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Rafa hunts for French Open four-peat

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - While Rafael Nadal looks almost like a slam dunk to corral yet another French Open title, the women's side at the clay-court major is wide open with the recent retirement of the great Justine Henin.

Nadal wins just about everything in sight when it comes to clay, including the last three French Opens. The fiery Spaniard will try to become the second men's four-peat champion in the Open Era (1968) at the storied event, joining the legendary Bjorn Borg, who piled up four straight championships from 1978-81 among his six titles (in seven tries) over an eight-year period from 1974-81. The record for overall French Open titles won before the Open Era is held by France's own "Mad" Max Decugis, who piled up eight between the years of 1903 and 1914.

Rafael Nadal will look to join Bjorn Borg as the only other men's four-peat champion at Roland Garros.
The 21-year-old Nadal, who will turn 22 on June 3 during the French Open, is currently tied with Mats Wilander (legend), Ivan Lendl (legend) and Gustavo Kuerten (avid surfer) with his three French Open crowns.

Nadal has won all 21 of his career main-draw matches at Roland Garros, including victories over world No. 1 superstar Roger Federer in the last two finales. As a matter of fact, Nadal has won 108 of his last 110 matches on red clay since 2005. That's incredible, considering the amount of high-quality dirtballers on the ATP.

Note: Nadal has yet to win a Grand Slam that's not called the French Open.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion Federer needs only the French Open title to complete his career Grand Slam crown, but that scenario is not likely to happen anytime soon, considering he's a dismal 1-8 lifetime against Nadal on clay. Just this past weekend, the powerful Spaniard doused the super Swiss in the marquee finale at the Hamburg Masters, where the Swiss was the reigning champ at the time, having beaten Nadal in last year's final to snap Nadal's amazing 81-match winning streak on clay.

Roger Federer still needs the French Open to complete a coveted career Grand Slam.
The 21-year-old Nadal, who will turn 22 on June 3 during the French Open, is currently tied with Mats Wilander (legend), Ivan Lendl (legend) and Gustavo Kuerten (avid surfer) with his three French Open crowns.

Nadal has won all 21 of his career main-draw matches at Roland Garros, including victories over world No. 1 superstar Roger Federer in the last two finales. As a matter of fact, Nadal has won 108 of his last 110 matches on red clay since 2005. That's incredible, considering the amount of high-quality dirtballers on the ATP.

Note: Nadal has yet to win a Grand Slam that's not called the French Open.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion Federer needs only the French Open title to complete his career Grand Slam crown, but that scenario is not likely to happen anytime soon, considering he's a dismal 1-8 lifetime against Nadal on clay. Just this past weekend, the powerful Spaniard doused the super Swiss in the marquee finale at the Hamburg Masters, where the Swiss was the reigning champ at the time, having beaten Nadal in last year's final to snap Nadal's amazing 81-match winning streak on clay.

Federer had won 41 consecutive matches on German soil before falling to Nadal in Hamburg.

Having said all that, the reigning five-time Wimbledon and four-time U.S. Open titlist Federer can still consistently beat anyone else on clay that's not named Nadal, and will most likely make a third straight trip to the final at RG.

FYI, Federer appeared in a record 10 straight Grand Slam finals (8-2) before failing to reach one at this year's Aussie Open, where he lost to Novak Djokovic in the semis.

That brings us to the terrific Djokovic, who, like Federer, can play brilliant tennis on any surface. The high-flying Serb was this year's Aussie Open champ, last year's U.S. Open runner-up to Federer, and recently titled on red clay at the Italian Masters.

Djokovic, the only man to play in the last two major finals, reached the French Open semis a year ago and obviously has his sights set on a final appearance this season. And, he's been the best overall player on the men's tour to this point in 2008.

Outside of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, the other true contenders (I guess) on the men's side would have to be Russian star Nikolay Davydenko, Spaniard David Ferrer and Argentine David Nalbandian.

Novak Djokovic will try to reach a third straight major final.
Davydenko is no stranger to a Grand Slam semifinal, but I'm pretty sure he just doesn't have enough game to prevail at a major that features the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. The gritty Russian has appeared in two Roland Garros semis over the last three years.

The tenacious Ferrer was last year's Tennis Masters Cup runner-up to Federer and, like most Spaniards, loves to play on clay, even though his best results seem to come on hardcourts.

Meanwhile, Andy Roddick pulled out of the French this week, citing shoulder and back injuries. The former world No. 1 American's best-ever showing in Paris was a third-round appearance seven long years ago.

Trivia Time: Who has the most match wins among the men at Roland Garros in the Open Era? (Read on for the answer).

Maria Sharapova has won every Grand Slam event, with the exception of Roland Garros.
On the women's side, Henin's shocking retirement last week leaves the French without its reigning three-time women's champ and opened the door for the likes of Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova, last year's RG runner-up Ana Ivanovic, former French finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova, last week's Rome titlist Jelena Jankovic, and former Roland Garros winner Serena Williams.

There has never been a women's four-peat French Open champion since the beginning of the Open Era, although Chris Evert cranked up a record seven French Open titles from 1974-86 without actually tallying four straight. Chrissy did, however, win in four consecutive trips there, having nailed down championships in 1974 and '75 and again in 1979 and '80, while skipping the event from 1976-78. As a matter of fact, Evert reached at least the semis there in 12 straight trips, including a whopping nine finals.

The newly-appointed world No. 1 Sharapova doesn't typically play her best tennis on clay, but she's obviously a threat to win any event she enters and, like Federer, needs only the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam.

The world No. 2 Ivanovic has improved her fitness over the past couple of seasons and appeared in two of the last four Grand Slam finals, losing to Henin last year in Paris and against Sharapova at this year's Aussie Open.

Could this be Ivanovic's year in the French capital?

The 2007 U.S. Open runner-up Kuznetsova is a three-time major finalist, including a win at the 2004 U.S. Open and a runner-up finish at the 2006 French. Kuznetsova is always dangerous, but the queen of the runner-up finish seems to lack a tactical approach to her game, which (I think) prevents her from winning a lot more tourneys.

Ana Ivanovic was last year's French Open runner-up to the recently-retired Justine Henin.
The athletic Jankovic is fresh off her clay-court championship in Rome, where she is now the reigning two-time champion. The Serb can certainly punish the tennis ball and has a game suited for the dirt, but she doesn't seem to be as hungry as some of the other top women on the tour. I could be wrong...but she is definitely among the favorites.

Serena owns eight major titles, including one at the French back in 2002, and the powerful American has been one of the better players on tour this year. But, like Sharapova, you wouldn't consider clay to be her top surface.

Verdict: I expect to see Serena in the final four.

We can't forget to mention Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, who seems to like clay even less than her little sister. She is, however, 33-11 lifetime at RG and could, if healthy, make a run into the quarters. Venus lost to Serena in the '02 all-sibling French Open finale.

Also this week, Lindsay Davenport joined her fellow former world No. 1 American Roddick on the sidelines, as the 31-year-old mom announced her withdrawal from Roland Garros due to personal reasons. Davenport's best-ever showing at the French was a semifinal appearance back in 1998. The three-time major titlist has captured every Grand Slam event that's not called the French Open.

Did I forget to mention any other serious contenders in Paris? I don't think so. James Blake, Richard Gasquet and Aussie Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have no shot at RG, while maybe I could have mentioned Russians Anna Chakvetadze or two-time Grand Slam runner-up Elena Dementieva, Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova, or France's own Marion Bartoli (last year's Wimbledon runner-up) among the ladies, but decided against it. I suppose Chakvetadze could surprise, and Dementieva did play in the final there back in 2004, but I just don't see them being among the faves.

Serena Williams owns eight major titles, including the 2002 French Open.
Darkhorses on the women's side could be surging Russians Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina. Zvonareva's currently up to No. 12 in the world and leads the WTA Tour with 33 match wins in 2008, including a clay-court title in Prague earlier this month, while Safina's up to No. 14, thanks in part to a big clay- court title in Berlin two weeks ago, when she stunned Henin, Serena and Dementieva, in the final, on her way to an unlikely championship.

Also at this year's French, the aforementioned Kuerten will play in his final ATP event. The charismatic former world No. 1 "Guga" is a three-time French Open champion and won it as a non-seed (as did Wilander in 1982) back in 1997. The skinny Brazilian star, who also titled in Paris back-to-back in 2000 and 2001, has battled hip injuries for the better part of this decade and announced that Roland Garros would mark his farewell tourney.

This will also mark the final French Open for crafty Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, who will hang 'em up at the end of this season, his 20th on the ATP. The 35-year-old will compete in his 19th French Open and try to reach his first-ever quarterfinal there.

Trivia Answer: Argentine great Guillermo Vilas, with 56. Lendl is next with 53 wins, followed by 1999 French Open winner Andre Agassi, with 51.

Of course I have to pick some winners at the most grueling tennis tournament in the world, so I'll roll with Nadal (surprise) to four-peat and hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires, and Ivanovic to pick up her first major victory, and the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Where have you gone Alberto Berasategui?

The latest edition of the French Open, which opened for business for the men in 1891 and the women in 1897, will commence Sunday in the "City of Light."

FYI, the last Frenchman to win it all at Roland Garros was Yannick Noah 25 years ago, while the last French-born woman to run the table in Paris was Francoise Durr, way back in 1967.

Vive la France!

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley

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