While the king of clay has emphatically reaffirmed his dominance over the competition on this surface, the queen of clay hasn’t quite followed suit.  As a result, the WTA field at the French Open promises to be vastly more unpredictable and possibly more engaging than its ATP counterpart.  We apply the same matrix of contenders, pretenders, and dark horses that we used in the men’s preview:  contenders are tournament favorites, pretenders are potential underperformers, and dark horses are potential overachievers although not potential champions.  For the women’s draw, however, we don’t focus quite so exclusively on recent results when selecting our contenders.  (In other words, we’re not envisaging a Rezai-Martinez Sanchez final two weeks from Saturday, as much as the champion-starved French media would relish such an outcome.)

Contenders (in order of most likely to win):

1)  Henin:  Even if she hadn’t succeeded at all in the preliminary events, Henin would remain the favorite because she has won more French Opens than everyone else in the draw combined as well as 21 consecutive matches in Paris.  Beyond those staggering statistics, she secured the first title of her comeback in Stuttgart with yet another win over Jankovic and a telling three-set victory in the final against Stosur, during which she lost her game midway through the match but found it again when she needed it.   Her first-round loss to Rezai in Madrid looked somewhat better when the Frenchwoman knocked off Jankovic and considerably better when she stunned Venus to win the title.  Nevertheless, some doubts rightly persist concerning both Henin’s health and her ability to adapt her ultra-aggressive style, designed for Wimbledon, to the clay that she long has owned.  Declining to enter Rome, she lacks preparation on any surface similar to Roland Garros, for Stuttgart’s indoor clay played much like a hard court, while Madrid’s altitude exerts its own unique influence on the tennis displayed there.  The first few matches will be crucial for Henin, who will confront a higher-ranked player in the third round; if she survives the early stages and settles into a rhythm, beware.

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2)  Jankovic:  Mats Wilander famously said that analysts shouldn’t dub anyone a Slam favorite until they have won one of them.  On this occasion, however, we feel compelled to break the Golden Rule of Goteborg after the Serb’s inspiring performance at Rome, where she scored the rare double play over Venus and Serena on consecutive days.  Although she didn’t capture a single title on the surface, she lost to the eventual champion in all three of her red-clay events and came within a few points of her first career victory over Henin in 10 attempts.  Halting a protracted slump with the Indian Wells title in March, Jankovic has displayed more focus and urgency than we have seen from her since the 2008 US Open; now 25, she may be sensing the looming expiration date on her window of opportunity.  Could JJ bounce the Belgian from Roland Garros?  Probably not, but don’t be surprised if she capitalizes on an upset-littered draw.  A two-time semifinalist at the French Open, the Serb has many positive memories with which to boost her confidence.

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3)  Serena:  Distinctly the best player of her era (sorry Venus!), the younger Williams sister must be included among the favorites at any Slam that she enters, whether it be played on hard court, grass, clay, or the moon.  Like her fellow #1 Federer, she’s a completely different player at the events that matter the most, so we’re not worried about her three-set loss to Petrova in Madrid, a tournament that she openly disdains.  A week earlier, she unexpectedly charged to the Rome semifinals without having played a match since the Australian Open; there, she very nearly overcame Jankovic, much more comfortable on the surface.  Admitting that nerves hampered her during that match, Serena does seem to experience uncharacteristic anxiety when playing on clay, where she must hit one or two extra shots.  Over the last several year, she hasn’t been able to maintain her consistency over the course of the French fortnight, but she sounds more motivated and determined this year than she has during recent clay seasons.  A motivated and determined Serena = a dangerous Serena.

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4)  Stosur:  Reportedly suffering from a cold in Madrid, she has been positively scorching since Indian Wells and has unveiled a surprising affinity for clay despite her big-serving style.  After she swept to the Charleston title past a depleted field, the former doubles specialist capitalized upon that success by reaching the Stuttgart final.  Confronting the best clay player of her generation, she rallied impressively from losing the first set to force a decider before fading at that stage.  Despite the Madrid illness, Stosur defused Rome champion Martinez Sanchez as well as the Argentine Gisela Dulko, who has accumulated a reputation for scoring upsets at key events.  At the root of the Australian’s late-career surge lies her semifinal appearance at Roland Garros last year, when she ambushed Dementieva in the first week and severely tested eventual champion Kuznetsova.  Uncommon among the mercurial WTA elite, her businesslike attitude may not entertain spectators as do the antics of an Azarenka, but she’ll profit from this composure during the moments of adversity that inevitably arise on the fickle clay.

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5)  Venus:  Yes, she did defeat Stosur rather comfortably in Madrid and leads their specific head-to-head, but a few other factors led us to list the elder Williams behind the Australian.  Impressive on paper, her title in Acapulco and finals appearance in Madrid came at the expense of no significant names beyond Stosur and questionably Zvonareva, while her loss to Jankovic in Rome was Ugly with a capital U.  The aging Venus has become increasingly enigmatic, alternating brilliant spells with ghastly stretches; from one day to the next, we don’t know whether we’ll see the Venus who defused Stosur and dominated Peer, or the Venus who looked helpless against Rezai.  A French Open finalist in 2002, she has reached the quarterfinals there just twice since that year.  On the other hand, she sufficiently controlled her game to quell counterpunchers like Peer and the crafty Schiavone, and the clay doesn’t blunt her serve as much as one would expect.  In fact, Venus set the record for WTA serving speed not at Wimbledon but at Roland Garros in a 2007 third-round loss to Jankovic.  As in Henin’s case, the first few rounds will be critical for the grande dame of the women’s game, who could be formidable if granted the time to find her groove.

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Pretenders (in order of ranking):

1)  Wozniacki:  The Dane’s role model must be Jankovic, from the tenacious defense to the lack of an offensive weapon to the flashy smile to a schedule as clogged as Djokovic’s nose.  Wozniacki is certainly young enough to develop into a more accomplished player than the Serb, and she possesses a far sturdier mentality, so it’s unfortunate to see her follow the same path.  Struggling to recover from the ankle injury sustained in Charleston, she never should have entered the Warsaw event this week.  Although her highly consistent style should serve her well on the clay, she has scored only intermittent successes on the surface and will be in no physical condition to win seven matches in Paris, where her participation briefly was doubtful.  Wozniacki surely will enjoy at least one Slam triumph someday, but she won’t be able to realize her full potential until the ankle heals.

2)  Dementieva:  The window of opportunity may be closing for Jankovic, but we sense that it has closed permanently for the Russian, who will head into history as the most talented player of her generation never to win a Slam.  A second-round loser at three of the last four Slams, she endured an excruciating semifinal loss to Serena at Wimbledon last year and has failed to recapture that form since then.  Recent omens are far from encouraging either, including her first loss to Ivanovic in five career meetings and a Madrid loss to Dulgheru during which she managed to mishandle a double-break lead in the third set; the frustration continued with an epic loss to Pironkova in her Warsaw opener.  Although the 2004 French Open finalist possesses the fluid movement and baseline resilience that typically thrive on clay, this patience-draining surface mercilessly exposes her notoriously fragile psyche.

3)  Kuznetsova:  Having won exactly one match in three clay tournaments this season, the defending champion stands at an intriguing crossroads in her career.  A return from Spain to Russia together with a coaching change infused the Russian with positive momentum about a year ago, but that aura has long since evaporated.  In 2010, she’s found ways to lose to players like Dominika Cibulkova (Sydney), Regina Kulikova (Dubai), and Carla Suarez Navarro (Indian Wells).  Hampered by a shoulder injury in Miami, Kuznetsova struggled mentally rather than physically in her clay defeats, donating unforced errors with senselessly low-percentage shotmaking instead of intelligently constructing points.  Depending on her draw, Sveta might not survive the first week.

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4)  Safina:  Kuznetsova’s partner in crime during the woeful 2009 final, Safina hilariously squawked “why am I such a chicken?” late in that comedy of errors.  Dinara has demonstrated that she’s no chicken at all by bravely battling through a major back injury since the Australian Open; hats off to her for overcoming that adversity.  It would be unreasonable to expect more than two or three wins from the recuperating Russian during the fortnight, since she has justifiably struggled to rediscover her form thus far.  Look for her to rebound on the summer hard courts, where she’ll be playing under less pressure with few points to defend.  Safina isn’t the superstar that she seemed from mid-2008 to mid-2009, but neither is she the laughingstock that she has seemed since then.

5)  Azarenka:  A year ago, the brash Belorussian inspired parallels with Sharapova that she remains far from justifying.  In fact, she reminds us much less of Maria than of Djokovic, who likewise failed to consolidate a stunning breakthrough (defeating Federer at the 2008 Australian Open in his case, defeating Serena at 2009 Miami in her case).  Recently sliding outside the top 10, Azarenka’s ranking aptly reflects her regression since last summer, interrupted only by an appearance in the Dubai final.  During the last several months, Vika has acquired the two deadly habits of squandering immense leads and of falling just short in tightly contested encounters.  Far too easily exasperated, she had all but beaten Safina in last year’s French Open quarterfinals before allowing her temper to unravel her game after a few untimely miscues.  Further inhibiting her progress is a leg injury that she refuses to rest, much like her best friend and rival Wozniacki.  Azarenka has retired from three of her last five tournaments, so don’t be surprised if she limps out of Paris by the middle weekend.

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Dark horses (in no particular order):

1) Rezai:  That slurping sound in the background is the salivating French media, preparing to descend upon its nation’s latest superstar.  Can Rezai follow up the breakthrough that she achieved in Madrid, defeating three of our five Paris contenders, under the most intense pressure that she’ll ever face?  Her ferocious ball-striking would seem to align better with fast surfaces, and don’t forget that offensive-oriented players prosper more in Madrid’s altitude than at Roland Garros.  On the other hand, the Frenchwoman’s pugnacious personality might prove as suited to the impending challenge as was Soderling’s similar brashness here last year.  One of two outcomes seems probable:  1) she’ll soar deep into the second week and send her compatriots into delirium, à la Dokic in the 2009 Australian Open; 2) she’ll fall flat on her attractive face in the first or second round, amid a chorus of boos from the Chatrier sans-culottes.  Either way, there will be something dramatic to anticipate. 

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2) Martinez Sanchez:  Arguably even more surprising than Rezai’s emergence was the accomplishment of this Spanish lefty, long familiar in doubles but unremarkable in singles until a few weeks ago.  Unlike the Madrid champion, the Rome champion possesses a game novel in its nuance that will trouble many less experienced players through its sheer unpredictability.  After the Rome title, MJMS acquitted herself reasonably well during a tight two-set loss to Stosur in Madrid, suggesting that her Italian renaissance might not evaporate as some had supposed.  When both her serve and her drop shot are clicking, she not only mentally infuriates her opponents but physically exhausts them  by forcing them to cover the court both horizontally and vertically.  Consequently, it’s easy to see how she unnerved Azarenka in Indian Wells and wove a delicate web around two weary Serbs in Rome.  This Spanish lefty earned Serena’s ire a year ago with a dubious piece of gamesmanship, so we’re curious to see if the draw situates them in the same neighborhood again. 

3) Safarova:  Her career trajectory often seems to parallel the equally volatile path traced by her boyfriend, Berdych.  This pattern prevailed again when a stellar performance by Tomas on the North American hard courts immediately preceded Lucie’s triumphs on the European clay, where she plowed her way to the quarterfinals or better in Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid by conquering styles as diverse as Wozniacki and Sharapova–both far from peak physical condition, admittedly, but still excellent competitors.  Safarova defeated elite players resoundingly (Pennetta), routinely (Wozniacki, Sharapova), and suspensefully (Radwanska, Petrova) over the last several weeks.  Often considered a mental midget, she indicated otherwise with a 5-1 three-set record during these events, although she paid a price for three consecutive three-setters in Madrid by retiring in the semis.  A well-rested Safarova could wreak some havoc at Roland Garros, where she held a match point against Venus last year.

4) Peer:  Long dormant after an impressive 2007, the Israeli star awakened early this year with a Dubai semifinal appearance that seemed to galvanize her back into her former self.  A semifinalist in Stuttgart, she toppled the promising Polona Hercog, the crafty Radwanska, and Safina before understandably falling to Henin.  Two weeks later, Peer inflicted yet more misery upon Kuznetsova by bageling last year’s French Open champion in the third set; she proceeded to navigate the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in addition to the fearless Li Na.  Falling to Venus comfortably in Rome and overwhelmingly in Madrid, the Israeli will hope to avoid powerful servers such as the Williams sisters, whose combination of physical power and mental resilience leaves her with few options.  Nevertheless, Peer will thrive against emotionally fragile or erratic opponents, rendering her a potential Paris upset artist.

5) Ivanovic:  Was her completely unexpected surge to the Rome semifinals the light at the end of the tunnel?  One of Serbia’s most valuable exports, Ivanovic never faded from the radar of international audiences even as her performance plunged spectacularly after her 2008 French Open title.  Despite brutally demoralizing experiences on court and manifold money-making opportunities off court, however, Ana courageously persevered through adversity rather than accepting a Kournikova-like fate as a vapid celebrity.  The WTA certainly greeted the first glimmers of its glamor girl’s revival with relief, for a gallery of her accomplishments swiftly surfaced on its website.  To be sure, Azarenka visibly struggled with a leg injury during their match in Rome, while Dementieva displayed a level far from her best, and Petrova contributed a trademark meltdown.  But top-10 wins remain top-10 wins regardless of the context, especially the Dementieva victory in which Ana snapped an 0-4 career record against the Russian.  Despite her painful struggles last year, she still managed to reach the second week at her favorite Slam.  The task will be more challenging this year as an unseeded player, but it’s not implausible to imagine Ivanovic repeating that result should she secure a moderately unimposing draw.

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 We do think that Ana needs to work a bit on her fistpump if she plans to intimidate more than a pain au chocolat.  Compare her version with this model (no pun intended):

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Now there’s a woman who means what she shrieks.

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