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French Open

Familiar foes ready to renew rivalries

Defending champ and No. 1 seed Roger Federer could meet his clay-court nemesis, second-seeded Rafael Nadal, in the final. Defending champ and No. 1 seed Roger Federer could meet his clay-court nemesis, second-seeded Rafael Nadal, in the final. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)
By Howard Fendrich
Associated Press / May 22, 2010

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PARIS — Welcome back, Justine. Your first French Open since 2007 could be quite a challenge.

Thanks to yesterday’s draw, four-time champion Justine Henin’s return to Roland Garros might include a third-round match against Maria Sharapova and a rivalry-renewing quarterfinal against Serena Williams.

“It’s a strange feeling, but it’s very good’’ to be back at the French Open, Henin said. “I mean, when we were driving last night to Paris, and then this morning to the site with my tennis bag, it’s just great . . . A lot of great memories are coming back, and a lot of emotions.’’

The bracket also sets up Henin or the No. 1-seeded Williams, who won the 2002 French Open, to face No. 4 Jelena Jankovic in the semifinals. Williams’s older sister, No. 2 Venus, could meet No. 5 Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals and defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semifinals.

The tournament begins tomorrow, and both Williams sisters will start off against Swiss opponents in the first round: Venus takes on Patty Schnyder, a former top-10 player and two-time French Open quarterfinalist now ranked 61st; Serena plays Stefanie Voegele, who is ranked 76th and has a career record of 2-4 at Grand Slam tournaments. Voegele never has faced the younger Williams; Schnyder is 0-10 against the older one.

The most intriguing first-round matchup is in the men’s field, where No. 4 Andy Murray will take on Richard Gasquet, a Frenchman who once reached the Wimbledon semifinals and used to be ranked in the top 10 but was suspended for part of last season after testing positive for cocaine.

“He’s definitely one of the best players that’s not seeded,’’ Murray said. “I’m going to have to play very well to beat him.’’

Defending champion and top-seeded Roger Federer plays 71st-ranked Peter Luczak of Australia in the first round, while four-time champion Rafael Nadal was drawn to begin against 18-year-old Gianni Mina of France, ranked only 653d. Mina got into the field thanks to a wild card from the French federation.

Nadal will be a heavy favorite in the Mina match, of course, and is considered the man to beat for the championship.

Nadal is the only man to beat Federer at Roland Garros during the past five years. The Spaniard has won the French Open four times, and each journey to the title required a victory against Federer — in the 2005 semifinals, and the 2006-08 finals.

Nadal’s 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros ended with a fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling last year.

Nadal leads the head-to-head series against Federer, 14-7. His edge is 10-2 on clay, including a win over Federer in the final of last week’s Madrid Masters.

Still, Federer insisted he has “no complex whatsoever’’ about facing Nadal, who hasn’t lost a match on clay this season.

Soderling could be Federer’s quarterfinal foe this year, in what would be a rematch of the 2009 final. The other possible men’s quarterfinals are Nadal vs. No. 7 Fernando Verdasco; No. 3 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 6 Andy Roddick; and Murray vs. No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

The 22d-seeded Henin won the French Open in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007, but she retired while ranked No. 1 shortly before the 2008 tournament. She returned to the tour this season and quickly made an impact, reaching the Australian Open final.

Henin lost at that stage to Serena Williams, who leads their head-to-head series, 8-6. But during Henin’s last full season, 2007, they met at three consecutive Grand Slam tournaments — the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open — each time in the quarterfinals, and the Belgian won each of those matches.

Famously, after a straight-set loss to Henin at Roland Garros that year, Williams sniffed: “All she had to do was show up.’’

That’s nothing compared to what happened when they played each other in the 2003 French Open semifinals, though, with Henin snapping Williams’s 33-match Grand Slam winning streak. There was a flap over whether Henin tried to call time out, then lied about it to the chair umpire; Williams fired up the crowd by arguing line calls, was jeered off the court, then teared up at her postmatch news conference.