— The French Open final could be a rematch of the Australian Open final of a few months back when Serena Williams made quick work of Dinara Safina, 6-0, 6-3. If it is these two again in a title match, don’t be surprised if the No. 1 ranked Russian evens the score against the No. 2 ranked American.
While Safina’s been very consistent, having reached five finals in eight events this year and winning two of them (Rome and Madrid), Serena has lost three consecutive matches on clay, and in Madrid she retired after losing the first set to Francesca Schiavone. Serena has suffered with thigh and knee injuries so she heads into Roland Garros without a victory on the dirt this year.
Serena’s preparation for this French Open hasn’t been fantastic, but in the past she has proven she hasn’t needed great preparation to win majors. Defying odds seems to be a favorite of hers.
The top asset of the 10-time Grand Slam champion is her ability to overpower opponents. But the clay is slower, diffusing some of her power, and allowing her opponents to stay in the points longer, so clay is her least favorite surface. On dirt, she must be more patient, and create the opening more than just seek to overpower opponents.
Before her recent struggles, she was playing at a level that likely matched the best of her career. She’s been consistent, and it seems like she is making a concerted effort to play more events. She’s showing a passion and a willingness to work through the highs and the lows.
It’s surprising to most people that Serena has not made it back to the Paris final since 2002. Last year she lost in the third round to Katarina Srebotnik. If her health holds she should exceed that showing this time around.
Serena also may be on a mission since she contends she is No. 1 in the world even though the WTA Tour rankings show otherwise. On April 20, Safina overtook Serena in the rankings, prompting the American to comment at the Italian Open that, "We all know who the real number one is. Quite frankly, I'm the best in the world."
A win last year in Berlin was the beginning of Safina’s coming-out party. In taking the tournament, her victims included Justine Henin and Serena. She followed Berlin with quite a run in Paris, as she made the final before falling to Ana Ivanovic, 6-4, 6-3.
Safina has concentrated a lot more on her fitness, and it has paid off. Her strength and conditioning has increased her confidence on the court. Safina gives a lot of credit to Zeljko Krajan, her coach, who she began working with last year. Krajan was a very emotional player like Safina is so he understands her. He understands what to say, and what to help her with. Where as in the past she was very explosive, she’s more emotionally sound now. She’s learned to harness her emotions in a positive way.
Safina will never be a quick on the court as Henin or Jelena Jankovic, but she is quicker now than in the past. She’s aggressive in her play, knowing that she needs to get ahead in the point quickly since she’s not the swiftest mover on the court. Her serve is very good, right up there with the best. She has massive groundstrokes, and pinpoint accuracy. And her shot selection has become smarter. Add all this to some big wins, and it appears everything is starting to come together for the 23-year-old.
No one is playing unbelievable tennis right now on the WTA Tour, but let’s take a look at some other top contenders in Paris.
She got to the Paris final in 2002, but since then has made it as far as the quarterfinals only twice (2004, 2006). Clay is definitely her weakest surface. The true clay-courters, the more patient players, tend to trip her up like Flavia Pennetta did last year in the third round.
On clay, Venus’s powerful serve and powerful groundstrokes get nullified a bit, and when players hang in there for long rallies, Venus seems to lose her patience a bit. That said, Venus had won seven Grand Slam titles so she knows how to play in big matches. Venus has become much stronger over the last year. She’s ranked third in the world because her results have become consistent.
In Paris, I wouldn’t say Venus’ chances are better than those of Safina and Serena, but she’s in a group right below those two top players that has a good shot at taking the title if either Safina or Serena slip up.
She has kind of come into her own the last few years, getting to the semifinals in Paris the last couple of years. She also got to the final of the U.S. Open last year, and she finished 2008 ranked No. 1. Clay is a great surface for her so her hopes are at the French fortnight despite not enjoying a stellar season so far.
Jankovic has always played to her seed and her ranking, but this year there have been some earlier-than-usual losses for her this year. For instance, in Madrid, she lost to Patty Schnyder in the quarterfinals. .
She doesn’t have that one huge shot that other players do, but she moves so well, is mentally tough, and is so very consistent. She’s a great counter puncher so she’s going to make her opponents win the match, and not hand it to them. She doesn’t give, playing every point hard, so she can’t ever be counted out.
After winning the French Open last year, she couldn’t handle the pressure of being No. 1. She couldn’t handle being the hunted, where everyone was after her. She got kind of the yips with the toss of her serve. So her play has been just up and down. She needs to get back to being stable in her performances. She has the physical talent, but mentally she must learn to handle the pressure.
She got to the semifinals of the Australian Open before losing to Safina, and she captured the title at Indian Wells. She flies under the radar, but is quite bright, and a very solid player. She can volley well and hit drop shots well, plus, she’s improved her mental game immensely.
She stays in matches much better because she is doing a good job controlling her emotions, something she struggled with earlier in her career. She’s only been to one quarterfinal at the French Open, that was in 2003, but she looks like she’s ready to get back there as within the last year all aspects of her game have solidified in a quiet way.
Others worth a close watch include Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Victoria Azarenka, and Caroline Wozniacki. And then, of course, there’s Maria Sharapova, coming back from a long layoff due to a shoulder injury. Clay is by far her worst surface so that combined with the rust in her game make her a real longshot in Paris.