Sunday, May 23, 2004
Healthy players will find openings
By Pam Shriver Special to ESPN.com
It's the first major in a long time that the Williams Sisters have been in the same half of draw because first, they're healthy and in the draw, and second, they're no longer ranked so as to be seeded No. 1 and No. 2 in the draw, which ensures opposite halves.
With the exception of Lindsay Davenport, your main American threats in Paris are all in the bottom half of the draw. The draw is fairly balanced as long as defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne is healthy and able to give a good defense.
The big theme of the past 11 months in women's tennis has been injuries and this balanced draw depends on everyone being healthy enough to last through to the meat of the draw. Henin-Hardenne hasn't played since Amelia Island. Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo struggles under the pressure of a home Slam. Jennifer Capriati and Venus and Serena Williams have shown glimpses of playing pretty good tennis, on the clay even, but it's not their favorite surface.
Just behind those top names are a group of Russian seeds, who are spread throughout the draw. Only Serena doesn't have a tough Russian in her section.
Davenport comes into this tournament after having as a good a clay-court season as she's ever had, so she's got more confidence coming into the French Open, the only major she's never won. She probably prefers being in the top half with Mauresmo as her potential quarterfinal opponent. Davenport has her own Russian to contend with -- Elena Dementiva -- but favor Davenport in that matchup.
Other Russians in the top half to watch out for include Nadia Petrova, who was a semifinalist last year and has to defend those points, while Maria Sharapova, at only 17, can force an awkward match.
Henin-Hardenne, recovering from a glandular illness faces a fun first-round against Sandrine Testud, making a comeback after having a baby. Henin-Hardenne should win if healthy, but Testud can be tough.
Even though Capriati lost 7-6 (6) in the third set to Mauresmo in the Rome final, Capriati finally was able to beat Serena in the semifinals after a series of tough losses to Serena. That had to be really important for Capriati's morale. It would have been even better if she'd won the tournament, but still her success there was just vital for Capriati to get back in the mix. Without that good week, we probably wouldn't even be talking about her.
At the Family Circle Cup, Venus started to show some positive signs in her comeback, too. Then she sprained her ankle. It's still a shade of a doubt with both Williams Sisters' health, but a shade of a doubt and in the draw is better than injured and out of the draw.
Looking for some fun in the draw? Try Martina Navratilova who earned a wild card to play singles. Drawing a qualifier sounds good, but it'll be somebody who is already match tough on the clay and Navratilova hasn't won a singles match so far in this farewell tour.
Other players could also help bring the draw to life are Svetlana Kuznetsova and Mary Pierce.
Kuznetsova has taken a jump in confidence this year. She was able to beat Henin-Hardenne even though it was on a hard court. Kuznetsova reached the quarterfinals here last year after defeating Sharapova in the round of 16. Because she's had some success, someone like Kuznetsova could be a relative outsider to make it through to the final four.
Pierce has had so many lives she's like a cat. Her conditioning can go up and down, but she's won the title before and gets inspired at majors. After having no results for 12 months, she suddenly reached the quarterfinals here in 2002. She could play Venus in the third round, and she shouldn't mind that result.
Two players who played the most dramatic match in the first week last year were Daniela Hantuchova and Ashley Harkleroad. Both have shown enough ability the past couple of years that you would have thought they'd be seeded, instead they are both shadows of their former selves. In the case of Hantuchova, literally.
ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver won 21 singles and 112 doubles crowns, including 22 Grand Slam titles.