Written Chris Rourke
Six days into a rain-disturbed Roland Garros and the leading ‘star’ players on the WTA are all in good-to-excellent form.
The two main contenders for the title – multiple champion and title holder Justine Henin and the 2002 champion Serena Williams – have both been impressive in their first two matches.
Henin, in particular has shown touches of brilliance,especially in her second round match against the sixteen year-old Austrian Tamira Paszek.
Henin led 5-0 in the first set before Paszek dug in her kneels, winning the next five games with solid attacking play.
Having been rocked to her heels, Henin close out the set 7-5, with some noticeable relief. After a seventy minute rain delay, Henin was far more clinical in the second, moving in for the kill and finishing in brutal fashion: two aces measured at 115 MPH and 114 MPH and an inside-out forehand winner in the penultimate (match-winning) point that ripped through the court at ATP level speed.
Henin closed out the match 7-5 6-1,looking both satisfied and happy with her performance.
Serena Williams, the whose thunderous demolition of Maria Sharapova in the final of this year’s Australian Open woke up the professional Tour with a resounding bang, has played through more mixed form, ranging from ragged to ominous in different parts of her first two matches.
However, considering her minimal preparation (reaching the 1/4 final at tier I Rome), Williams’ general form has been more impressive than would be expected for a player whose natural game is better suited to fast hardcourts and grass than to the mentally and physically demanding red clay of Roland Garros.
Serena looked somewhat ragged in the first set of her first round encounter against Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova, whose powerful defence helped edge the opening set 7-5. Having received a somewhat stern talking to from her father Richard during a rainbreak, Serena produced far more controlled – and dominating – tennis in the final two sets, finishing with a 5-7 6-1 6-1 scoreline.
Against Venezuela’s Milagros Sequera, Serena’s form was again patchy,racing through the first set 6-0 before recovering from 0-3 down in the second before eventuallyprevailing 6-0 7-6 (7-3).
Serena was less than satisfied with her own performance, commenting: “I pretty much went crazy… I honestly did not feel my game at all. Even in the first set, I felt like I was not playing well… I was struggling to get rhythm – maybe I had too many days off. But I was able to come back and I found more rhythm towards the end”.
Many people’s second favourite for the title, and number third seed, Svetlana Kuznetosva has also been in very impressive form, demonstrating greater maturity in a 6-0 6-3 first round encounter with fellow Russian Ekaterina Bychkova and a 7-6 (7-4)
second round win against the United States’ Meghann Shaughnessy.
The potential ‘dark horse’ of the tournament, the rapidly improving Serbian Jelena Jankovic has been ruthlessly efficient, running past Colombia’s Catalina Castano 6-3 6-3 and France’s Stephanie Foretz 6-2 6-2 with little difficulty.
Jankovic backs up a powerful defensive game based upon immaculate balance with solid attack from baseline, demonstrating increasing willingness to finish points off in the forecourt.
Jankovic has given Henin, the overwhelming favourite for the title, headaches in each of their five encounters, stretching Henin to three sets in every match.
In their last match, played on the slow at tier Berlin, Henin only just scraped through 3-6 6-4 6-4.
Jankovic features in Henin’s half of this year’s Roland Garros draw, and given the physically gruelling nature of most of their matches,
Jankovic retrieving seemingly impossible balls, Henin is unlikely to relish a sixth encounter at the tournament.
Finally, Maria Sharapova, seeded two despite a mixed beginning to the 2006 season, has demonstrated vastly improved movement and defence on the red clay.
Even more startling, Sharapova has even displayed relatively good feel on ‘touch’ shots, hit her to notunderstood to be her forte.
Very little is expected from Sharapova on least successful surface, especially given a right shoulder injury which has kept her sidelined away from the Tour for almost two months.
Nonetheless, her groundstrokes seemed to have ‘added weight’, especially on her weaker forehand wing, her backhand being struck with increased venom, compared to her previous visits to Roland Garros. Sharapovamay get far deeper into the draw than anyone expected ahead of this year’s tournament.
Written Chris Rourke