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Serena looks to end decade-long drought

5/22/2012

Paris is a place for first-timers to shine. Three of the past four French Open champions mastered their first major in the City of Light. But this year, the top five contenders for the French Open title are all Grand Slam champions. Here's a look at them:

No. 5 Serena Williams

Strengths: An iconic champion who is one of the best big-match players of the Open era, Serena has posted a 17-0 record on clay this season -- the second-best women's clay-court streak since the turn of the century. (Justine Henin won 27 straight clay-court matches in 2005-06.) She possesses one of the most imposing serves in women's tennis history, can dictate off both serve and return and has played both deep drives and short angles effectively. She won clay-court championships in Charleston and Madrid, scoring straight-set wins over three of the other four favorites on this list in the process.

Question marks: Though she has looked fit and fresh during this clay-court season, Serena conceded a walkover in the Rome semifinals because of a lower-back injury. The slow surface can mute some of her power, which can make her prone to longer rallies and matches. Serena is 9-7 in three-setters at the French Open.

Outlook: Ten years removed from her lone French Open title in 2002, the part-time Paris resident looks pumped, primed and powerful in pursuit of a return trip to the Roland Garros final.

No. 2 Maria Sharapova

Strengths: There was a time when the mere act of moving on clay felt so unstable for Sharapova she famously compared her movement on dirt to "a cow on ice." Times have changed, and Sharapova has grown into a commanding clay-court presence. She saved a championship point to edge Li Na, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), defending her Rome title and raising her 2012 clay record to 11-1 -- her lone loss coming to Serena Williams. The three-time Grand Slam champion is one of the fiercest fighters and hardest hitters in the game and arrives in Paris on a roll: She's 22-3 in her past 25 matches, including eight wins over top 15 opponents in that span.

Question marks: Though she has worked hard to improve her movement, Sharapova is still vulnerable in running rallies against quicker players on dirt. Her flat serve can go askew under pressure, and she does not match up well with Serena, who has not lost to Sharapova in nearly eight years, winning their past seven meetings.

Outlook: Sharapova is 5-0 in career clay finals. Four of her past five titles have come on dirt. She figures to be highly motivated to win the only major title that has eluded her and complete the career Grand Slam.

No. 1 Victoria Azarenka

Strengths: The Australian Open champion carries the confidence that comes from her 35-3 start in which she won four of the eight tournaments she entered. The Belarussian baseliner can break down even elite players with the depth, pace and accuracy of her strokes. Azarenka beat
three former French Open champions -- Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic and reigning champion Li Na -- before sweeping Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-2, 6-4, to reach her sixth final in seven tournaments on Madrid's blue clay. Her two-handed backhand has become one of the best weapons in women's tennis.

Question marks: Clay is not a comfort zone. Her lone dirt title in 11 career championships came on the red clay of Marbella last April. Azarenka conceded a walkover in Rome, complaining of a right shoulder injury, which may have contributed to the 6-1, 6-3 thrashing she took from Serena in the Madrid final. In Paris, where Azarenka has yet to surpass the quarterfinals in six appearances, she will play her first major as world No. 1.

Outlook: Though the status of her shoulder is a concern, Azarenka has answered the bell in reaching six finals in eight events in 2012 and cannot be discounted on her least favorite surface.

No. 7 Li Na

Strengths: Athleticism, agility, quick feet and her ability to take the offensive against virtually any opponent with her flat groundstrokes. When she's at her best, Li can straddle the baseline and take time away from opponents by taking the ball on the rise, punctuating points with her backhand down the line. The reigning Roland Garros champion has reached at least the quarterfinals in six of eight tournaments in 2012, and she held a championship point against No. 2 Maria Sharapova before bowing in a dramatic Rome final.

Question marks: The 30-year-old can be erratic, subject to mood swings and has a habit of directing cranky outbursts at her husband and coach, Jiang Shan, who can resemble a verbal punching bag at times. When she's tight, Li can lose the shape of her forehand and flatline that shot. Roland Garros remains the lone clay-court title of her career. She is 1-5 versus top 10 opponents this season (excluding her walkover win versus Serena in Rome). Her last top-10 win came in January, and she faces the pressure of defending a major for the first time.

Outlook: During her inspired run to the 2011 title, Li defeated four top-10 players in succession -- Petra Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova and defending champion Francesca Schiavone -- so she can draw on that experience for confidence. That is if she can withstand the pressure and manage the mental game she can contend.

No. 6 Samantha Stosur

Strengths: The reigning U.S. Open champion was the Charleston runner-up to Serena and has posted a 13-4 record on clay this season, reaching quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid. Stosur's hellacious helium-high kick serve, whiplash forehand and slice backhand play well on clay, in which she can displace opponents with the height and pace of her shots and force them on the defensive. The 2006 French Open doubles champion defeated three current or former No. 1 players -- Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic -- to reach the 2010 final, before she fell to the 17th-seeded Schiavone. Stosur is one of the fittest players in the game and owns a 7-2 record in French Open three-setters.

Question marks: Stosur's lone career clay-court title came on Har-Tru in Charleston two years ago. Nerves can get the best of her under pressure and titles have been elusive. She's won only three championships in her career. Because she regularly gives up wide sections of the court to run around her backhand and fire her favored forehand, she is vulnerable to opponents who can hit deep and hard to her forehand then force her to hit her weaker backhand on the run. Stosur is a combined 4-22 versus Roland Garros contenders Serena, Azarenka and Sharapova.

Outlook: The Aussie has reached the final four in two of the past three years, and if she's hitting her spots on serve, a semifinal return is possible.