Compelling match-ups in women's draw

PARIS -- There's not much better than a sweet homecoming, and little as demoralizing as a bitter one. For France's Amélie Mauresmo, the French Open is a chance to further burnish her credentials as the world's top-ranked player and current Australian Open titleholder, and to consolidate her current favorable standing with a French public that alternately adores and chastises her.

For her part, Mauresmo and the team around her have been saying all the right things since her initial Grand Slam triumph in Melbourne, essentially stating that the once-fragile Frenchwoman has accomplished everything she set out to do in her career and that the pressure is off. It doesn't take a staggering leap of imagination, though, to divine that Team Mauresmo would be thrilled to add some French Open silverware to her burgeoning trophy case at home in Geneva. In a wide-open women's field, Mauresmo's chances will be as good as they've ever been at her home Grand Slam.

For some of the 12 U.S. women entered in the 128-player draw, the climb is steep from the outset with some tough first-round match-ups. Meghann Shaughnessy, coming off a recent clay-court title in Rabat, Morocco, opens against Mauresmo; Mashona Washington faces No. 4 Maria Sharapova; former NCAA champion Laura Granville plays No. 8 Svetlana Kuznetsova; and veteran Lisa Raymond squares off against No. 12 Martina Hingis, a two-time French Open finalist who's coming off a win in Rome, her first title since returning to tournament play in January.

No. 11 seed Venus Williams is the lone seed among the dozen American women entered (absent any American qualifiers), with sister Serena and Lindsay Davenport both absent due to injury. Venus faces an easier road in the early stages and ought to advance. If the seedings hold true, Williams faces a potential fourth-round match with Switzerland's Patty Schnyder, whom she defeated recently in Rome before falling to Hingis in a three-set semifinal. The winner of that match would then potentially face Mauresmo in the quarterfinals.

Both Davenport (bulging disc in her back) and Serena Williams (left knee injury) will be notable in their absence from the year's second major. Davenport hopes to be back by Wimbledon, where she was a finalist last year, while Williams announced earlier today that she is out of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

It would not be surprising to see Hingis, enjoying a successful comeback after nearly three years away from the game, advance deep into the tournament's second week. A run deep into the draw could perhaps resurrect her own relationship with the French crowd, who jeered her mercilessly during her loss in the 1999 final against Steffi Graf.

The Swiss has a very favorable draw, with only No. 6 Elena Dementieva and No. 2 Kim Clijsters, who doesn't enjoy playing on clay, standing in the way of a potential semifinal match-up with last year's winner, No. 5 Justine Henin-Hardenne, or No. 3 Nadia Petrova. Petrova overcame the almost-invariably resilient (with the 2006 Australian Open final pullout a notable exception) Henin-Hardenne in a three-set final in Berlin earlier this month -- a win that established her as one of the front-runners for the French title.

Other interesting first-round matches include hard-hitting Sania Mirza against 2004 French winner Anastasia Myskina; Michaella Krajicek-No. 7 Patty Schnyder; and Vera Zvonareva-No. 14 Dinara Safina (Marat Safin's sister).

The last time the top two women's seeds contested a French Open final was in 1995, when No. 2 Graf beat top-seeded Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to capture one of her six titles at Roland Garros. But with Henin-Hardenne the only former champion among the top-10 seeded women, don't expect that scenario to unfold this year. Look for the winner of a potential Petrova/Henin-Hardenne quarterfinal to emerge as this year's winner, extending Mauresmo's title drought on home soil.

Whit's Picks
Kuznetsova def. Vaidisova in 3 sets
Petrova def. Hingis in 3 sets
Petrova def. Kuznetsova in 2 sets

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.