Written by Tony Profumo
There are currently two major story lines in tennis, and both could take dramatic turns at this year’s French Open. In men’s tennis, the remarkable rivalry between the world’s number one player, Roger Federer, and world number two, Rafael Nadal, has simply knocked everything else off the front pages. On the women’s side, the most compelling tale has been the unexpected comeback of Martina Hingis and her almost meteoric climb up the rankings list.
It would seem hard to fathom that any player with a 37-3 record this year would have anyone to worry about. However, the problem for Swiss megastar Roger Federer is that all three loses came to the same man, Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal. Only a few days shy of his 20th birthday, Nadal is the defending champion and right now the undisputed king of clay, having dispatched Federer in the finals at both Monte Carlo and Rome. The battles have been epic. Their nearly five-and-a-half-hour final in Rome was a clay court classic. The match so exhausted both players that both withdrew from Hamburg, leaving the talented Tommy Robredo in charge. It also left Federer with no clay court titles this year going into Roland Garros. Moreover, whether he admits it or not, it leaves him in the unfamiliar position of being the underdog in the fight for the only slam title he does not yet own. He keeps saying he’s getting closer to Nadal, and the fact that Rome was settled in Nadal’s favor by only two points, would seem to back that up. However, “close” counts only in horseshoes, not tennis. The big question is: can Roger Federer, the man many are touting as the best tennis player who ever lived, get by Nadal and claim that vital French title?
Are there any other men who could challenge Nadal or Federer at Roland Garros ? Not likely. The hot Spaniard, Robredo, the talented, big hitting Chilean, Fernando Gonzalez, and the 2004 winner Gaston Gaudio of Argentina, all have a shot at the title, but only if both Federer and Nadal stumble, something that no intelligent punter would lay down a wager on. American hopes? News that Andy Roddick has injured his left foot has probably driven the final nail in that coffin. Roddick was a long shot to begin with, and a hobbled Roddick probably has no shot at a tournament as taxing as Roland Garros. James Blake’s best surface is hard court, not clay, and despite his great foot speed, he is unlikely to kick up too much dust in Paris. For now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, “An American in Paris” will be the title of a Gershwin tune, not a tennis headline.
What about the women? Defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne remains the favorite, despite the fact that she has won no clay court tournaments this year, having been knocked out of the Family Circle Cup by Patty Schnyder and of Berlin by Nadia Petrova. Still, many consider her the best clay courter among the women. The big question is: what is her health like?
Petrova, the Russian who was flying under the radar, has now climbed to number three in the world and also has three clay court titles under her belt this year. She has never been to a slam final, though, and so she remains an unknown in terms of performance on the really big tennis stages.
Kim Clijsters has a clay court title too, in Warsaw, but seems strangely unenthusiastic about her own chances at Roland Garros. She has announced her engagement, has insisted she is quitting the sport next year, and may already be showing signs that her mind is now elsewhere.
That leaves Amelie Mauresmo, the current world’s number one and the top seed. She would seem to deserve the ranking, having captured the Australian Open title this year. So why are so many people still skeptical about her chances of taking home the French Open title too? Mauresmo has consistently had trouble playing before the hometown crowd in Paris. Throw in the fact that recent illness forced her to pull out of Rome, and her conditioning may be as questionable as her mental toughness when facing downthe toughest opponents of all in tennis, the French fans.
Which, of course, brings us around to THE story in women’s tennis in 2006?
With the Williams sisters seemingly more interested in the Hollywood party circuit than the tennis circuit, and with so many other players, including Lindsay Davenport, constantly struggling with injuries, the women’s game had fallen into the doldrums by the end of 2005. So, who rode to the rescue? Why, of course, the best horsewoman in tennis, Martina Hingis. After a three-year break from the game, during which she indulged her love of show jumping horses, Hingis’ ankles and feet and mind had healed enough for her to try a comeback, and what a comeback it became. From the moment last fall that word leaked out she might return, Hingis has been the hottest item in the sport. Fans were delighted, but critics were weary. Ok, she might beat the lesser players, but she’d be no match for the power girls. But one by one, she recorded victories over them, starting with the “it girl” of tennis, Maria Sharapova, and later including Lindsay Davenport, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva. It all came together last Sunday in Rome. There Hingis bested arch rival Venus Williams in the semi-final, dropping the first set at love, but handling the next two sets so smartly that they looked routine. The final against hot 20 year old Dinara Safina was almost a foregone conclusion. Hingis rolled through the first set, had a hiccup toward the end of the second, but overcame her nerves and fought off four break points to serve out the match.
That tournament victory was highly significant, because Hingis comes into Roland Garros match tough and now brimming with self-confidence, and if she can keep it up, she also comes in playing a different brand of clay court tennis, an aggressive brand, which keeps her planted right on the baseline when rallies get started, but moves her toward the net as often as possible. That’s a place her opponents do not want to see Martina Hingis. She also has one of the best transition games in the sport. Hingis is better from no-man’s land than any other player in tennis, with the exception of her fellow Swiss Roger Federer. While by no means the favorite, Hingis is now the leading dark-horse candidate to capture the French title. Can she actually do it? I wouldn’t bet against her.
But, it won’t be easy. Hingis does NOT fly under the radar. Once booed off the court at Roland Garros, Martina has become the fan favorite at every stop on the WTA tour she has visited so far. Aside from Sharapova, she has become the glamour girl of the sport, but a glamour girl actually admired more for her tennis skills than any other trait. Commentators, who once blasted her, now refer to the “genius of Martina Hingis.” Friendly commentators tag her “the magician.” All that positive attention means that Hingis now has little time for herself, with both the press and the WTA tour intent on exploiting her celebrity status. Dark horses usually benefit from the lack of attention they get. Hingis finds herself in the rare position of being a dark horse many people are expecting to win. It would so help along the story line if she did.
At any rate, the fate of two Swiss players, one fighting to prove he really is the best in history, and the other the comeback kid who has already tasted greatness, but now wants a second helping, are the story lines going into the 2006 French Open.
Written by Tony Profumo