French Open 2009; Safina in the Driver's Seat

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French Open 2009; Safina in the Driver's Seat
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

French Open Women's Preview

Before the clay-court season got underway in April, the only thing that was certain in woman's tennis was that nothing was certain. But after attaining the No. 1 Ranking, and devouring the rest of the woman's field on the European clay, it isn't hard to tell who's in the drivers seat as the French Open begins.

Last year's Roland Garros runner-up, Dinara Safina, would like nothing more than to put an end to the current state of chaos that has been permeating women's tennis.

While there are more than a handful of legitimate contenders for the title, when handicapping the mercurial field at Roland Garros, you have to start with Safina and work your way down the list. Anything else would be an injustice to the remarkable strides Marat's 'Lil sister has made over the course of the last year.

The 23-year-old Russian is 28-6 on the year with two WTA titles and five finals appearances for 2009. More importantly, she appears to have gained a sense of belief from her recent ascension to the top spot of the WTA rankings.

While it still remains to be seen, that confidence could be the thing that eventually sets her apart from the field at Roland Garros and enables her to claim her first Grand-Slam title of her career.

But Safina is far from being the only player with a good chance to win this thing. As has been the case on clay since the premature retirement of Justine Henin (four-time champion in five years), there is a level of parity that gives hope to everyone.

Safina, as good as she has been, and as good as she can be, is definitely always in danger of a meltdown. These days she seems to be able to squirm out of her death defying scenarios, but one slip from her and the field will be blown wide open yet again.

 

In the Mix

Serena Williams: Claiming to be the real No. 1, quite frankly, is a very different thing than playing like it. Serena has done the latter but not the former.

And with an ailing leg that forced her retirement in Madrid a return to her 2002 Championship form seems more like wishful thinking. But you never know with Serena, and when she gets hungry for blood, she can quickly get her game into overdrive:

She's had five trips to the quarter finals or beyond at Roland Garros, so she definitely isn't a clay dunce (like most American players).

Chances: Pretty good but not great.

 

Svetlana Kuznetsova:Fresh off her first title of 2009, Kuznetsova, a semifinalist in Paris last year, is likely headed for a quarter final match with Serena. Her Achilles' heel is consistency, but if she can get hot and stay hot, she'll be a real threat.

Chances: Decent but don't get your hopes up.

 

Venus Williams: At 35-12 over her French Open career, Venus is not a total underachiever on La Terre Batteau, but there is something about her game that just doesn't seem to work on clay. She's had mixed results on the dirt this spring, with a semi-inal appearance in Rome followed by an early loss to Alisa Kleybanova in Madrid.

Chances: Decent but don't bet your life savings.

 

Jelena Jankovic: She has come back from the dead of late, but her draw seems somewhat favorable. Jelly is headed for a possible fourth-round match with Great Dane Caroline Wozniacki. If she gets by that one and into the quarters, she could be on the roll that she has been yearning to be on since losing her No. 1 ranking.

As horrific as her play has been at times in '09, she is still 23-8 on the year with a title. Additionally, she has been to the semi's at Roland Garros in each of the last two years—perhaps that experience will guide her back to her comfort zone.

Chances: Very slim, but her big match experience and clay preference could really help her if she gets on a roll.

 

Elena Dementieva: Will she ever break through and just do the deal? The '04 French Open finalist is so long on potential, but sadly, as short as you can get on Grand-Slam titles.

Chances: Slimmer than a pack of yips and a cluster of nerves, but you never know.

 

Ana Ivanovic: last years champ is hoping for a return to past glory. But her confidence isn't with her, and it hasn't been for some time. You can't win the French Open without confidence, and I'm not sure if you can get confidence just from being last years champion.

Chances: She's done it before, so ruling her out completely would be a mistake.
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Dark Horses

Something tells me that a dark horse might come from out of nowhere (or at least at the bottom of the top 10) and ride a wave of emotion all the way to her first Slam. Here's a list of potential candidates, and why they deserve to be one.

Victoria Azarenka:The feisty Belarusian is hell-bent on climbing up the rankings, but her clay results this spring have not enabled her to springboard successfully off of her first Masters title in Miami.

It'll be a challenge for Azarenka, who lost in the round-of-16 last year to Kuznetsova in straight sets, but a quarter final battle with Safina might be in the cards if she finds that extra gear that 19-year-olds sometimes find in events like this.

 

Caroline Wozniacki: With a game better suited for clay, and a hunger just as mighty, Wozniacki might be a faster dark horse than Azarenka. She has never been to the quarters of a slam, but the 18-year-old has reached three finals on clay this spring.
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Darker Horses

Here is a list of some players who may not win the big prize, but definitely could play the role of spoiler for a few rounds.

Carla Suarez Navarro: If the clay court specialist can make the quarters of the Australian open, the sky has to be the limit on La Terre Batteau.

Amelie Mauresmo: Losing the expectations and dropping the pressure might give Amelie an edge that she's never had in Paris.

Sabine Lisicki: Second round match with Venus is possible. Look out, Venus.

Jie Zheng: The top-ranked Chinese can punch from the baseline.

Maria Sharapova: Three matches in six months? Is she ready for this? We'll know by the second round, where she'll likely face Nadia Petrova.

Flavia Pennetta: 9-6 career record at Roland Garros, but seems to be getting better with age.

Stay tuned, as all the bracket busting goodness gets underway Sunday May, 24.

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