French Have a Word for It: Vulnerable

Times Staff Writer

Serena Williams has won four straight Grand Slam titles and is 57-4 since winning the first of those, the French Open, a year ago.

So she must be an overwhelming favorite for the 2003 French Open.

But she has lost twice in two months, most recently to an energetic Amelie Mauresmo, a strong, hard-hitting Frenchwoman who will have a home-court advantage. Plus, even Martina Navratilova noted after Mauresmo beat Williams in the semifinals of the Italian Open that “Serena doesn’t look like she’s in the best shape. She looked like she was breathing very hard. She ran out of gas.”

So Williams suddenly seems a vulnerable champion, with losses to Mauresmo and Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne giving hope to the other challengers in the women’s draw, to second-seeded Kim Clijsters and always-confident Jennifer Capriati and pure-hitting Lindsay Davenport, as the French Open arrives.


Which only proves exactly what Williams says after her occasional losses. It’s all about Serena.

“It’s up to me how I play,” Williams said after her 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Mauresmo on May 17. “I didn’t play my best. I still believe when I lose, it’s pretty much the way I played. I made too many errors. I think I didn’t get any first serves in. I think I didn’t do a lot of stuff that I could have done a little bit better.”

Not only has Williams won four straight Grand Slam tournaments, her sister, Venus, has been the finalist in those four.

But Venus seems even more vulnerable than Serena. Venus withdrew from her last tournament, in Warsaw, because of a pulled stomach muscle, the kind of injury that can linger for weeks. Venus has played so sparingly this season that her ranking dropped to No. 3 in the world, bringing back the possibility that she might have to face her sister before the final.


The luck of the draw held for the sisters, though. Serena and Venus, if they advance so far, won’t meet until the final.

Clijsters, who would play Venus in the semifinals if the draw holds, spoke after she had beaten Mauresmo in the Italian Open final and said that it was true. There is more hope on the women’s tour right now.

“For a while,” Clijsters said, “a lot of the players, because [the Williams sisters] hit the ball so hard, myself and a lot of the girls in the top 10, we were maybe intimidated. We saw that if you wanted to go higher in the rankings and if you wanted to keep getting better and try to beat them, we all had to get stronger and fitter, just to keep up with the level of tennis they brought.

“Honestly, I think Serena and Venus have really brought women’s tennis a lot higher. And now, you see Amelie beat Serena and also beat Venus two weeks ago in Warsaw and you saw Justine beat Serena as well. So it’s possible now. To beat them.”


Serena may have a chance to avenge her only two 2003 losses. If the draw holds, Serena would face Mauresmo in the quarterfinals and Henin-Hardenne in the semifinals.

There is no such favorite on the men’s side, no single man who causes all the talk, about whom there is extraordinary speculation.

Top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt, 22, of Australia, who has won twice this year, has never advanced past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and has advanced that far only once.

Hewitt also has a tough draw with defending champion Albert Costa and three-time French champion Gustavo Kuerten as well as three of the strong young Argentines -- eighth-seeded David Nalbandian, No. 18 Agustin Calleri and No. 21 Gaston Gaudio -- in his half.


Andre Agassi, 33, who became the oldest man to be ranked No. 1 earlier this year, won the Australian Open in January and announced this week that he and wife Steffi Graf are expecting their second child this fall. Agassi lost his No. 1 ranking when he was upset in the first round of the Italian Open and talk is that of all the Slams, the grueling toll taken by the red clay makes it unlikely Agassi can win his ninth career Grand Slam title here.

The other highly seeded American, No. 6 Andy Roddick, should have a jolt of confidence as he comes to Paris after winning the Raiffeisen Grand Prix on red clay in St. Poelten, Austria, on Saturday.

A strong possibility to win his first Grand Slam title is No. 3-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero. The 23-year-old Spaniard has won seven of his nine career titles on clay and played inspired tennis here a year ago where he made the final.



French Open Facts

* When: Monday-June 8.

* Where: Roland Garros in Paris.

* Last year: Men, Albert Costa beat fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, 6-1, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3, to get his first Grand Slam victory. Women, Serena Williams beat older sister Venus, 7-5, 6-3, to claim her first French Open title.


* Top-seeded players: Men, 1. Lleyton Hewitt, Australia; 2. Andre Agassi; 3. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Spain; 4. Carlos Moya, Spain; 5. Roger Federer, Switzerland; 6. Andy Roddick, 7. Guillermo Coria, Argentina; 8. David Nalbandian, Argentina. Women, 1. Serena Williams, 2. Kim Clijsters, Belgium, 3. Venus Williams, 4. Justine Henin-Hardenne, Belgium, 5. Amelie Mauresmo, France, 6. Lindsay Davenport, 7. Jennifer Capriati, 8. Chanda Rubin.