Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The second Grand Slam event of 2005 will get underway next week when the French Open swings into action in Paris.
Argentine Gaston Gaudio and Russian Anastasia Myskina return as your defending champions, but I expect a different pair to claim the world's most-prestigious clay-court titles in a couple of weeks.
The men's draw will be loaded with dirtballers, including favorites like Gaudio, Rafael Nadal and Guillermo Coria, but Roger Federer will also be on hand, and, quite frankly, he's the favorite in every tournament he enters, no matter what the surface. Grass and hardcourts may be his preferred coverings, but the sublime Swiss can perform on any surface, as evidenced by his second straight clay-court Hamburg Masters title last week.
The 23-year-old Federer already owns two Wimbledon titles (2003-04), one U.S. Open crown (2004) and an Aussie Open championship (2003). He needs Roland Garros to complete his career Slam trophy case, and obviously has a very good shot at that, coming up.
The world No. 1 and ATP Race-leading superstar is an awesome 41-2 with a tour-leading six titles this season, including the big Masters Series shield in Hamburg. He's 9-1 on the dirt this year, with his only loss coming against promising French teenager Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals of the Monte-Carlo Masters.
The "Fed" will try to become the sixth man to corral the career Slam, joining Don Budge, Rod Laver, Fred Perry, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi.
Federer needs the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam.
Federer may be No. 1 in the world right now, but the surging Nadal looks like a serious challenger to his throne.
The 18-year-old Spanish lefthander is a brilliant 41-6 this season, including a whopping five clay-court championships. Two of his '05 titles are of the Masters Series variety, as the hard-hitting star prevailed in Monte-Carlo and Rome, beating the 2004 French Open runner-up Coria in both finales. As a matter of fact, "Rafa" needed five sets and more than five hours to get past Coria at the Italian Masters.
Nadal's a sizzling 31-2 on clay this year and will ride a 17-match winning streak, all on clay, into Paris. But keep in mind that the Thomas Muster-like Spaniard will be appearing in his first-ever French Open.
FYI, Nadal pushed Federer to five sets in the prestigious Nasdaq-100 Open hardcourt final in Miami in early April.
Coria looked like the favorite a year ago in Paris, but the speedy star lost to Gaudio in a five-set all-Argentine final at RG, leaving him stunned following a brilliant run heading into the championship round.
The shotmaker Coria jumped out to a two-sets-to-love lead against Gaudio, but wound up with leg cramps and ultimately lost 8-6 in a deciding fifth set.
Coria has yet to title on any surface this season, but seems to be on the rise and I expect him to go deep into the second week in Paris.
Gaudio was the shock winner a year ago, but another victory this year would not come as such a shock, since he's clearly one of the top-five clay-courters in the world right now. He's 25-5 on the dirt this season, already owns a trio of clay-court titles for the year and will be ready for the big show at RG.
Big Russian Marat Safin captured the Aussie Open back in January, but he's struggled ever since and I wouldn't expect a bright showing from him in "The City of Light." He's basically reeled off one poor performance after another since his coronation in Melbourne.
Juan Carlos Ferrero is only two years removed from his anticipated French Open title, but the "Mosquito" has yet to relocate his once-brilliant form after being plagued by injuries and chickenpox last season. Ferrero also reached the French final in 2002, but was stunned by veteran countryman Albert Costa.
Do the legendary Agassi, Andy Roddick or Lleyton Hewitt have a chance at RG?
Of course not!
The 35-year-old Agassi owns a career Golden Slam (when you throw in his Olympic gold medal from 1996), but his lone French title came six long years ago. He's still an accomplished performer on clay, but I wouldn't expect him to log his first title of 2005 at Roland Garros.
Roddick, last year's Wimbledon runner-up to Federer, loathes the red clay, even though he has shown signs of progress on it. That said, he probably won't reach the second week in Paris.
The U.S. and Aussie Open runner-up Hewitt has battled injuries in recent weeks, most notably a foot one that required minor surgery, and he hasn't played on clay at all this year. Don't be surprised if he pulls out of the draw this week, as he recently suffered a rib injury at his home in Sydney.
Darkhorses include such players as David Nalbandian, David Ferrer, Nikolay Davydenko and the aforementioned Gasquet, who gave way to Federer in the Hamburg final last week.
No, I didn't forget to mention former champ Carlos Moya or former three-time winner Gustavo Kuerten. There, I mentioned them.
On the women's side, it looks like 2003 winner Justine Henin-Hardenne is playing the best tennis of anyone heading into the fortnight. The diminutive star has won her last three events, all on clay, and, like Nadal, will take a 17-match winning streak with her to Paris. She's a flawless 17-0 on the dirt this season.
Henin-Hardenne is seeking her second French Open title in three years.
JH-H is a scalding 20-1 this year since returning from a knee injury, with her only setback coming at the hands of Wimbledon titlist Maria Sharapova in Miami in her first tournament of the season.
Henin-Hardenne's 2004 campaign was interrupted by a viral infection, but she still managed to corral Aussie Open and Olympic titles. The only tourney keeping her from the career Golden Slam right now is Wimby, which is coming up in about a month.
Heavy French favorite Amelie Mauresmo heads into Roland Garros on the heels of her big Italian Masters title in Rome last week. She has a history of not playing all that well in her home Slam, but she did reach the quarterfinals in Paris the last two years. Will '05 finally be her breakthrough trip?
The other half of Belgium's dynamic duo, Kim Clijsters, and American superstar Serena Williams should also figure into the equation in Paris, as Clijsters has played remarkable tennis this year since returning from a career-threatening left wrist injury, while Serena is a threat to run the table any time she enters a draw. Clijsters is a two-time French Open runner-up, while Serena captured the extravaganza in 2002 for one of her seven career Grand Slam titles. She beat Lindsay Davenport in January's all-American final in Melbourne.
Myskina topped Elena Dementieva in last year's historic all-Russian Roland Garros final, but don't expect a repeat of that title match this year. Dementieva could surprise and perhaps sneak into the final again, but Myskina's game is just flat off heading into Paris.
FYI, Dementieva was the only woman to reach two Grand Slam finals in 2004. After losing to Myskina at RG, she also gave way to fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the U.S. Open championship match.
The aforementioned Sharapova is improving on clay, but I don't think she can win seven straight matches on the stuff. The high-flying Russian missed out on chance to secure the world No. 1 ranking the last two weeks, probably because she was competing on the dirt. The high-profile teen prefers hardcourts and grass, which could explain her current reign as the Wimbledon (grass) and WTA Championships (hardcourt) queen.
Do Davenport, Kuznetsova or Venus Williams have a shot in Paris. No, yes, and no. Davenport hates playing on clay, while the Venus of now is just not the Venus of old. Venus, who couldn't win in Paris when she was in her prime, lost to her younger sibling Serena in the '02 final.
Kuznetsova could make some noise at RG, but I think she's a bit of a darkhorse on the dirt.
One of the heavy crowd favorites in Paris will be French (kind of) teen Tatiana Golovin, but she just doesn't have enough game right now to prevail in a major. The "French" Golovin actually hails from Moscow.
Well...it's that time again.
So I'll pick Federer to reign in the men's draw and Henin-Hardenne to nail down her second French Open title in three years among the ladies. I'd love to pick Nadal, but it's just too hard to pick against the amazing Fed, despite the fact that the French doesn't seem like a priority to him, like his beloved Wimbledon.