French Open

The second Grand Slam tournament tennis season has arrived, as the French Open begins Sunday in Paris.

The French Open is the crown jewel of the clay court season, and the top players in the world have gathered to test their skills and patience on the slow, red clay of Stade Roland Garros.

Here is a look at the title contenders, sleepers and long shots in the men’s and women’s draws.

* Overall records are as of 5/20/06
** Betting odds as of 5/26/06

Men’s Draw

Contenders

Rafael Nadal – Spain

Tournament seed: #2
2006 overall record: 28-3
2006 clay court record: 17-0
French Open career record: 7-0
Best French Open finish: Winner – 2005
WagerWeb.com odds to win the title: 5/6

The 2005 French Open champion, Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, having won 53 straight matches on the surface, tying the Open-era record of Guillermo Vilas in 1977. The young Spaniard easily won the clay court events in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg, losing only six sets in the process. Nadal’s dominance on clay includes three straight victories against world #1 Roger Federer. This year’s French Open is Nadal’s to lose, and given his current hot streak on clay the smart money will be on him.

Roger Federer – Switzerland

Tournament seed: #1
2006 overall record: 38-3
2006 clay court record: 10-2
French Open career record: 14-7
Best French Open finish: Semifinals – 2005
WagerWeb.com odds to win the title: 19/10

Federer is the consensus #1 player in the world and has been dominant this year in winning four titles and compiling a 38-3 record. His only losses have been to Nadal in the finals in Dubai (hard court), Monte Carlo (clay) and Rome (clay). Federer is becoming more and more comfortable playing on clay and has started to narrow the gap between himself and Nadal. In their previous encounter, in Rome, Federer held a 4-1 lead in the fifth set before losing in a tiebreaker. If anybody in the tournament has a serious chance at dethroning defending champion Nadal, it’s Federer.

David Nalbandian – Argentina

Tournament seed: #3
2006 overall record: 24-6
2006 clay court record: 11-3
French Open career record: 11-4
Best French Open finish: Semifinals – 2005
WagerWeb.com odds to win the title: 25/1

Nalbandian is an established clay court player and sports an 11-3 record on clay this year. He won the tournament in Estoril in May without losing a set, beating Nikolai Davydenko in the finals. Nalbandian reached the semifinals in Rome, losing a third set tiebreaker to Roger Federer. Nalbandian made a run to the French Open semifinals in 2004 and has the game to make a serious run this year.

Sleepers

Tommy Robredo – Spain

Tournament seed: #7
2006 overall record: 20-13
2006 clay court record: 13-3
French Open career record: 16-5
Best French Open finish: Quarterfinals – 2003, 2005
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 75/1

Robredo started the year with a disappointing 7-8 record in the early hard court tournaments, including four first round losses and two second round losses. However, he has turned his game around on clay, winning the event in Hamburg, reaching the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo and losing in the finals in Barcelona to Nadal. If Robredo is able to continue his recent play, he could go deep into the draw in Paris.

Fernando Gonzalez – Chile

Tournament seed: #9
2006 overall record: 17-9
2006 clay court record: 13-4
French Open career record: 9-5
Best French Open finish: Quarterfinals, 2003
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 70/1

Gonzalez, a clay court specialist, has had good results in the early-season clay court tournaments, including reaching the semifinals in Vina del Mar and Monte Carlo. However, his recent form has dropped a bit, as he lost in the quarterfinals in Rome to Nadal and in the round of 16 in Hamburg. Gonzalez has proven he can win on clay, and he would be a dangerous opponent for anyone in the draw.

Gaston Gaudio – Argentina

Tournament seed: #10
2006 overall record: 15-10
2006 clay court record: 13-7
French Open career record: 18-7
Best French Open finish: Winner – 2005
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 65/1

Gaudio, the 2004 French Open champion, is a threat to win any clay court event he enters. However, his recent form on clay has not been up to par with his usual high standards. He lost in the first round in Rome, the second round in Hamburg and the round of 16 in Vina del Mar and Costa do Sauipe (Brazil). Gaudio did reach the quarterfinals in Valencia, and lost to Nadal in the semifinals in Monte Carlo. His play has been too sporadic to bet on a prolonged march through the draw.

Long shots

James Blake – USA

Tournament seed: #8
2006 overall record: 24-11
2006 clay court record: 2-3
French Open career record: 3-3
Best French Open finish: Second round, 2002, 2003, 2005

Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: (Field) 50/1
Blake has reached #8 in the world rankings and has won hard court tournaments in Sydney and Las Vegas this year. He also reached the finals in Indian Wells, where he lost to Federer. Blake has played in only three clay court tournaments this year, and his best result was reaching the third round in Hamburg. With a favorable draw and some luck, Blake could reach the second week in Paris.

Juan Carlos Ferrero – Spain

Tournament seed: #24
2006 overall record: 13-11
2006 clay court record: 10-7
French Open career record: 26-5
Best French Open finish: Winner – 2003
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 115/1

Ferrero, the 2003 French Open champion, has struggled mightily in the 2006 clay court season, posting a mediocre 10-7 record. He has multiple clay court titles to his credit, and as a past French Open champion, Ferrero should never be ruled out of the mix.

David Ferrer – Spain

Tournament seed: #15
2006 overall record: 18-13
2006 clay court record: 7-5
French Open career record: 6-3
Best French Open finish: Quarterfinals – 2005
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 70/1

Ferrer is a young, up-and-coming Spaniard who has shown he is a force to be reckoned with on clay. He reached the quarterfinals in Hamburg, losing to Robredo, and lost in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo to Federer. Like the other members of the Spanish armada, Ferrer is most comfortable on the slow clay courts, and he could be a spoiler in the main draw.

Women’s Draw

Contenders

Amelie Mauresmo – France

Tournament seed: #1
2006 overall record: 27-6
2006 clay court record: 4-2
French Open career record: 19-11
Best French Open finish: Quarterfinals – 2003, 2004
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 6.25/1

Mauresmo started 2006 with a bang by capturing the Australian Open, and she followed up with tournament wins in Paris (carpet) and Antwerp (carpet). She chose to play in only one clay court tournament leading up to the French Open, losing in the semifinals in Berlin to Justine Henin-Hardenne. For Mauresmo, the French Open is the most important tournament of the year, and the pressure of winner her country’s Grand Slam tournament has adversely impacted her play in years past. Can Mauresmo overcome the weight of the French nation resting squarely on her shoulders? With such a deep field to overcome, and with the overwhelming expectations of her fellow countrymen, I would not bet on Mauresmo winning the tournament.

Justine Henin-Hardenne – Belgium

Tournament seed: #5
2006 overall record: 27-5
2006 clay court record: 6-1
French Open career record: 21-4
Best French Open finish: Winner – 2003, 2005

Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 2.35/1
Henin-Hardenne is the defending French Open champion and comes into the 2006 tournament with an impressive 27-5 record. She has won two tournaments this year (Sydney and Dubai) and lost in the finals of the Australian Open to Mauresmo. In her only clay court tournament of the year, Henin-Hardenne lost in the semifinals to Nadia Petrova. Henin-Hardenne is a legitimate threat to repeat as champion at Roland Garros.

Kim Clijsters – Belgium

Tournament seed: #2
2006 overall record: 15-5
2006 clay court record: 6-2
French Open career record: 17-5
Best French Open finish: Finalist – 2001, 2003
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 2.15/1

Clijsters has had mixed results during this year’s clay court season, winning the tournament in Warsaw but losing in the round of 16 in Rome. When Clijsters is healthy, she can beat anyone. However, her health and durability have again come into question. During the Australian Open, when she was forced to retire from her semifinal match against Mauresmo with a torn ankle ligament. Clijsters also overcame a career-threatening wrist injury, which caused her to miss a majority of the 2004 season. The French Open, more than any other Grand Slam event, is a test of endurance, and Clijsters’ propensity for breaking down could be an issue.

Nadia Petrova – Russia

Tournament seed: #3
2006 overall record: 33-7
2006 clay court record: 15-1
French Open career record: 15-5
Best French Open finish: Finalist – Semifinals – 2003, 2005
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 6/1

Petrova has emerged as a force on the WTA Tour, winning four tournaments and compiling a 33-7 match record. She has established herself as a dominant clay court player by posting a stellar 15-1 record on the dirt. Petrova won clay court events in Amelia Island, Charleston and Berlin, where she beat Henin-Hardenne in the finals. With her clay court titles and a win over 2005 French Open champion Henin-Hardenne, Petrova is my favorite to win the tournament.

Sleepers

Maria Sharapova – Russia

Tournament seed: #4
2006 overall record: 21-4
2006 clay court record: 0-0
French Open career record: Quarterfinals – 2004, 2005
Best French Open finish: 8-3
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 14/1

Under normal circumstances, Sharapova would be listed as one of the tournament favorites. However, she has not played a match on clay this year, as she was forced to withdraw from the tournament in Rome with a right ankle bruise. Sharapova has all the shots to be a force at Roland Garros, and has proven she can win on the Grand Slam stage with her victory at Wimbledon in 2004. However, her lack of match play on clay and questions about her fitness diminish her chances of winning.

Martina Hingis – Switzerland

Tournament seed: #12
2006 overall record: 31-10
2006 clay court record: 10-2
French Open career record: 31-7
Best French Open finish: Finalist – 1997, 1999
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 9.5/1

In one of the most remarkable comeback stories of the year, Hingis has returned from a three-year absence to once again become a force in women’s tennis. With her foot and ankle problems apparently behind her, Hingis has compiled a 31-10 record, including a 10-2 mark on clay. Hingis lost in the quarterfinals in Berlin to Mauresmo, but came back to win the Italian Open in dominating fashion, dropping one set in six matches. Hingis’ victory in Rome vaulted her back into contention to win the only Grand Slam title that has eluded her.

Dinara Safina – Russia

Tournament Seed: #14
2006 overall record: 24-11
2006 clay court record: 10-3
French Open career record: 1-3
Best French Open finish: 2nd round – 2004
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 27.5/1

Safina has quickly made a name for herself on the clay court circuit, posting a 10-3 record this year. She reached the quarterfinals of the tournaments in Charleston and Berlin, and then reached the finals of the tournament in Rome, where she logged impressive victories over Clijsters, Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova before losing to Hingis in the finals. If you believe on riding a player on a hot streak, Safina might be a good bet.

Long shots

Venus Williams – USA
Tournament seed: #11
2006 overall record: 6-3
2006 clay court record: 6-2
French Open career record: 27-9
Best French Open finish: Finalist – 2002
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 16/1

Williams has played a very limited schedule in 2006 due to a right elbow injury. She returned to the tour in Warsaw and lost in the quarterfinals to Kuznetsova, and then reached the semifinals in Rome, where she lost to Hingis. Williams has the power from both sides to dominate on clay, and if she can stay healthy could make a run deep into the tournament.

Svetlana Kuznetsova – Russia

Tournament seed: #8
2006 overall record: 29-9
2006 clay court record: 13-5
French Open career record: 6-3
Best French Open finish: Fourth round – 2004, 2005
Wagerweb.com odds to win the title: 10/1

Kuznetsova has enjoyed a solid clay court season, reaching the quarterfinals in Charleston and Berlin, the semifinals in Amelia Island and Rome, and losing in the finals in Berlin to Clijsters. She has shown the ability to beat the top-tier players in big tournaments, but also has suffered some bad defeats to lower-ranked players. If she can produce the same kind of tennis that propelled her to the 2004 US Open title, a run deep into the tournament is possible.