena). Williams would be the logical pick to emerge, but she hasn't reached a SF in Paris since 2002 (and Patty Schnyder isn't a gimme opponent in the 1st Round). So, either Venus is going to end up having her best chance in nearly a decade to win her first RG title or someone is going to have a HUGE opportunity fall right into her lap... not just to reach a slam SF, but the final, too, since the Wozniacki quarter isn't likely to produce a juggernaut of an opponent in the semis with the top four tournament favorites all residing in the top half.
RANKS: 1.V.Williams... 2.Martinez-Sanchez... 3.Petrova... 4.Dementieva... 5.Rezai... FLOATERS: Oudin & Schnyder

...the '01 Girls champion enters the main draw after having double-bageled Vesna Manasieva in the final qualifying round
RISERS: Zhang Shuai/CHN, Simona Halep/ROU & Ekaterina Ivanova/RUS
SURPRISES: Misaki Doi/JPN, Sophie Ferguson/AUS & Heidi El Tabakh/CAN
VETERANS: Nuria Llagostera-Vives/ESP & Chanelle Scheepers/RSA
FRESH FACES: Ksenia Pervak/RUS, Anastasia Pivovarova/RUS & Kurumi Nara/JPN
DOWN: Sesil Karatantcheva/KAZ (1q), Marta Domachowska/POL (2q) & Bethanie Mattek-Sands/USA (3q)
WILD CARDS: Stephanie Cohen Aloro/FRA, Claire Feuerstein/FRA, Stephanie Foretz/FRA, Jarmila Groth/AUS, Mathilde Johansson/FRA, Christina McHale/USA, Kristina Mladenovic/FRA, Olivia Sanchez/FRA
OLDEST QUALIFIERS: Nuria Llagostera-Vives (30), Chanelle Scheepers (26)
YOUNGEST QUALIFIERS: Kurumi Nara (18), Simona Halep (18), Ksenia Pervak (18)

Q1: El Tabakh d. Karatantcheva 5-7/6-4/6-4
...Sesil was a quarterfinalist in 2005
Q2: Diatchenko d. Ar.Rodionova 6-0/2-6/11-9
...there'll be Williams and Bondarenko sisters in the main draw, but not two Rodionovas
Q3: Nara d. Niculescu 4-6/7-6/10-8
...the Japanese teen had to put in extra time to wrap up the final main draw spot in the final match of the final day of qualifying on Friday

2006 Julia Vakulenko, UKR
2007 Timea Bacsinszky, SUI & Ioana-Raluca Olaru, ROU
2008 Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP & Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
2009 Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ
2010 Kaia Kanepi, EST

4...Russia (1/3)
2...Canada (1/1)
2...China (1/1)
2...Germany (2/0)
2...Japan (0/2)
1...Australia (0/1)
1...Austria (1/0)
1...Belgium (1/0)
1...Czech Republic (1/0)
1...Estona (0/1)
1...Romania (0/1)
1...Slovak Republic (1/0)
1...South Africa (0/1)
1...Spain (0/1)
1...Sweden (1/0)
1...Ukraine (1/0)
1...United States (1/0)

#27 Alona Bondarenko vs. Vera Dushevina Madrid, the Russian battled Serena in the longest match of Williams' career
#2 Dinara Safina vs. Kimiko Date-Krumm least the 2009 runner-up's 2010 clay court season would mercifully end
#22 Justine Henin vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
...not likely, but a bad LPT day and a good one from the Bulgarian (they come about on an irregular basis, but have shocked a few big names when they've occurred in a slam) would produce one of the most shocking 1st Round exits in recent memory
#3 Caroline Wozniacki vs. Alla Kudryavtseva
...unfortunately, Caroline's been her own worst enemy since she rolled her ankle in Charleston
#10 Victoria Azarenka vs. Gisela Dulko
...the good news for Azarenka is that Dulko's recent singles results have been as bad (or worse) than her's have been
#6 Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Sorana Cirstea
...(see Safina above) for the '09 RG champ
#24 Lucie Safarova vs. Jelena Dokic
...the streaky Safarova could ride a wave into the second week, but she could also slip up in Dokic's first tour match in many months and go home early

1. Chanelle Scheepers, RSA... vs. wild card Johansson, then Dulko/Azarenka winner
2. Kaia Kanepi, EST... the Q-POW faces off with Pasty Pauline Parmentier in 1st Round
3. Kurumi Nara, JPN... the teenager gets vet Parra-Santonja first
4. Ekaterina Ivanova, RUS... could '09 semifinalist Cibulkova fall in her opening match?
5. Ksenia Pervak, RUS... 1st Round opponent Sharapova nearly lost early to Hordette Rodina in a slam
1. Christina McHale, USA... meets fellow American Lepchenko in the 1st Rd.
2. Mathilde Johansson, FRA... vs. qualifier Scheepers, then Azarenka/Dulko survivor
3. Jarmila Groth, AUS... vs. Chan Yung-Jan, then possibly the Safina/Date-Krumm winner
4. Olivia Sanchez, FRA... the ITF circuit star faces Shenay Perry in the 1st Round
5. Stephanie Cohen Aloro, FRA... faces Stephanie Dubois in the opener
1. Aravane Rezai... qualifier El Tabakh is up first, then maybe Kerber (who def. her in Oz 2nd Rd. in January)
2. Marion Bartoli... has early matches scheduled vs. Camerin and Perry/Sanchez winner
3. Virginie Razzano... vs. Vinci in 1st, then possibly recently-slumping Pennetta in 2nd
4. Julie Coin... meets just-back K-Bond in the opener
5. Alize Cornet... if she can get past Pavlyuchenkova, O'Brien or Craybas would be waiting in 2nd Rd.
1. Ana Ivanovic... if Rome was no mirage, QF meeting with JJ is possible in rematch of '08 SF battle for #1
2. Carla Suarez-Navarro...was a quarterfinalist in '08
3. Vera Dushevina... battled Serena for nearly three-and-a-half hours in Madrid
4. Katarina Srebotnik/Klara Zakopalova... the winning 1st Rd. vet likely gets Henin in 2nd Rd.
5. Melanie Oudin... she has a knack for producing slam magic. First up is AMG, then maybe Dementieva (yet again).

Stosur vs. Jankovic, Wozniacki vs. Martinez-Sanchez/Rezai
...the tune-up events would actually mean something. Imagine. It'll never happen,.
Sharapova vs. Ivanovic, Dokic vs. Petrova
...all-Comeback edition. Seriously, this would be a fun group.
Bartoli vs. Jankovic, Razzano vs. Rezai,
...the winner gets to scratch out the eyes of the other three
Zheng vs. Wickmayer, Li vs. Chakvetadze
...hey, they've all been slam semifinalists before, and an all-Golden Flower final would be possible.

1st Rd. - #2 V.Williams vs. Schnyder
...if Venus is having an "off" day, Schnyder could increase her frustration.
1st Rd. - Oudin vs. Medina-Garrigues
...AMG won't be making a slam QF, as usual. Oudin did it in NYC at age 17.
2nd Rd. - #22 Henin vs. Srebotnik 2008, before the Belgian's retirement and the Slovene's many injuries, they had quite the knock-down, drag-out meeting
2nd Rd. - #5 Dementieva vs. Oudin
...Oudin beat her in Flushing, but Punch-Sober has gotten revenge (a few times already, actually) in '10
2nd Rd. - #15 Rezai vs. Kerber
...Rezai talked big and loud before Melbourne, too. Then Kerber took her out in the 2nd Round in Oz. Deja vu?
3rd Rd. - #22 Henin vs. #12 Sharapova
...a marquee match-up, but it'd probably be a better one in Melbourne, London or New York.
3rd Rd. - #3 Wozniacki vs. #31 Dulgheru
...if she makes it this far, would C-Woz's big stage experience give her an advantage over the in-form Swarmette?
4th Rd. - #22 Henin vs. #7 Stosur
...Stuttgart II?
4th Rd. - #2 V.Williams vs. #15 Rezai
...Madrid II?
4th Rd. - #4 Jankovic vs. #9 Safina
...the day of reckoning?

"The Williams Duality": the idea that Serena Williams could be on her way to not only a single-season Grand Slam (the only player to pull it off in the last forty years was Steffi Graf in 1988), but possibly toward becoming the first player in professional tennis to have a Grand Slam in both singles and doubles in the same season. In essence, it'd be a "Super Slam"... well, a "Super Sister Slam," really.

1938 Don Budge - won all four singles, won Wimb/US doubles, was AO/RG doubles RU
1953 Maureen Connolly - won all four singles, won AO doubles, was RG/Wimb doubles RU
1969 Rod Laver - won all four singles, was AO/RG doubles RU
1970 Margaret Smith-Court - won all four singles, won AO/US doubles
1988 Steffi Graf - won all four singles, won Wimb doubles

#1 S.Williams d. #18 Peer
#22 Henin d. #7 Stosur
#4 Jankovic d. #16 Wickmayer
Ivanovic d. #21 Zvonareva
#11 Li d. Cirstea
#24 Safarova d. #31 Dulgheru
#20 Martinez-Sanchez d. Oudin
#2 V.Williams d. #19 Petrova

...a whole lot of big names are missing here, including Safina, Kuznetsova, Wozniacki and Dementieva. I seriously can't remember the last time I had three #20+ seeds, another double-digiter and an unseeded woman in a slam quarterfinal round. But it at least seems as reasonable possibilty. It would set up some terrific Final Eight match-ups.

#22 Henin d. #1 S.Williams
#4 Jankovic d. Ivanovic
#11 Li d. #24 Safarova
#2 V.Williams d. #20 Martinez-Sanchez, the tournament would really be flipped around if one or more of these went the other way. The whole complexion of the event could change drastically, but that's to be expected when favorites "1a" and "1b" are set to meet in the QF, I guess. Henin has lost just one match in Paris since 2003, the last woman to win both the Australian Open AND Roland Garros in the same season (which Serena is trying to do) was Jennifer Capriati in 2001, and the Belgian has a history of taking out Williams in the final eight of a slam... so I'll hold my breath, go with Justine and hope that this tournament brings out the best in her. The Big Bang, indeed.

#22 Henin d. #4 Jankovic
#11 Li d. #2 V.Williams

...JJ has never been able to find a way to defeat LPT, so it's hard to predict she'll do it now in Paris, of all places. When Williams told Jelena in Rome that she wasn't cheating and was "no Justine," I wonder if JJ's inner voice (oh, don't you wish we could tap into THAT?) noted, "Yeah, I know you're not Justine, Serena... I just beat you, after all." Venus' one sore spot this year was her loss in Melbourne to Li. Anyone for seconds? I seriously CANNOT believe I'm picking Li to reach the final. Considering my prediction history with her, I guess this means she'll get dumped out in the 1st or 2nd Round now.

#22 Henin d. #11 Li

...this very easily could have been the final in Melbourne in January, so we finally get it now. Perhaps hinting at the odd nature of this tournament, EITHER of these two would be the lowest-seeded player to win Roland Garros in the Open Era (#10 Henin in '05 is the current mark to beat). Out of loyalty, In Justine I Trust... but let it be known that there is NO result she could have in this slam that would surprise me in the slightest. Champion. Early exit. Loser to Serena. Yikes... even loser to JJ (well, that one might surprise a TINY bit). She really has something to prove over the next two weeks. To the sport, to her opponents. And, more imporantly, maybe to herself, most of all. With that note, I think she'll find a way to live up to her own expectations... barely. Henin may have come back to win Wimbledon, but it's at Roland Garros where she could once again find herself. And maybe it'll be a Justine the Champion that she'll feel better about, too.

What about the men? Well, with Rafa Nadal once again looking like his old wrecking ball self on the clay, Roland Garros is setting up to be a battle to see which player will have the "honor" of being his final opponent in two weeks' time when the Spaniard wins his fifth crown (and thirty-eighth win in thirty-nine matches Paris).

2009 champion Roger Federer hasn't exactly looked like the #1 player in the world in between slams this season, but what does that matter? He still managed to reach the final in Madrid, losing to Nadal, and obviously designs his schedule in hopes of peaking at the season's four biggest events rather than the week or two prior. He's won three of the last four slams, appeared in eight straight slam finals and reached twenty-three consecutive slam semis. Federer may not defend his title, but he'll probaby get close (even with a tough draw potentially blocking his path the final four).

It's hard to imagine anyone could legitimately pick anyone other than Nadal to win this.

#1 Federer d. #13 Monfils
#5 Soderling d. #23 Gulbis
#17 Isner d. #4 Murray
#8 Tsonga d. #21 Robredo
#9 Ferrer d. #26 Monaco
#18 Querrey d. #3 Djokovic
#7 Verdasco d. #19 Almagro
#2 Nadal d. #14 Ljubicic

...Murray has been a non-factor since Melbourne, but at least he'll be feeling a whole lot less pressure to succeed in Paris than he will in London. He might win in this round, but I'll go the other way just on principle. Soderling reached the final last year after ending Nadal's 31-match RG win streak. A rematch with Federer would be something to await with bated breath as the Swede would try to end another monumental record run.

#1 Federer d. #5 Soderling
#8 Tsonga d. #17 Isner
#18 Querrey d. #9 Ferrer
#2 Nadal d. #7 Verdasco

...if he can just get into a twenty-fourth straight slam semi, Federer will likely have a better match-up than the several potential men he could face in the QF. How many sets -- if any -- will Nadal have lost at this point in the tournament?

#1 Federer d. #8 Tsonga
#2 Nadal d. #18 Querrey

...if last year is a template for '10, NBC won't allow either of these matches to be shown live, even if Isner somehow were to improbably make it two Americans in the final four.

#2 Nadal d. #1 Federer least Federer would make this one interesting. If he doesn't make it, it could be a near white-wash.

1995 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, ESP
1996 Steffi Graf, GER
1997 Martina Hingis, SUI
1998 Martina Hingis, SUI
1999 Martina Hingis, SUI
2000 Martina Hingis, SUI
2001 Martina Hingis, SUI
2002 Jennifer Capriati, USA
2003 Serena Williams, USA
2004 Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
2005 Lindsay Davenport, USA
2006 Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2007 Justine Henin, BEL
2008 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2009 Dinara Safina, RUS
2010 Serena Williams, USA

#10 - Justine Henin-Hardenne (2005)
#9 - Iva Majoli (1997)
#7 - Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009)
#7 - Arantxa Sanchez (1989)
#1 seed: won title 17 times, but only once in last 13 years (2007: Henin)

1997 Justine Henin/BEL d. Cara Black/ZIM
1998 Nadia Petrova/RUS d. Jelena Dokic/AUS
1999 Lourdes Dominguez-Lino/ESP d. Stephanie Foretz/FRA
2000 Virginie Razzano/FRA d. Maria-Emilia Salerni/ARG
2001 Kaia Kanepi/EST d. Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
2002 Angelique Widjaja/INA d. Ashley Harkleroad/USA
2003 Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER d. Vera Dushevina/RUS
2004 Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL d. Madalina Gojnea/ROU
2005 Agnes Szavay/HUN d. Ioana-Raluca Olaru/ROU
2006 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL d. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS
2007 Alize Cornet/FRA d. Mariana Duque-Marino/COL
2008 Simona Halep/ROU d. Elena Bogdan/ROU
2009 Kristina Mladenovic/FRA d. Daria Gavrilova/RUS

[Williams/Russian/Belgian champs]
29-of-32... slam singles championships won
Three Non-Triumverate champions since 2002: Amelie Mauresmo ('06 Australian/'06 Wimbledon), Ana Ivanovic ('08 Roland Garros)

2005: Henin-Hardenne (W), Pierce (RU), Petrova, Likhovtseva
2006: Henin-Hardenne (W), Kuznetsova (RU), Vaidisova, Barbie
2007: Henin (W), Ivanovic (RU), Jankovic, Sharapova
2008: Ivanovic (W), Safina (RU), Jankovic, Kuznetsova
2009: Kuznetsova (W), Safina (RU), Cibulkova, Stosur

All for now. Day 1 awaits.


Blogger Diane said...

Call me perverse, but I just don't see the "new" Henin. First, I still don't buy the family reunification story on an emotional level (my belief is based on Justine's father's really inappropriate and narcissistic behavior after the supposed reunion took place--it was all about him, not Justine, it was high drama, and it appeared most exploitative). And I don't detect anything different about Henin's persona, either; she sounds the same to me, and she seems as mysterious as she ever did.

I know Henin has said that she needed to leave the sport to find out who she was, etc., and perhaps she did, but she also left because she had driven herself so hard both mentally and physically. Now that she has returned, that momentum is gone. I don't think it's anything more complicated than that. It just isn't easy to come back.

She could get that momentum back. Maybe in the next two weeks, for that matter, as she returns to the scene of her greatest triumphs. That wouldn't surprise me at all. Even at her "worst" Henin is a world-class athlete and tennis player.

I wonder if anyone can prevent The Big Bang??

Sun May 23, 01:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger sly said...

Something is missing from JH 2.0 that she should always have from JH 1.0, it's the 'killer instinct' that she always possessed in her first career. And this factor can only show up in her matches if she's 200% focused (as she always said ^^), but right now I think she's only capable of giving 100% afterall she already cut the wire from tennis 2 years ago. I agree she's not that focused in some of the tournaments she entered. I've read an article that Carlos told Justine in every tournament she enters she have to insert the plug into the socket and once the match ended it's time to unplug. He said she could not do it before (pertaining to her first career perhaps). And in her 1st career she had long breaks too due to injury and virus but her mind is still focused on her tennis, that's why she can't unplug. But now in this JH 2.0 she can unplug it deliberately but cannot easily put the connection rightfully. That's why the early losses that is evident in the past tournaments. She's not 100% fully fit in Stuttgart too but she won the title because she really wants it. Bottomline is for me, if Justine really wants another RG crown she'll win it... if I can see a different spark in her eyes for the first few matches my heart will be settled.

Sun May 23, 04:13:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

i do think justine tried to be more open and friendly. and that to her personality, that's probably the best she can do. she will never shout for joy or dance in the court. her tennis is ... yes as you all said, missing sparks at key moments of time. and i wonder if that's something she deliberately surpress too much of her drive, and so want to balance between 'enjoyment' and 'achievement'. my guess is that she will soon find out that she is who and what she is. i am not sure she can get enough drive from 'having fun'. throughout the season so far seems that whenever something happened with good or good enough results, she slumped immediately the next match. much to contrast that she lost the focus after much deemed satisfaction. then once she lost inexplicably or well injuries, she rebounded better to show herself and prove the world that she still has what she takes.

i do feel scary for her especially for first 2 rounds. though i hope and believe that the last 3rd love set loss had given her enough humiliation that she would come out fierce and dominating.

maybe on a personal level she has found herself, found her place in the family, community or society. but definitey have not yet anchored a self identity in her tennis since her return. almost feels like she has not made her mind to be what kind of tennis player she wants in this 2nd career. but, her game is really pretty to watch so just hope we get to see till the end. and really, RG is hers to lose with so much of her history built upon from. maybe that will get her fueled up.

just curious, i never see justine getting a nice draw. oh well.

Sun May 23, 11:32:00 AM EDT  
Blogger sly said...

Yes Jo her tennis is so pretty to watch specially when she improvise shots. I want her to win this tournament for her fans which are dying impatiently (or maybe only me) to see her best.

JH had some easy draws before (she just loses early ;p) though I think it's always a difficult draw in grand slams (sigh*).

Sun May 23, 12:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

You know, from a distance, it's probably hard to tell just how different Henin is now from before. Even if she sounds and acts in a similar fashion, just the notion that SHE thinks she's different (or at least feels less self-centereed) might be enough to play into her mind and create an "imaginary" obstacle that she has to overcome.

Plus, it's an easy excuse when things don't always go as planned on the court. :)

I don't know about the father, but she certainly does seem to be closer to her siblings than before. After all, that whole "coming together" scenario occurred when her brother was in a car accident. I'm sure the relationship with the father is still strained (boy, how many times has that line been said about female tennis stars -- about a few million?), since it seemed to be at the heart of the estrangement in the first place.

In so many ways, I preferred the "mysterious" Henin nature of those days. I'm sure it's an inappropriate comparison, but she almost had the feel of a "sniper" -- great at what she did, and finding it necessary to cut off her emotions, since they'd only makes things more difficult for her (sort of like how it can be for everyone sometimes, I guess).

Just getting back into that groove IS difficult, though. And how much of her past success was REALLY rooted in her shut-everything-out persona will always be a question. It's sort of a chicken-and-egg situation: did the persona make her a champion, or did her success create the aura of the distant, mysterious player who only knew one way to succeed?

We never got to see if Bjorn Borg could have recaptured the routine of the stoic champion before he retired so young (I mean, that comeback at about age 40 really doesn't count). So much of the Henin story now is unchartered territory.

Sun May 23, 06:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger leia said...

Just logging in to say how awesome it is that you're also a BBT fan.

Sun May 30, 02:30:00 PM EDT  

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