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Question: Which player is the favorite to win this year's French Open, and why?
Jane McManus: Victoria Azarenka, the winner of the Australian Open, is a favorite in every major tournament she enters these days. But that may not be the case in the French Open, where the Belarusian has never gotten out of the quarterfinals.
So clay hasn't been her surface. There are players who go their whole lives winning hard court and grass tournaments and make a fine career out of it -- Venus Williams, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, I'm looking at you. Some get just a few points away before melting down so badly their mothers have to make them return for the trophy ceremony. (Martina Hingis, cough!).
|Victoria Azarenka has never made it past the French Open quarterfinals.|
But I'm going on record saying Victoria Azarenka will be the exceptional hard-court specialist who, like Serena Williams in 2002 or Andre Agassi in 1999, finds a way to add a single French Open championship to her cache.
Azarenka has played exceptionally well since her victory in Australia, although an ankle injury has forced her to take some tournaments off. But the rest may not have been a bad thing, as in Rome, a clay-court event, she reached the finals.
She's tanned, rested and ready -- and her boyfriend, RedFoo, just wrote a song for her called "Heart of a Champion." She has the mojo.
Melissa Isaacson: The best thing to be said about Victoria Azarenka is that, unlike others who have visited the top of the rankings (see: Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic), she's still around and yes, she is the Australian Open champ.
But let us not forget Serena Williams, who was slated to meet Azarenka in the semis of the Australian in January and is now 13-2 against Azarenka after Sunday's Italian Open final, was bothered by ankle and back injuries at the time and never made it to the semis.
There is no denying Williams' weakest surface is clay, she has not won the French in 11 years and has not made it as far as the semis in eight. But the Williams of today is not the Williams of the past few years or even at the start of this year.
She has been stellar during this clay-court season and dominant, period. It is hard, at this point, to imagine her losing at Roland Garros, regardless of the opponent or surface. After a disastrous first-round loss in last year's French to the unseeded Virginie Razzano, all Williams did was rip off titles (and gold medals) at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and the Masters.
|Serena Williams has plenty to prove after a first-round exit at last year's French Open.|
And not to bash Azarenka, because she is clearly a gifted player and because she was bashed enough in Melbourne with her questionable use of the timeout rule in her semifinal match against Sloane Stephens, but on their best days and in the biggest matches, I'll go with Williams every time.
Jane: My own deep and abiding respect for Williams has been well documented, and I would love nothing more than to see Azarenka and Williams go toe-to-toe on the red clay for the title, with Mr. Foo in some crazy getup cheering in the stands. But the French Open doesn't usually get one hard-courter in the final, much less two.
Past winners include Francesca Schiavone and Anastasia Myskina, who not surprisingly failed to reach the semifinal of any other Grand Slam event much less win one. Odds are we won't get these two in the finals, but rather that a clay specialist without a brand name upends Williams and Azarenka.
Melissa: I agree with the odds against both Williams and Azarenka showing up in the finals. But particularly after Williams easily dismissed her 6-1, 6-3 Sunday to win the Italian Open, I don't see her losing to Azarenka if they do.
And consider this, as well. While Williams has not been immune to meltdowns, no one is more competitive and virtually unbeatable when she wants to be (not as certain about Azarenka). And don't think for a second Williams has forgotten that first-round embarrassment last year -- hence her ferocious roll after the French -- and will want to amend it this time around.
Jane: That was an impressive win last weekend, and sets Williams up well. But Azarenka isn't the kind of opponent that folds whenever she sees Williams on the other side of the net, and a result on one week doesn't preview next week's results. I think what remains to be seen is how the draw sets up for both women. May the best woman win!
Melissa: Spoke to Pam Shriver on Sunday, and among other things, we talked about Serena's current win streak, a career-best 23 matches, with Shriver suggesting we look at how her other streaks have ended.
Of six previous streaks of 18 matches or longer, two were snapped in grand slams (this year's Australian by Stephens, and the 2011 U.S. Open by Sam Stosur). One other was ended by Kim Clijsters in the WTA Championships.
What does that tell us? I guess, now that I have insisted a fired-up and hot Williams intent on revenge cannot lose, it's a fact that she is just as vulnerable to a letdown in a big tournament.
Still, all that said, there is this: When Serena Williams goes into a tournament playing well, healthy and with a strong motive to win, I can't bet against her.