Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Monday 23 May: As it happened

Aravane Rezai
9.30 pm: And there we go. "As it happens" becomes "As it happens" with Michael Berrer defeating Milos "star of the last four months" Raonic in four. And what a day we've had. Who would have thought that an unheralded Frenchman would win his first five-setter, first Roland Garros match and first success over anyone ranked above no.18 in the world by coming from two sets down against Tomas Berdych - last year's semi-finalist?

Tomorrow we have Rafa, Maria, Ana, Na Li, Andy and Robin so let's make a date to meet back here in about 13 hours' time. OK? Til then...

9.13 pm: One down, one to go. Marcel Granollers defeats qualifier Alex Bogomolov in four. Raonic and Berrer are locked at 3-3 in the fourth.
8.44 pm: So, what have we got left? Marcel "clay-courter" Granollers leads two sets to one over Alex "ex-husband of Ashley "Playboy" Harkleroad" Bogomolov while Milos "rocket" Raonic, who burst through the Aus Open qualifiers this year and went deep at Melbourne despite being ranked in the 150s at the time, is serving at a set apiece but 2-5 down to Michael Berrer.

8.31 pm: Heather Watson is through - 7-6, 6-1! British success! She'll have her work cut out against Kaia Kanepi next up mind, but that was a great performance from the Guernsey teenager.

8.21 pm: Caroline Wozniacki is through against Kimiko Date-Krumm in two games over the minimum. She'll now face (drum roll...) Aleksandra Wozniak! It's the Woz derby! Canadian Woz defeated Junri Namigata, 1 and 1. Sania Mirza also made it through to round 2, defeating Kristina Barrois 3 and 3.

8.07 pm: Poor Benny Paire couldn't quite outlast slick Vic. Victor Hanescu defeats wildcard Benoit Paire in four and will face the Djoker on Wednesday. Elsewhere Marcos Baghdatis, the Frenchiest of all Cypriots who trained just down the road for many a year, is two sets and a break up on Gil of 'Gal (Portu- of that ilk).

8.01 pm: Heather Watson saves set-points, takes it to a breaker and then steals it with a moonball followed by one that kisses the line. Bravo Miz Watson.

7.48 pm: Caro Woz bagels Kimiko Date-Krumm in the opener of a match moved to Centre Court, as befits a no.1 seed. However the match isn't really Chatriesque - more unforced errors than crisp winners. On no.5 meanwhile we have a battle royal - unheralded Frenchie Benoit Paire is locked in a fourth-set tie-break, fighting for his life against Victor Hanescu. More tie-breakage on no.6 between Stefanie Foretz and Heather Watson. Elsewhere Kaia Kanepi has defeated Sofia Arvidsson 7-5, 6-1 in the battle of the northern lights. The Estonian no.16 seed (who was ranked 100 spots lower this time last year and went through the qualies all the way to the Wimbledon quarters before losing to my little Pet Kvit) will face the winner of Stef - Heather.


7.15 pm: Gasquet wins in straight and increasingly comfortable sets. Ritchie is on form at the moment, and I wouldn't like to be either Bogomolov or Granollers, currently at 2-2 in the third but with the prospect of taking on the no.13 seed on Wednesday.


7 pm: Maria Kirilenko defeats Coco Vanderweghe, racing away with the second set after all the brouhaha in the first-set breaker which saw Coco ping a racquet off the dirt,



6.39 pm: Marion Bartoli is through in three sets! Well battled, Maid Marion. Next up she'll play qualifier Olga Govortsova, who defeated Agnes Szavay in three.



6.24 pm: Much clucking from Coq au Vinderweghe as she is called for a double hit, which gives Maria Kirilenko the first set in a tie-break. Ooh, and Marion is now a break up in the decider.



6.21 pm: Ritchie takes the first set, Marion the second. Allez les Bleus and no mistake.



5.58 pm: News from, or rather for the Great White North. Aleks Wozniak has breadsticked her way to the first set against Junri Namigata, but Frank "the dancer" Dancevic is two sets to one and 3-0 down to Simone "bello" Bolelli.



5.49 pm: Marion breaks back! 3-2 to Bartwoman. Another Frenchie, this one by marriage, Iryna Bremond (as opposed to Severine Beltrame who is no longer Madame Bremond...) is 4-0 up on Evgeniya Rodina. And Coco Vanderweghe is serving for the set against Maria Kirilenko in what would be a turn-up for the books. MaKiri is no.25 seed. And Coco Van is quite a dish ("As it happens", where the jokes never stop...)



5.35 pm: Ritchie and Steps is tight, 3-2 on service. Barto/Tatashvi-Li isn't. A set and a break up, the Georgian is. Marion is her usual bundle of bounces, trots, shadow swings etc but doesn't look to be moving around very well. Someone who is moving well is my little Pet Kvit - moving into the second round! Petra Kvitova defeats Greta Arn 6-2, 6-1 and the no.9 seed will face Zheng Jie, who defeated another Czech, Sandra Zahlavova 6-4, 6-3 earlier today.



5.12 pm: Ritchie Gasquet is getting under way against Radek Stepanek. The Frenchman has never bested Mr Nicole Vaidisova, though they have only met twice and never on clay. Ritchie beat Rog at Rome (for those of you needing practice pronouncing your Rs) 10 days ago en route to the semis, where that man Rafa beat him.
Elsewhere my little Pet Kvit took the opener 6-2, but ooh, take a look on Chatrier! After Aravane's demise, maybe her compatriot (and rival) Mademoiselle Bartoli will be following. Maid Marion is 4-1 down and being deuced up on service by unheralded Georgian and WTA no.106 Anna Tatishvili. Mazzer hurt her thigh in Strasbourg a few days ago and may be feeling the ill-effects thereof.



4.52 pm: Monfils is through, in four sets after bagelling the final set. He struggled early on - no doubt due to his lack of match practice after missing Madrid due to an allergic reaction to some cheese (I kid you not) and Rome through illness - but soon got into his stride.




4.46 pm: Monfils is on cruise control now, cruising and controlling, 4-0 up. Llodra isn't though - his opponent Steve Darcis has gone a diabolical 666, losing the opener 7-6 but taking the next two 6-3, 6-3. Mika is signed up to play mixed dubs with his erstwhile coach, the lovely Amelie Mauresmo - perhaps this will finally be the year that Ame wins Roland Garros...




4.36 pm: Here she is, my tip for the title, my little Pet Kvit. I say little, she's grown since last year and looks taller than me now so must have topped the six-foot mark. The no.9 seed is playing Greta Arn, who beat Sveta Kuz in Rome two weeks ago but is 37 places below her in the world. Kvitova, who trains at the same club as Mr and Mrs TBerd, is in the top 10 for the first time and is 6-0 on clay this year having won the WTA Premier in Madrid (and pulling out of Rome). She's 2-0 up already.




4.29 pm: 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) - that's how Roger Federer cruises into the second round, finishing Feliciano Lopez off with an ace. Smooth operator. He'll face unheralded Frenchie Maxime Teixeira in the second. A more heralded Frenchie however is Gael Monfils who has taken the third set 7-5 from boom boom Phau. If he wins, he'll play a local derby on Wednesday against rising star Guillaume Rufin.




4.14 pm: With a huge service, and after 3 hours 23 minutes, Stephane Robert defeats Tomas Berdych in five sets! He'll face Fabio Fognini in the second round after the greatest win of his career. He best win to date was over Ferrer when he was no.18. And he'd never won a five-setter! And never won a match at Roland. Wow.




4.12 pm: Mexican wave on court no.2 as Robert breaks! He has never beaten a top 10 player and never won a five-setter. And he's four points away!




3.56 pm: Robert saves a match point and takes it to 5-all. The crowd are going wild! He's permanently going to have to serve to stay in the match though from hereon in (unless he breaks of course!) Elsewehere Sabine Lisicki 6-0d the first set against the giant Uzbek Akgul Amanmuradova but it's 5-4 with service in the second. Fed meanwhile continues to stroll along the path to the second round. Feli crumbled for just one service game in the second and that was enough, so Rog now leads 6-3, 6-4, 2-3, under the watchful eye of Ms Vavrinec as was, Mrs Mirka Federer as is.




3.44 pm: Allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire may well be about to arriver ! Gael Monfils has - as I predicted, nyerr nyerr, upped his game and taken the second set against boom boom Phau, while Stephane Robert has just broken back, broken back in the fifth. It's Musketeer time out there - all for one, and one 4-all.




3.35 pm: Around the grounds - Juan Martin del Potro defeated Ivo Karlovic in four loooong sets and will face Blaz "ouster of Ernie Gulbis" Kavcic on Wednesday. Clay-court bandeet par excellence Igor Andreev defeated Florent Serra in three, to set up another French lesson in the second round, this time with JW Tsonga. Mikhail Youzhny needed the minimum three sets to take out Go Soeda (great name) of Japan and the no.12 seed will face Mikhail Kukushkin who defeated Germany's Dany Brany, sorry Daniel Brands. No.15 seed and breaker of French Davis Cup hearts Victor Troicki 4, 4 and 3d Julian Reister in a top-half-of-the draw match, while there were also wins for Alejandro (took Roger to five sets at Wimbledon last year) Falla .




3.15 pm: Fed sneaks a break midway through the first and serves out to make it 6-3. Robert meanwhile was obviously reading my blog and has taken umbrage. He's also taken sets three and four off Tomas Safarova. TBerd leads 2-1 in the fifth but blimey, what a match this is! Less good news for the French contingent elsewhere with Steve Darcis 5-3ing Mika Llodra and Bjorn "Boom Boom" Phau (one for the Black Eyed Peas fans there) taking the opener 6-4 over Monfils. I'm not worried about LaMonf though - he always comes here short of match practice then crescendoes as the tournament progresses.




2.53 pm: Around the grounds. Vesna Dolonts defeats Anne Keothavong in three tight'uns after Annie K had treatment at 4-5 in the decider. Vesna will face Schiavone next up. Vera Zvonareva beat Lourdes Domingues Lino for the loss of just six games and the no.3 seed will face the winner of the Lisicki - Amanmuradova match which has just got under way. Edina Gallovits defeated Angelique Kerber in three and will face an Aussie in the second round after Anastasia Rodionova ousted no.26 seed Nadia Petrova 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-4. And finally no.30 seed Roberta Vinci defeated fellow Italian Alberta Brianti by the symmetrical scoreline of 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. That's you all up to date.





2.48 pm: Some cracking tennis from Federer and Lopez already, Feli saving some early break points by out-slicing and out-dropping the Rogmeister. And Czech this out - Stephane Robert took the third and is a break up in the fourth over Tomas Berdych!




2.22 pm: Roger Federer - Feliciano Lopez. Out on Centre Court. Bring it on. Let's get ready to clicheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee... Ah, but poor old Tommy is out on his Haas. Marcel Ilhan defeats Tommy Haas in four. The lucky loser will face Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Guillermo Garcia Lopez) on Wednesday.2.14 pm: Sara Errani takes out Christa McHale 9-7 in the third, having been 5-0 down! Wow! She faces Dani Hani on Wednesday in the second round.And Stephane Robert is shoving my words down my throat by leading TBerd 3-1 in the third! What do I know? (Don't answer that!)




2.05 pm: Novak Djokovic demolishes Thiemo de Bakker 6-2, 6-1, 6-3. Whoosh. Less than two hours. I've been asked below in the comments why I think Rafa will have the edge on the Djoker over a five-set, seven-match tournament. Well if he can win all his matches in under two hours, I'm going to eat my words! I just think that Rafa has more five-set pedigree (but as is pointed out below by Tatjana, we all thought Rafa would beat him on clay and look what happened in Madrid and Rome? Djoker in straight sets. I'm sticking with Rafa for the moment but I'll happily bow to Tatjana when Nole wins the final 7-5, 6-3, 7-5).




2.02 pm: Wow. After coming back from 2-5 down in the first set, 18-year-old US of American Christa McHale (who battled her way through the qualifiers in Rome) went 5-0 up in the decider, then lost the next six to Italy's Sara Errani (whose eyes are as blue as Vera Dushevina's) before holding to stay alive. Sara's just broken to make it 8-7 however and will serve for the match, but there may be a twist or turn (maybe even both) afore the match is out.




1.45 pm: Dolonts (Manasieva as was) outlasts Keothavong (GB no.1 as was) in a second-set tie-break then breaks to open the decider. Ooh, then Annie K, in an orangey-clay-y-coloured dress, breaks right back at ya. DelPo meanwhile sneaks in the second break of the match in game 11 of the third set and takes the tertiary stanza (i.e. third set) to lead two sets to one. That's one hell of a match-up for the first round, that is. And TBerd is cruising, 6-3, 6-3 over French qualifier Stephane Robert. Steph's won one Grand Slam match in his life, at the 2010 AO. He's never beaten a top 10 player or won a five-setter. So he's unlikely to come roaring back here...




1.05 pm: Vera Zvonareva is 3-1 up on Lourdes Dominguez Lino. She's not much of a clay-courter is Bepa (Vera looks like BEPA when you write it in Cyrillic) but she has made the final of two Slams in her career (Wimbledon and the US last year, hence her ranking). She'll be interesting to watch this week (and hopefully she'll be able to keep her legendarily fluctuating emotions in check).




1.02 pm: Djoker takes the opener 6-2. Cruising. Dolents has broken so may take Anne Keothavong to a decider, and Marcel Ilhan has broken to lead 4-2 in the third set after Tommy Haas-ndsome won the second. Tomas Berdych - a semi-finalist here last year - is also just starting his match, more on him later.




12.54 pm: JMdP takes the second set 6-3 over Dr Ivo - a break of serve and a set in less than an hour, whoda thunk?! Nole meanwhile is cruising, 4-2 over De Bakker. It'll be interesting to see how Nole copes with five-setters (he's obviously played them before but 30 of his 37-0 start to the year were best-of-three. My money's still on Nadal for the tournament since it's best of five, and Nole might tie if someone takes him to four or five in any of the rounds leading up to the final. I also have Ferrer making the semis and not Federer...
Meanwhile Daniela Hantuchova has defeated Zhang Shuai 6-3, 6-3. The no.28 seed will face 2010 Rome champion, lefty serve-and-volleyer Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez next up.




12.33 pm: Centre Court now has Novak "37-0" Djokovic versus Thiemo "same hotel as me here in Paris" de Bakker. This is their first meeting. TdB is 3-8 on clay this year - a year ago he was a real up-and-coming star but he seems to be stuck around no.70 in the world.
And ooh, Aravane is out. Bye bye Rezai. Irina Begu defeats Aravane Rezai 6-3, 6-3. The last game was painful to watch - Irina too nervous to serve, Aravane to nervous to return. We had a moonball rally (like the Gumball Rally, only with more air) and then Aravane sent a backhand about halfway down the net. Poor girl - she's mentally shot. Begu meanwhile will face 2009 winer Sveta Kuznetsova.




12.21 pm: Second winner of the day - qualifier Nuria Llagostera Vives defeats lucky loser Anastasia Pivovarova 6-3, 6-0. More loser than lucky, was Nastya. Nuria faces Alize Cornet next up.




12.12 pm: First winner of the day - Francesca Schiavone routs Melanie Oudin 6-2, 6-0. The reigning champion will face the winner of Keothavong - Dolonts, with Anne having taken the opener 6-3. Apart from the game to take the first set where Franny suddenly lost her radar, she was on imperious form today. Gone in 60 minutes. What also took an hour was the first set between John Martin of the Pot and Dr Ivo, and the marginally taller of the two (Karlovic) took the breaker 9-7. Settle in there fans, that one's going the distance. These two are in Djokovic's bracket as well and the winner could face Nole in the third round.




11.49 am: Anne and Vera do the two-step. Keothavong leads 2-0, Dolonts (formerly Manasieva) breaks back to2-2, Anne breaks again to make it 4-2. I saw Anne's brother this morning while I was out jogging - James is an umpire, and I must have jogged past the umps' hotel as two minutes later, I saw the lovely Eva Asderaki. All I needed was a Kader or a Mo and I'd have had a full house.
Back on court, we have Begu breaking again to take the opener 6-3 and Tommy Hilfiger, sorry Haas, breaking back and serving at 3-5 (so Ilhan will still have a chance to serve for the set, but good to see recently-married Tommy getting back into his stride).




11.40 am: 6-2 Schiavone in the blink of an eye. The only game she struggled with was the eighth one, which went via thre deuces and four missed set points, and up until then she was looking very good out there. Will she kiss the clay again today like she started doing towards the end of her run last year? Probably a tad early for that. And it was almost another 6-2, this one's for Begu after she broke Aravane again, but Ms Rezai broke back straight away. Allez Aravane !
Another struggling big name is Tommy Haas, back after injuring but still struggling for fitness and 1-5 down to Marcel Ilhan, a perpetual fringe-top-100, always has to qualify type of player. Poor Tommy, who's now a US citizen, dontcha know?
The battle of the big-hitters on no.1 is going with service at the moment, 3-4, Del Potro serving, "Doctor" Ivo Karlovic returning. More on that one later.




11.15 am: Schiavone breaks to open! World no.5 versus no.88 here. They've met twice on clay and share a win apiece, both in Fed Cup action. It'll be interesting to see how Franny does this year at Roland Garros - whether she can handle the weight of expectation as defending champion. She wasn't strong in Rome 10 days ago when the pressure of the centre court crowd got to her - she lost to Sam Stosur (whom she beat in the final here last year) in straight sets.
Someone else broken to open is Aravane Rezai, who is 2-0 down to Romania's Irina Begu. These two have never met before. Aravane was no.15 in the world seven months ago but has been through real turmoil with some family issues since then and various changes of coach, and she's down to no.41. I'd love her to have a good showing here - she won the Premier tournament in Madrid 12 months ago on clay after all.




11 am: Good morning one and all, and welcome to day two of the 2011 French Open! We eased ourself into the tournament yesterday but today it's all systems go. Schiavone, Djokovic, Federer and Del Potro - how's that for starters? My fingers are going to be melting by the end of the day! So to keep me company, get writing in down there in the comments section and let me know if you think there will be any upsets today. How about Lopez to beat Federer? Boom, right at ya, just like that. I don't think it'll happen but you never know... I'm looking forward to seeing Petra Kvitova later on on no.2 court - she could go all the way (you heard it here first).

Wozniacki leads top seed stroll on Day 2

Caroline Wozniacki
Just last week Caroline Wozniacki earned her first title on red clay in Brussels. This evening her devastating form continued on Court Philippe Chatrier as she swatted aside Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-0, 6-2 with exactly one hour on the clock. The Dane, who has picked off four tour titles this year, has only faced 40 year-old Krumm once in her career. That was at Wimbledon in 2009 where she won the three set tussle. Today's encounter was a different story. Wozniacki may have been sporting heavy strapping to her left leg but it did little to hinder her movement. Meanwhile, Date-Krumm struggled with the 20-year-old's pace of shot and played a game riddled with unforced errors - she notched up 28 compared to Wozniaki's nine. Other seeds that moved comfortably through the draw included no.9 Petra Kvitova who secured a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Hungarian Greta Arn, while no.12 Agnieszka Radwanska earned a second round spot with a swift 6-1, 6-2 victory over Patricia Mary-Achleitner. Nadia Petrova became the highest seed to exit the women's event today when she bowed out to Aussie Anastasia Rodionova. Despite clinching the first set on a tie-break, the Russian was unable to sustain her form and lost 7-6 (5), 3-6, 4-6 in a match that spanned a staggering two hours and 21 minutes. The only other seed to fall at the first hurdle was no.31 Klara Zakopalova who lost to Yung-Jan Chan 5-7, 1-6.
Elsewhere, 6-3, 6-3 appeared to be the most popular scoreline of the day with five matches finishing this way including France's Aravane Rezai's. Her Roland Garros hopes were cruelly dashed on Suzanne Lenglen Court by Irina-Camelia Begu. "I'm really disappointed to have lost," Rezai said. "I would have liked to win this match but to me it's a great victory to be on the court and to fight the way I fought today and to stay positive from A-Z and throughout my practice as well."
Russian third seed Vera Zvonareva then followed suit by stepping out on the same court, where she defeated Spain's Lourdes Dominguez Lino with an identical score. India's Sania Mirza enjoyed a 6-3, 6-3 win over Kristina Barrois, as did Jill Craybas who defeated Grecian Eleni Dandilidou and Daniela Hantuchova, no.28, who overcame China's Shuai Zhang. However, Hantuchova wasn't overly impressed with her performance. "I know I could have played much better," she said. "At the same time, I just did what I needed to do today. It was a good test for me . I'm feeling very good, especially in practice, and also last week I was playing some good tennis. Hopefully my form can just go higher."

Match of the day: Rafael Nadal (ESP) (1) v John Isner (USA

Match of the Day: 23 May 2011
As he sets out to equal Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles, Rafael Nadal cursed his luck when Ana Ivanovic picked out John Isner's name at the draw. The trickiest of first round opponents, Isner may have no great pedigree on clay but his mighty serve and booming groundstrokes can trouble the best, on any surface, at any time.

Beatable Nadal?
Nadal has lost some of his aura on clay in recent weeks. Previously virtually unbeatable on the red dirt, the man with a 38-1 record in Paris has suffered successive straight-sets defeats to Novak Djokovic, first in the final at Madrid and then at the same stage in Rome. Those losses speak volumes, mostly of Djokovic's sensational progress in recent months, but also of Nadal's inability to overpower an adversary on clay, something he has been doing ruthlessly and relentlessly throughout his career.

The Majorcan's invulnerability on the surface has been built around his incredible energy and speed, backed up by the wicked top spin he puts on the ball, particularly on the forehand side. Opponents usually find themselves on the back foot, leaning back as the ball kicks up at them. They are often pushed back behind the baseline too, and in the case of right-handers, regularly end up retrieving the ball above chest height on their backhand.

When an opponent does get on the front foot and dominate a rally, Nadal's brilliant defensive skills, allied with huge reserves of energy often mean he chases balls down and turns the point around. That Djokovic, by stepping into the court, taking the ball early and taking more risks with his forehand managed to stop Nadal from dictating proceedings will give hope to others, starting with his first round opponent here.

Historic Isner
Isner is assured a place in tennis history come what may. Famous for his marathon three-day victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year in 11 hours five minutes of play, Isner finally prevailed 70-68 in the fifth set, serving 113 aces in all.

That world record number of aces is the revealing stat from that freak encounter. Isner stands 6'9" in his socks and booms down massive serves from all angles at a height that makes him incredibly difficult to break. Clay's decelerating qualities would normally take the edge off his opening salvo, but less so this year. The new Babolat balls are bouncing higher off the Paris red earth, which has been baked harder than ever before in the drought-like conditions this year. Isner's favourite weapon should serve him well again here.

The American's game is not all about his service either. His forehand is crunching and his ability to get around the court despite his considerable frame remarkable. His fitness, as shown in that match with Mahut, has improved considerably and he is a cool customer too, not likely to crumble should he get his nose in front. Whether he can return well enough to carve out break points against Nadal remains to be seen, but an exciting match is definitely in prospect.

Del Potro, Djokovic move toward showdown

High ball? No problem!
Novak Djokovic began Roland Garros the way he ended Rome, playing near perfect tennis and routing Thiemo De Bakker 6-2 6-1 6-3 in the first round.

Djokovic scored his 38th straight win since the start of the 2011 and is just one win form playing another Grand Slam winner after Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro took out Ivo Karlovic 6-7(7), 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

The world no.2 would surely be favored in that match, but Del Potro, who reached the semis in Paris two years ago, has the weapons to hurt him on a great day. The question is, if the Serb continues to play at the level that has seen him take down five times Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal in four finals this year, including twice on clay courts, will Del Potro be able to stand in and fight off a man who is kissing the corners seemingly at will?

"It was a great first match for me at Roland Garros," said the now 24-year-old Djokovic. "I was serving, really, really serving and being very aggressive. Pressure is always there, over the years you learn how to deal with it. I know there is a lot of expectation because of the streak I have but I'm really happy the way I'm handling things right now on and off the court."

Del Potro was also impressive, not losing his composure after he lost the first set tiebreaker to the 6'10" Karlovic. He began to return with more authority, served and moved well for a man who is 6'6" himself and largely dominated play from the backcourt.

Del Potro, who made a last minute decision to fly to Roland Garros after sustaining a hip injury in Madrid, was pleased with his performance.

"It was really tough match," he said. "It's difficult to play against Karlovic, because you don't have many chance to break his serve, but I made a good match. I was focused in the beginning to the final, and I got through it. I had to be patient. I had to wait for the right moment. When it came, I managed to go for it."

Del Potro is seen more of a dark horse pick than a flat out favorite as only Nadal and Djokovic have consistently gone deep at the big events this year, but for the first time this year, he's thinking that maybe his level is good enough to be called one of the favorites. Del Potro has been tempering the expectations for his results as he spent most of 2010 out with a wrist injury.

"It's good to be part of a small group of favorites," he said. "Yet I am very much aware of my present condition. I need to take a rest. I need to recover from a physical standpoint. This is the most important."

Most of the other seeds got through on the day, but France's Stephane Robert shocked no.6 and 2010 semifinalist Tomas Berdych 3-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 9-7, while Belgium's Steve Darcis upended no.22 Michael Llodra 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-3 6-3.

France's Richard Gasquet played well in dispatching Czech veteran Radek Stepanek 7-5 6-3 6-0, and seeds Gael Monfils, Nikolay Davydenko, Janko Tipsarevic, Thomaz Bellucci, Mikhail Youzhny and Viktor Troicki also got through.

While three young American women all went down, US veteran and tenth seed Mardy Fish pounded his way past Ricardo Mello 6-2, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4. Fish has never had much success at Roland Garros, but is in much better condition than he was two years ago, is a smarter player and believes he can stick in with anyone on any surface if he plays his game. That doesn't mean that he thinks he can win the tournament, but is does mean he thinks he can compete.

"It was pretty close to three hours, if it wasn't three hours," Fish said. "I felt fine. Physically it wasn't an issue. And it can't be an issue if you want to win some matches here. Not everything is going to go exactly according to plan on this surface. Right now [my goal] is to just get to the third round. I've never done that before her. Just by the changes that I've made and the sacrifices that I've made and the work ethic has changed, I set out to try to do some things that I've never done before at the French Open, win two rounds and put myself in this position and go from there. It doesn't sound like a mentality probably of a top 10 player, but it's mine here."

Contrasting careers encapsulated as Federer cruises past

Focus
Rumours of Roger Federer's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The no.3 seed eased his way into the tournament in the most satisfying of fashions on Monday afternoon, finding a way past Feliciano Lopez on Philippe Chatrier Court with a minimum of fuss. The 16-time Grand Slam winner prevailed 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) in 1hr 59 minutes and can now look forward to a second-round encounter with French wildcard Maxime Teixeira.

The fans were treated to a vintage display from the Swiss legend, who was never troubled and went though his usual panoply of shots, from aces (12 in all) to outrageously sliced drop shots and everything in between. Lopez flattered to deceive, playing some lovely tennis of his own without ever managing to force Federer into a corner.

At the very peak of professional sport, the margins between the greats and the journeymen can be fine, at least to the untrained eye. To the casual observer there was little to choose between Federer and Lopez today. Throughout the match there were long stretches when it was hard to detect which player was arguably the greatest ever to have graced the game, and which was the nearly man, whose career has been spent around the edges of the top 30 players of his generation.

Both 29-year-olds are blessed with impressive physiques, exceptional athleticism and languid playing styles that are pleasing to the eye. Both are capable of firing crowd-delighting winners off either wing, from anywhere on court. They are sure and true overhead and fire aces left and right. Today, both were also guilty of the odd glaring error, the kind that would have the average club player hanging his head in shame.

What separated the two in the end was what has separated them throughout their parallel tennis lives, namely the knack Federer has of raising his game a notch at crucial times - nothing too much, just enough to knock his opponent off his stride and grab the momentum.

Whenever he needed a break in each of the first two sets and, inevitably, to round things up in the third set tie-break, the Swiss Maestro applied the pressure. Each time Lopez would find himself forced into a riskier shot than necessary, into an error, or watching as a Federer ace flew past. So it was in the tie-break, as the Spaniard handed Federer a match point with a double fault, a gift he gratefully accepted with, you've guessed it, an ace of his own.

Federer was clearly pleased with his display: "I feel relieved when I look at the score or the match after playing three tiebreaks in Madrid against him. It's definitely slower than Madrid. So I think Feliciano was maybe not getting the free points, you know, he was looking and hoping for. The important thing from my side was to be solid in my own serve, which I was all the way through from start to finish, and I thought I played a good match."

He may be down to no.3 in the world, but Federer is not about to let Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic disappear off into the distance without putting up a fight…

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: ''I’d go fishing with Rafael Nadal''

Local hero
Our "choose a player" feature reveals the fun, friendly side of the stars appearing at this year's French Open. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a favourite with his home crowd, is today's willing participant.

Which player would you choose…

To share a good bottle of wine with?
(Thinks for a while) Mika Llodra, he knows his stuff.

To take to your favourite restaurant?
Kei Nishikori, because my favourite restaurant is Minori in Paris. It's a great Japanese restaurant. I'll show him that French sushi is better than Japanese sushi (laughs).

To accompany you to the Cannes film festival?
Ana Ivanovic. She would be great arm candy.

To play in a film with?
David Ferrer. He'd play Forrest in Forrest Gump, and I'd play Bubba, his shrimp fishing friend.

To go out on the town with in Las Vegas?
La Monf' (Gaƫl Monfils), no question about it.

To play in a band with?
Dustin Brown, that would be great. We'd make beautiful reggae.

As master of ceremonies for your wedding?
Novak Djokovic, he would be great at that.

To take to a football match?
Jurgen Melzer. I played football with him in the United States, and he's really good. He loves it.

To go and see stand-up comedy with?
Andy Roddick.

To take fishing?
Rafael Nadal.

To open a bar with?
Marat Safin. Once night falls he's the guy to hang around with.

Sizzling Schiavone ousts Oudin

Defending champion
Defending Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone began her French Open campaign with a convincing 6-2, 6-0 win over America's Melanie Oudin. The no.5 seed, who famously kissed the clay when she earned her first Grand Slam title here last year at the age of 29, produced a solid performance to see off world no.88 Oudin in a match that took just 62 minutes. The women are no strangers, having met on three previous occasions with Schiavone leading the head-to-head 2-1. However, it was the American who won their last encounter during the 2010 Fed Cup Final in straight sets. Today Schiavone was fresh for revenge and opened the day's play as she meant to go on despite the sweltering conditions on Philippe Chatrier Court. The Italian set the pattern of the match by breaking her 19-year-old opponent in the opening game and followed it up with textbook tennis.
Milan-born Schiavone served up deft drops shots, sizzling slices and ferocious forehand winners to wrong-foot Oudin, who frequently looked at her camp with despair. The defending champion soon raced into a 5-2 lead but then suffered a brief attack of nerves, failing to capitalise on four set points, one with a double fault, but eventually regained composure to close out the first set at the fifth attempt.
That momentary lapse of form was soon put behind her as Schiavone rattled through the second set without dropping a game, hitting 25 winners throughout the match compared with Oudin's six. And there was no doubt the 30-year-old looked comfortable on the red stuff. "[There was]a lot of adrenaline. I felt really happy to be there," Schiavone said after the match. "That court is fantastic, because it is compact. The court is perfect. Everything is going around you and it is like when you go home and your Mum does everything for you and you feel comfortable? I felt like this." Oudin is also convinced the Italian is a definite contender for the title. "She is serving well; she's moving well; she pretty much doesn't have a weakness on the clay. I can see how she won the French Open last year," she added.
Schiavone will face Vesna Dolonts in the second round as she bids to repeat her 2010 success, when she became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam. That victory also enabled her to become the second Italian after Flavia Penetta ever to rank in the top 10 and she became the first ever in the top five after this year's Australian Open.

Below-par Murray safely into second round

In a hurry
Andy Murray moved into the second round of the French Open with a comfortable win over French qualifier Eric Prodon 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 on Tuesday afternoon, but there were only rare flashes of magic from the no.4 seed who gave the distinct impression that he was treating his first round match as an experimental practice session, performing at well below capacity. The last time Murray played a match on clay was little over a week ago in the semi-final of Rome against Novak Djokovic. He may have lost but he was in scintillating form and after the match, admitted he had played his best tennis against the person he considered to be the top player in the world as the moment. Today was an altogether different affair. Opening proceedings in blustery conditions on a half-filled Suzanne Lenglen Court, Murray raced to a 4-1 lead from the off. His opponent, who at no.124 is 100 spots below him in the world rankings, was left bamboozled by the Scot's serve - he fired down 12 aces during the match - and appeared to struggle with his own forehand.
Prodon, whose only previous Grand Slam outing had been here in 2008 as a wild card, at least had the partisan crowd behind him, and it wasn't too long before Murray began to suffer momentary lapses of concentration. Loose games followed and very soon Murray had handed Prodon two break points - one courtesy of a double fault. A beautifully disguised drop-shot allowed the Frenchman to break back to 5-4, which whipped the crowd into a frenzy. But it only served to fire up a frustrated Murray who upped the ante in the very next game to break back and take the first set.
That momentum continued into the second, which Murray claimed in a mere 24 minutes, but by the third, the 24-year-old had gone back into experimental mode. If a shot failed to work, he would yell out in frustration, slamming his racket into his bag at the change of ends. The statistics were telling, with Murray hitting 25 unforced errors, just one fewer than his journeyman opponent. And while the end result was never in doubt, it raises questions about his ability to go the distance here, despite reaching the final of the first Slam of the year in Australia and also making the semi-finals at the ATP Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo and Rome.
Speaking after the match, Murray described the encounter as 'scrappy'. "It was a tough match. There was no rhythm really. He didn't want to have any long rallies, so he was hitting a lot of dropshots, going for shots. He'd change the rhythm or change the pace of the ball a lot. I was annoyed with the way I was moving. I was hitting the ball from the back of the court, especially towards the end of the match, and served well, but didn't move particularly well. There weren't many good rallies, really, or anything, because they were all pretty short."
He added: "I was told going in he's very unpredictable, he does play a lot dropshots, changes the rhythm of the points a lot and is quite unpredictable. That's how it was. That's why it was a difficult match and just a quite frustrating one to play, because even though I was in front, all of the points were just really scrappy until the end when I went behind."
The no.4 seed now faces Italian Simone Bolelli in the second round.

Sharapova proves she is a real contender

Maria Sharapova
Currently showing her best ever form on red clay, Maria Sharapova cruised past Mirjana Lucic 6-3, 6-0 in the first round and proved that she is a true contender for the Roland Garros title for the first time. The three-time Grand Slam champion barely missed a shot in running off the last ten games of the match, serving big, tearing apart Lucic's second services and hitting the corners with both her forehands and backhands.
The former French Open semi-finalist has been to the second week of the tournament on a few occasions, where she would eventually tire and get run over by faster opponents who could move her around. But after winning Rome 10 days ago with three notable wins over no.4 Victoria Azarenka, no.1 Caroline Wozniacki and 2010 Roland Garros finalist Sam Stosur, the Russian has proved that is she can control the court and has improved her footing enough to win on any surface.
"I started [Rome] off really well, and I felt like I continued with that. Even though I lost the first set to Azarenka, I felt like I adjusted well, and I did that really well throughout the tournament. If something wasn't quite working, I always had a plan B and was able to find a way to win."
Sharapova seriously struggled to regain her no.1 form after her 2008 shoulder surgery, occasionally playing at a very high level but also growing frustrated with the inconsistency of her once effective service as well as her forehand. Only five of her 23 titles have come since that surgery and only two, Tokyo and Rome, were at prestigious tournaments.
She has only reached one Grand Slam quarterfinal since returning to the tour in May 2009, at Roland Garros a month later when she lost to Dominika Cibulkova. But for the most part, she has kept her head down and now ranked No. 8, is showing more self-belief and consistency.
"I don't think any road is particularly easy," she said. "If you don't have the tough days and don't go through adversity, I don't think that the good ones and the wins mean as much as when everything seems to be going your way. I've put a lot of work in, and starting from the off-season, I had a tough period at the beginning of the year, being sick for a while and having to wait to play a tournament. But I trained really hard. I don't think I had that work ethic last year. At some points I didn't push myself as much as I wanted to, but that motivation has really kicked in this year, and I hope I keep going with that."
Sharapova took a risk in January, separating from her long-time coach and friend Michael Joyce to work with Swede Thomas Hogstedt, who once coached Na Li and Tommy Haas. She also brought in a new hitting partner this spring - former ATP player Cecil Mamiit - but it was her willingness to try to institute Hogstedt's technical changes with her service and forehand as well as some strategic moves that have opened the gate to improvement.
"You just try to get the best possible thing for you, and add or sometimes take away things that maybe you feel are ultimately going to make you better," she said. "The most important thing is just realizing that it's never just going to come together in a matter of minutes. It's always going to take time. Adjustments ultimately hopefully will get you to a better place, and it was a tough change for me. I had the same sort of routine and the same stuff for so many years, but in a way it was refreshing and new."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Djokovic: I am not invincible

Djokovic: I am not invincibleHe may seem that way to the rest of the tennis world, but Novak Djokovic insists he will not begin his quest for a first French Open title feeling unbeatable.
The Serb's stunning form has been the major talking point of the 2011 season, with his first-round match against Thiemo de Bakker at Roland Garros offering the chance for a 40th consecutive victory.
His run has brought him seven titles, including the Australian Open and four Masters 1000 victories, all of which were achieved with final wins over Rafael Nadal, the man he could succeed as world number one this fortnight.
Djokovic, though, is trying not to think about the numbers, because that inevitably prompts the question of when the run will be brought to an end.
The second seed said: "I don't feel unbeatable, nobody is unbeatable, even though I have had an incredible run that keeps going.
"I've said in the last couple of weeks that I'm really not trying to think about the run, or I'm not trying to think about when this run will end, because that will mean that I'm thinking about losing.
"This is not my priority, not my mental approach. I always try to be positive on the court and then take one match at a time and think about only winning that certain match. I think it's the right attitude, and it's been going well."
Questioned about Djokovic's form, his rivals have put the transformation largely down to an increase in confidence rather than any great advancements in his game.
One thing the world number two, who celebrates his 24th birthday on Sunday, has changed is his diet.
Djokovic has cut out gluten after discovering he is allergic to the protein, and he said: "It is a part of the puzzle, let's say.
"I decided to give it a try because of the allergies and my health, the heat problems that I had in the past. So I have tried different kinds of things and I wanted to see if that works, and it has."
The growing rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal has left 16-time grand slam champion Roger Federer as something of a forgotten man.
The Swiss has certainly had an indifferent start to the season by his high standards, reaching only two ATP World Tour finals and losing to Jurgen Melzer and Richard Gasquet on clay.
Federer, though, is happy not to have the spotlight shining so brightly on him and believes less pressure could help him spring a surprise in Paris.
He said: "I have never been the overwhelming favourite going into the French Open because of Rafa's great record here over the years.
"I think this is definitely a year for me where I can come into this tournament with a little less pressure than the last six or seven years.
"Last year I was the defending champion. The years before that I was trying to win Paris for the first time. So I've always had that big cloud hanging over me.
"This year maybe more is expected from Rafa and Novak, and that could be a good thing for me and more pressure for them.
"If at Wimbledon I was not among the top four or five favourites, then it would be a big change. But, at the French Open, it's always more or less the same."
Federer will certainly not be taking his progress through the early stages of the draw for granted, however, after drawing Feliciano Lopez in the first round.
The pair had a titanic second-round clash in Madrid earlier this month that featured three tie-breaks and a match point for world number 41 Lopez before Federer eventually prevailed.
The third seed said: "It's interesting. We have known each other for a very long time, since we were juniors. I'm surprised I'm going to play against him because I thought he was seeded, but sometimes you are a bit unlucky. He's a dangerous player."
The highest seed in action on the first day of play will be Spanish world number seven David Ferrer, who faces Jarkko Nieminen. Following that match on Court Philippe Chatrier will be French favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga against Jan Hajek while 14th seed Stanislas Wawrinka plays French qualifier Augustin Gensse on Court 1.

Sania: I find clay difficult to play on

Sania: I find clay difficult to play onJust before the 2011 French Open, Indian tennis ace Sania Mirza shares her expectations and experiences with ESPNSTAR.com.
By Sudheer Mahavaadi
Q: How do you rate your chances in this year's French Open, which you missed last time?
Sania Mirza: It's no secret that I am least comfortable on the clay court surface. My game is more suited to faster courts. Also, I have not grown up playing on red clay, unlike the Europeans and I find it difficult to move on this surface.
However, I don't think the surface negatively affects me in doubles play. I am excited to be playing my 23rd Grand Slam in singles and looking forward to improving my record on clay.

Q: How would you sum up your season so far?
SM: I've moved up almost a hundred places in singles rankings since December 2010 and won two important doubles titles. So, it’s been a great year so far, for sure!
Winning the Premier Mandatory doubles tournament at Indian Wells was definitely the icing on the cake!

Q: Fitness remains your key issue. Do you feel frustrated at times?
SM: Yes, it can be frustrating, at times but one can only continue to work hard and hope for the best!

Q: How are you approaching the Grand Slams coming up? Will you focus on the “paired” events more?
SM I've always tried to balance my singles with doubles events and I will continue to do that!

Q: As a sporting couple, how do you and your husband Shoaib Malik boost each other when the chips are down?
SM: As professional sportsmen, we both understand the pressures of performing in the spotlight at the highest level and are better geared to handle ups and downs that are a part and parcel of sport as well as life.

Q: Do you see any Indian girl coming through the ranks and make an international impact?
SM: Unfortunately, no name comes to my mind as of now. It will take a big effort on our part in the right direction to produce a top-50 player.

Q: What kind of inspiration you get from players like Sharapova and Clijsters who have made comebacks and performed well?
SM: I think its remarkable, specially for Kim Clijsters to have won Grand Slams after becoming a mother!

French Open: Tough draw for Somdev

French Open: Tough draw for SomdevIndia's Somdev Devvarman and Sania Mirza have been handed out a tough draw in their respective singles category at the French Open, starting on Sunday.
Somdev Devvarman is set to face Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, while Sania Mirza has been drawn against Kristina Barrois of Germany at Roland Garros.
Ranked 66, Somdev will face an uphill task against World No 36 Ljubicic, who reached the semifinals of the French Open in 2006 and made it to the third round last year.
Somdev has never played the former World No 3 Ljubicic before but he can take heart from the fact that has been in good form this season, having made it to the pre-quarterfinals at Indian Wells, where he lost to World No 1 Rafael Nadal.
This would only be the second appearance in the Roland Garros main draw for the 26-year-old Indian.
World No 74 Sania is also not expected to have an easy outing against Barrois, ranked 59, who had reached the final of the Estoril Open in April.
In her four appearances in French Open, Sania have cleared the second round only once in 2007.

Murray fit and ready to go in Paris

Murray fit and ready to go in Paris
Andy Murray declared himself fit and ready to continue his encouraging form on clay at the French Open, which gets under way in Paris this weekend.
The world number four has struggled to match his results on other surfaces on the red stuff but semi-final appearances at the Masters events in Monte Carlo and Rome, where he pushed Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, were a significant step forward.
Murray's hopes of at least matching his best performance at the French Open, a quarter-final appearance in 2009, were also boosted by a kind-looking draw on Friday.
The Scot will first face French qualifier Eric Prodon, with the match to be played on Monday at the earliest, with another qualifier guaranteed in the second round.
Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov are potential dangers in the third and fourth rounds but Murray would surely have settled for being in the same quarter as Jurgen Melzer, while Nadal is a probable semi-final opponent.
The fourth seed, who confirmed his decision to miss an exhibition match on Thursday was simply a precaution after a heavy schedule, said: "I feel good. I have been playing well on the clay, better than previous years.
"I feel like I've been training well. Physically I feel like I'm in good shape and I have been moving well, too. I'm looking forward to the start of the tournament.
"You've got to be very focused during the French especially, because one bad set or a couple of bad sets and you can get yourself fatigued early in the tournament."
The standout British performer so far has been Heather Watson, who qualified on Friday for the main draw of a grand slam for the first time with a 6-4 6-4 victory over Stefanie Voegele.
The 19-year-old, who will face French wild card Stephanie Foretz-Gacon in round one, is the first British woman to win a final-round qualifier at Roland Garros for almost 30 years.
She credited a new-found calmness and a vow never to throw a racquet again following a bad-tempered loss in Rome a fortnight ago for her success.
Watson said: "I saw pictures of the racquet-throwing in Rome and it looked terrible. It was very unprofessional and that's not my goal. There's bigger things going on in the world to get mad at than tennis and a few points."
Britain's other two representatives in the women's singles were also handed favourable draws, with Elena Baltacha taking on American qualifier Sloane Stephens and Anne Keothavong facing Russian Vesna Dolonts.
Among the top seeds, the pairing of Nadal with giant American John Isner was the stand-out tie. Djokovic will meet Dutchman Thiemo De Bakker while Roger Federer takes on Feliciano Lopez.
In an open-looking women's field, top seed Caroline Wozniacki faces Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, Kim Clijsters meets Anastasiya Yakimova, defending champion Francesca Schiavone takes on Melanie Oudin and Maria Sharapova is up against Mirjana Lucic.

Murray: Don't worry about my fitness

Murray: Don't worry about my fitness 
Andy Murray allayed fears about his fitness and declared himself ready to face home qualifier Eric Prodon in the opening round of the French Open.
The world number four set alarm bells ringing when he cut short his practice session at Roland Garros and then pulled out of an exhibition match against Michael Llodra at Paris Country Club.
Murray's camp were keen to stress his inaction was merely a precaution and at his pre-tournament press conference he insisted his only problem was aches and pains caused by a heavy schedule.
The 24-year-old said: "I was just a bit stiff and sore. I trained hard in London for three or four days after Rome. I trained most of the day on Wednesday and then came over on the Eurostar, and then I practised first thing yesterday morning to warm up for the exhibition.
"I didn't feel great. I think it was maybe my body just saying to take it easy for a day or so because I have been working very hard. I made a decision not to play the exhibition. I'm practising this afternoon. I should be fine."
If Murray needed a boost then he certainly received it at Saturday's draw. After taking five sets to come through a nightmare opening round against Richard Gasquet last year, the Scot should have a much easier time of it against world number 118 Prodon.
Another qualifier is guaranteed in round two, with Simone Bolelli playing Frank Dancevic, and it is not until the third round that Murray is likely to be tested.
That could come in the form of rising Canadian star Milos Raonic, who has rocketed up the rankings to 28th this year after reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open and then winning his maiden ATP World Tour title in San Jose.
If the seedings work out then Murray would meet Viktor Troicki in round four but the Serb must first get past Alexandr Dolgopolov, who gave Murray such a hard time in Australia in January.
The Scot is in the same quarter as eighth seed Jurgen Melzer, who reached the semi-finals last year but is surely preferable to Robin Soderling, David Ferrer or Tomas Berdych. Murray has beaten Melzer five times in a row.
A first semi-final appearance in Paris would probably pit the British number one against defending champion Rafael Nadal but, although he has never beaten the world number one on clay, their recent meeting in Monte Carlo was a significant step forward.
Murray pushed Nadal to a deciding set in their semi-final before he was hampered by a wrist injury and, perhaps even more impressively, he then came as close as anyone to ending Novak Djokovic's unbeaten start to the season in Rome.
"I feel good," said Murray. "I have been playing well on the clay, better than previous years. I feel like I've been training well. Physically I feel like I'm in good shape and I have been moving well, too. I'm looking forward to the start of the tournament.
"You've got to be very focused during the French especially, because one bad set or a couple of bad sets and you can get yourself fatigued or tired early in the tournament. You need to be switched on right from the start."
Murray, meanwhile, hailed the achievement of 19-year-old Heather Watson in qualifying for the main draw of a grand slam for the first time.
He added: "It's good for British tennis. She's done very well this year. I don't know her that well but I saw her playing one match at the Orange Bowl a few years ago and I thought she was good.
"She has good balance on the court and is very solid. She's obviously doing well now in the seniors and it won't be very long before she's in the top 100 and hopefully higher.
"It's great that she's managed to qualify here on probably a surface that she hasn't played too much on."

Sharapova wary of Clijsters threat

Sharapova wary of Clijsters threatMaria Sharapova named world number two Kim Clijsters as the player to beat in a very open women's singles draw at the French Open.With both Serena and Venus Williams missing through injury and world number one Caroline Wozniacki never having won a grand slam, Clijsters, who is looking for her third successive major title, is clearly the standout name.
The Belgian, though, has not played since March after a combination of injuries, mostly recently a serious ankle problem that she sustained at a wedding.
It will also be Clijsters' first appearance at Roland Garros since she reached the semi-finals in 2006 after she was unable to compete last year because of a foot injury.
The 27-year-old has shown in the past that she does not need a huge amount of preparation to be a major danger, however, most notably with her stunning US Open win in 2009, which came only a month after she had ended a two-and-a-half-year spell in retirement.
Sharapova said: "It's always difficult to not play for a few weeks and come back as a grand slam being your first tournament, but she has a tremendous amount of experience behind her.
"She's been able to do really well when she's taken time off, so you can never count her out. It might take her a few matches to get into form but that's normal when you haven't played for a while.
"She's a great champion, she's won the last couple of grand slams and is number two in the world. She's certainly the one to beat here."
Sharapova remains one of the marquee names in women's tennis despite her infrequent appearances at the business end of major tournaments these days.
The Russian has not won a grand slam title since the Australian Open in 2008 but her form going into the French Open, most notably her victory at the prestigious tournament in Rome last weekend, has offered hope she could yet be a major contender.
However, Sharapova, who plays former Wimbledon semi-finalist Mirjana Lucic in the first round, was reluctant to speculate on her chances.
The 24-year-old said: "My job is to go out and play tennis and compete, and I was really happy with the way last week turned out. I played great tennis, I had some great matches and wins over good players, especially on clay.
"So it's definitely a confidence booster. I'm just hoping to take this form and bring it over to Roland Garros."
Sharapova beat Australia's Samantha Stosur in the final in Rome, and the eighth seed from Queensland, the runner-up to Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros last year, also expects Clijsters to be a big danger.
Stosur said: "Even though she has been out for a little while, you can't discount anything that she might be able to do. She was able to win the US Open without too much preparation, so you have to think of her as a threat.
"She's a great player and a great champion, and people like that don't play the tournament unless they're feeling ready."
Stosur was the favourite in the final to win her first grand slam title 12 months ago but the occasion seemed to get the better of her and it was Italian Schiavone who seized her chance.
The 27-year-old insisted she looks back on the experience as a positive one, adding: "It was nice to come back to Paris and nice to come back to Roland Garros and walk through the door and see the Aussie flag on the centre court.
"It didn't bring back any bad memories. I've tried to erase all those and now it's only good ones."
Stosur meets Iveta Benesova in round one while other notable ties include Wozniacki's clash with Kimiko Date Krumm, who at 40 is twice the Dane's age, and Schiavone taking on American teenager Melanie Oudin.

Murray paired with qualifier in France

Murray paired with qualifier in FranceAndy Murray was paired with a qualifier in the first round when the draw for the French Open was made at Roland Garros on Friday.
It was significantly better news for the world number four than 12 months ago, when he faced supremely-talented Frenchman Richard Gasquet and had to fight back from two sets down before eventually triumphing in five.
Murray is in the same half of the draw as defending champion and world number one Rafael Nadal, meaning they could meet in the semi-finals, but his initial path looks relatively straightforward.
Murray is in the same quarter of the draw as world number eight Jurgen Melzer, who he has beaten in all of their five meetings, although he would be wary of the Austrian on clay after his run to the semi-finals at Roland Garros last year.
Notable draws in the men's singles saw Nadal paired with giant American John Isner and third seed Roger Federer up against Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, while Novak Djokovic will look to make it 40 matches unbeaten against Thiemo de Bakker of Holland.
The draw was also kind to Britain's two direct entries into the women's singles, with Anne Keothavong facing world number 101 Vesna Dolonts from Russia while Elena Baltacha will take on a qualifier.
That opened up the potential for an all-British clash, with Heather Watson playing her final qualifier against Stefanie Voegele.
World number one Caroline Wozniacki will take on Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who at 40 is twice the Dane's age, while Kim Clijsters, playing the French Open for the first time since a semi-final appearance in 2006, meets Anastasiya Yakimova.
Defending champion Francesca Schiavone could have a tricky test in the shape of promising American teenager Melanie Oudin and Maria Sharapova takes on Mirjana Lucic, who in Strasbourg this week reached her first tour-level quarter-final for 12 years.
Meanwhile, Spanish world number 31 Tommy Robredo became the latest player to withdraw from the men's singles, joining Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who yesterday pulled out with shoulder injuries.

Watson qualifies for French Open

Watson qualifies for French OpenHeather Watson credited a new-found calmness and a pledge never to throw a racquet again for her success in qualifying for the French Open.
The British number three, who celebrated her 19th birthday, defeated Switzerland's Stefanie Voegele 6-4 6-4 to book a first-round meeting with French wild card Stephanie Foretz Gacon at Roland Garros.
Watson's only previous appearance in the main draw of a grand slam was a first-round defeat as a wild card at Wimbledon last year and Friday's victory makes her the first British woman since Kate Brasher in 1983 to win a match in the final qualifying round in Paris.
The Guernsey teenager said: "It feels great. The only other match I've won in a grand slam was in (qualifying) in Australia so this is big for me. I'm feeling very confident and happy with my performances so far."
Watson came into the match on the back of a second-round defeat at an ITF tournament in Cagnes-sur-Mer and a bad-tempered loss in qualifying in Rome, and she revealed those setbacks made her address her attitude on court.
She said: "Before Rome I played in Cagnes-sur-Mer and I lost a match where I had two match points, and I was devastated. That's because I wanted to win that match too badly, I wasn't able to put it away.
"Since then I've turned over a new leaf. I vowed never to throw my racquet ever again. I'm going to have fun and enjoy tennis. I loosened up in Rome but I got mad, so I'm just taking baby steps.
"I saw pictures of the racquet throwing in Rome and it looked terrible. It was very unprofessional and that's not my goal. There's bigger things going on in the world to get mad at than tennis and a few points."
Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong qualified directly for the tournament and Friday's draw offered Britain's women a great chance of posting a first win since Clare Wood beat Gigi Fernandez in round one in 1994.
Neither Baltacha, who will meet American teenager Sloane Stephens, nor Keothavong, drawn against Russian world number 101 Vesna Dolonts, are particularly at home on clay but Watson is beginning to really enjoy the red stuff.
"When I first get on clay I'm kind of all over the place and I don't know how to hit the ball but after a few tournaments I've really adapted my game," she said. "Now I'd probably say it's one of my favourite surfaces."
Friday's victory was the latest achievement in a superb season for Watson, who reached the quarter-finals of WTA Tour events in Auckland and Memphis and is rapidly closing in on a place in the top 100.
She added: "I always think I can do better than I have been doing. It's just a few extra matches that can get your ranking up.
"There's a lot of points to be won here and during the grass season. I love grass - clay and grass are very different but I feel like I can play well on both. I'm very excited."

Nadal unworried about Djokovic form

Nadal unworried about Djokovic formRafael Nadal insists his recent defeats by Novak Djokovic will not affect his mentality going into the French Open.
The Spaniard is seeking his sixth title in seven years at Roland Garros but, for the first time since his maiden success as a teenager in 2005, there is a serious challenge to his reign as the king of clay.
Djokovic's incredible unbeaten start to the season has included four final victories over Nadal, including in successive clay Masters events in Madrid and Rome, putting him within touching distance of his rival's world number one ranking.
Nadal, though, played down the potential of a repeat here and instead chose to focus on a tricky-looking opening-round tie against giant American John Isner.
The humble 24-year-old said: "I can only play against him (Djokovic) in the final so, for me, if I am in the final, it will be a fantastic result.
"I will have a very difficult first round against Isner so I am focused on that. I always practise the same way, to be aggressive, to try to play my best tennis, and, if I can do that, hopefully I will have a chance to be in the final rounds."
The Rome match in particular - Djokovic's 39th win in a row and 37th of the season - saw the pair trading blows at a stunningly high level and Nadal insisted he took confidence out of that display despite the outcome.
He said: "In Madrid I didn't play well. Even if the score was closer, in my opinion, the level wasn't the same. In Rome, my opinion was different. The level was closer. The score was 6-4 6-4 but in the second set I felt I had big chances to win it.
"He's playing with extreme confidence all the time so what he did is really difficult to repeat another time. I just congratulate him for everything."
Djokovic struggled to live up to expectations after winning his first grand slam as a teenager at the Australian Open in 2008 and he did not make another final until last year's US Open, when he lost to Nadal.
That served notice of what was to come and the Serb has not looked back since breezing past Roger Federer and Andy Murray to win the Australian Open in January.
Nadal singled out confidence as the main reason behind Djokovic's success and insisted he always had the potential to put together such a series of results.
The Spaniard said: "Technically I don't think he's changed a lot of things. Probably right now he's defending better. But when you have this confidence it seems like you have improved everything a lot.
"Everybody knows how good Novak is and how good he can be, but it was the same a few years ago. Right now he's winning and, with the victories, your confidence is higher and higher every time."
First up Nadal must conquer the supreme serving talents of 6ft 9in American Isner, and the top seed admitted: "He's one of those players that you prefer not to have in the first round.
"His style of game is dangerous. His serve is unbelievable. I will have to be focused all the time. I have to be very focused with my serve."
Djokovic was drawn against Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker in the first round but his path looks potentially trickier than Nadal's, with Juan Martin Del Potro, Thomaz Bellucci and Richard Gasquet all in his section, while Tomas Berdych is a potential quarter-final opponent.
Roger Federer, who is also in the bottom half of the draw, faces experienced Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in the first round while other notable match-ups include Del Potro against giant Croatian Ivo Karlovic and Fernando Verdasco taking on Juan Monaco.

Roddick, Ferrero pull out of French

Roddick, Ferrero pull out of FrenchAndy Roddick and former champion Juan Carlos Ferrero have pulled out of the French Open due to shoulder injuries.
World number 11 Roddick had skipped this week's lead-up event in Nice to try to recover in time for the Roland Garros tournament which begins on Sunday.
But organisers this evening announced that the American, who has never made it past the fourth round in Paris, would miss the event along with 2003 champion Ferrero.
Ferrero, 31, has played just two tournaments this year, both in his native Spain, as his ranking has slipped to 72.

No Roland Garros KO for Murray

No Roland Garros KO for Murray
Andy Murray's camp insisted he was not an injury doubt for the French Open after he pulled out of an exhibition match in Paris.
The Scot was scheduled to play Michael Llodra in the Masters Guinot Mary Cohr event at Paris Country Club but withdrew at the last minute after feeling pain during practice.
With the second grand slam of the season starting on Sunday, the news set alarm bells ringing, but Murray's representative was keen to stress the move was simply a precaution and not the precursor to his withdrawal from Roland Garros.
A statement from the exhibition tournament organisers read: "Andy has withdrawn from the Masters Guinot Mary Cohr today as a precaution after sustaining a minor injury whilst training this morning.
"Andy would like to apologise to the fans and sponsors but hopes to play in the Masters Guinot Mary Cohr once again next year."
The 24-year-old, who missed both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2007 because of a wrist problem, did make a brief appearance on court to apologise in person and explained he felt pain while playing practice points and therefore decided not to take any risks.
He then returned to his hotel for treatment ahead of tomorrow's draw, where he will hope both that he is given a Monday start and that his luck is better than it was last year.
On that occasion Murray, whose best showing at Roland Garros was a quarter-final appearance in 2009, found himself up against supremely-talented Frenchman Richard Gasquet and had to fight back from two sets down before prevailing in five.
Gasquet is back up at 14th in the world so Murray will certainly not find him waiting in the first round again but there are plenty of clay-court specialists who will not be seeded and who would provide a significant hurdle.
The Scot, though, can boast semi-final appearances at the Masters events in both Monte Carlo and Rome in recent weeks and has every right to be confident of his own prospects.
After taking Rafael Nadal to a deciding set in Monte Carlo, Murray went as close as anyone to ending Novak Djokovic's unbeaten start to the season in the Italian capital before losing out in a deciding tie-break.
Meanwhile, British number three Heather Watson is one victory away from joining Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong in the main draw of the women's singles after beating Australian Sally Peers 6-3 7-5 in the second qualifying round.
It was the perfect 19th birthday present for the former US Open junior champion, who will qualify for the main draw of a grand slam for the first time if she beats Switzerland's Stefanie Voegele.
After taking the first set in 42 minutes on Thursday, Watson twice let leads slip in the second against her good friend Peers, also 19, before finally serving out the victory at the second time of asking.
The Guernsey teenager, whose only appearance in the main draw of a grand slam was a first-round defeat as a wild card at Wimbledon last year, has enjoyed a terrific season and is currently at a career-high ranking of 119.
Watson said: "I'm really chuffed and it's my birthday today so now it's time to celebrate, but not too much because I've got to rest up and get ready for my third round tomorrow."

Match of the day: Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) v Albert Montanes

Match of the Day, Sunday, 22 May
Perennial crowd favourite Lleyton Hewitt faces a stern test in his opener against clay-court specialist Albert Montanes. The 30-year-old Australian has reached at least the third round on each of his past five visits here, but he is returning from a foot injury and will have his work cut out against the experienced Spaniard, whose five titles in ATP World Tour events have all come on clay.
Recently described by legendary coach Tony Roche as the "toughest competitor I have ever seen", Hewitt underwent foot surgery in March and arrives at Roland Garros without any clay court preparation to speak of. A lesser player would find that sort of handicap hard to overcome, but those remarkable fighting qualities make the Australian a dangerous opponent.
Besides, the former Wimbledon and US Open winner is used to battling back from injury and upsetting the odds, no more so than last season when he came back from a four-month spell on the sidelines to reach the third round at the French Open only to fall to Rafael Nadal for the fourth time in five years. He then beat Roger Federer to win the Halle tournament on grass, before coming close to upsetting Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.
Such an exceptional European summer would appear unlikely this time, but given his excellent record in Paris and providing that his foot holds up, Hewitt will be looking beyond Montanes for greater challenges ahead.
Ranked 37 in the world, Montanes arrives in Paris on the back of a disappointing European clay court season to date. While he made the quarter-finals in Belgrade, losing in straight sets to Feliciano Lopez, he suffered first round defeats at the ATP Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome, losing to Richard Gasquet and Sergiy Stakhovsky respectively.
If he finds his range however, especially on his dangerous forehand, 30-year-old Montanes is a tricky customer on clay. Five ATP titles on the surface speak volumes of his pedigree, and like Hewitt he is well known for his never-say-die attitude. Fans heading to Suzanne Lenglen court could well be in for a treat on Sunday, as Hewitt and Montanes look to get their seasons back on track. The winner will move on to a probable second round encounter with no.19 seed Marin Cilic, with their confidence restored and hopeful of an upset.

Time is right for limping Clijsters

Kim Clijsters
Even though she has not played a competitive match in nearly two months and has consistently said that clay is the surface which she finds most challenging, no. 2 Kim Clijsters is many analysts' pick to win her first Roland Garros.
Not only is the powerful Belgian a media favourite, she is also considered the player to beat by one of her main rivals, Maria Sharapova, who won the red clay title in Rome last week.
"She's someone that's a great champion, who won the last couple of Grand Slams and is No. 2 in the world," said Sharapova, who is not coincidentally in Clijsters' quarter. "She's certainly the one to beat here. It's always difficult to not play for a few weeks and come back as a Grand Slam being your first tournament, but she has a tremendous amount of experience. This is not the first time that she's come back after having a long lay-off. She's been able to do really well when she's taken time off, so you can never count her out."
Clijsters has not played since the tournament in Miami as a week later, she tore ligaments in her ankle dancing at her cousin's wedding. Reports had it that the four-times Grand Slam champion's ankle buckled because she was wearing high heels, but that was not the case for the footloose and fancy-free Clijsters.
"A lot of people thought I was in high heels, but I was in bare feet, because I couldn't dance in my high heels," said the Belgian. "So then I landed on another girl's foot and I twisted my ankle. Then while I'm walking off, limping, somebody stepped on the outside of my little toe as well, and I still have a problem there. I was having a really good time until then!" she grinned.
Clijsters was considered doubtful for Roland Garros, but she pushed herself in rehab and now has a chance to win a title that has always eluded her, despite going deep on a number of occasions. In 2001 as an unknown 17-year-old, she swept to the final, beating fellow Belgian Justine Henin in a tight three-setter in the semis before falling dramatically to Jennifer Capriati 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. Two years later she reached the final again, but this time Henin turned the tables on her and crushed her 6-0, 6-4. She played the tournament twice more before she taking "maternity leave", going down to Lindsay Davenport in three sets in 2005 and to Henin again in the semifinals in 2006. She has not played the tournament since, as last year she was forced to withdraw with a left foot injury.
She many have felt a bit snake-bitten after the wedding, but did her utmost to make sure that she could have another go at the title, even though she will be playing with heavy strapping on her ankle. Roland Garros is a tournament she perhaps should have won in the past, and given that she has triumphed in three out of the five Grand Slams she has contested since returning after the birth of her first child in the summer of 2009, it is perhaps one she should win now - something that she is very aware of.
"It's very special," Clijsters said. "I was here last year to watch [fellow Belgian] Kristen Flipkens play. I had a practice on centre court yesterday, and it was a lot of fun and exciting. I felt like a little girl again - it was a nice feeling to have."
Given the fact that she grew up on clay, it is somewhat remarkable over her long career that Clijsters has won just three of her 41 titles on clay. She likes the purer bounce of hard courts, where she can pivot into a quick stop and pound her groundstrokes deep into the corner, rather than having to slide into her strokes. Part of her lack of faith in her game on clay is mental however, since the same combinations that saw her wins three US Open crowns and the 2011 Australian Open could fit nicely onto dirt, namely playing the angles, hustling on defence and working her way gradually into the court until she can get a ball she can let rip.
"I enjoy the challenge more now," the 27-year-old concluded. "I know why I never felt that comfortable - because of the movement - but I feel it's the same for everybody. I enjoy the challenge of trying to win every rally and trying to battle for each rally."

Tommy Haas: “I'd open a bar with John McEnroe”

Tommy Haas
Our "choose a player" feature reveals the fun, friendly side of the stars appearing at this year's French Open. Germany's former world number two Tommy Haas is up first.If you were to choose another player…
To share a good bottle of wine with?

Andre Agassi
To take to your favourite restaurant?
If I'm with my wife and kids, I'd choose Roger Federer.
To go on a walk with in the forest?
I'd go alone, no need for company.

To accompany you to the Cannes Film Festival?
Patrick Rafter
To go out on the town with in Las Vegas?
Andre Agassi. I've already done it once and, since he lives there, it was really fun.
To talk about life with and change the world?
Roger Federer
Never to train with? Ivo Karlovic
To play in a band with?
Gael Monfils
To take to a football match?Alex Waske
To interview if you were a journalist?Steffi Graf
To take fishing?
Max Mirnyi
To take to see your favourite band?
Philipp Petzschner
To play mixed doubles with?
Maria Sharapova
To open a bar with?
John McEnroe
To be your spokesperson?
Boris Becker
To go with to see a stand-up comedian?
My friend Glenn Weiner. He's only ranked no.391 in the world but I assume I can still pick him!

Getting to know… Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens
Smiles and easy conversation go hand in hand for Sloane Stephens. The Floridian with the sunny disposition has qualified for her first main singles draw in a major event. As luck would have it, not only is it a Grand Slam, it is also her favourite tournament. "Americans usually don't like clay but I like it a lot. Also, here, I have to share my good moments with my worst moments and that stays with you," explains Sloane. For example, this year "it's my high school prom, which breaks my heart. I am missing so many important events, but I guess the more I miss, the better it is for my career"
Patience and confidence
Two years ago, Sloane had to deal with the death of her father who had been absent from her life until she was 13 years old, and this has made her even more sensitive to missing important family events. "I am missing my brother's baseball games, which makes me sad but that's the way it has to be," she confides.
After studying at Evert Academy, she decided to concentrate on her tennis and is now coached by former pro Roger Smith, who like her is a doubles specialist like his (Sloane has three wins in the juniors at Grand Slams). She is new on tour and approaches everything with excitement, like talking to the media ahead of her first round tie against Elena Baltacha. She answers questions with humour and an ease that lets one imagine that she would be just as comfortable doing stand-comedy up on a stage as she is hitting her two-handed backhand on the French clay.
Straight-talking
Being confident does not mean that Sloane Stephens is not realistic. She is a fan of Kim Clijsters and the Williams Sisters, and the Belgian recently complimented the world no.138. Sloane simply talks about patience and hard work. "Fulfilling my potential may take time, but it will happen. There is a lot of pressure and expectation, but this is true for all the other young American players. Right now, no one really believes in us, and we know it. I also know that when I start having good results, the same people will say that they supported me from the start and they knew I could do it." She is travelling with her aunt, who she says is "my good luck charm because since she's been with me in Europe, I haven't lost."
Stephens certainly does not shy away from telling things like they really are. "I'm on a mission, but so are all of my friends because we all have to face the critics. In the US, no one believes in us and some have even questioned our work ethic. Some even say that there is no hope for professional women's tennis in the medium term..." said Stephens, firmly but without losing her trademark smile. "I'm really happy though," she continues, as well she might be after winning the 50,000 dollar tournament at Reggio Emilia on 15 May. She is reaping the rewards of a "really intensive week of work in Barcelona with Francis Roig (one of Rafael Nadal's coaches) in early May". Stephens has now entered the big leagues, but "one thing is certain, and that's that I'll be home on 4 July to celebrate the holiday with my family." In the meantime, she will have settle for going out to dinner with her aunt in Paris, with a thought for her father, as always since September 2009.

Roger and Rafa enjoy having a new favourite on the block

Roger Federer
Roland Garros may be basking in glorious sunshine but there is one chap in particular who is enjoying clear skies of another kind - world no.3 Roger Federer. The Swiss master may have notched up an impressive tally of 16 Grand Slams during his career, but he freely admits that a "big cloud" has always hung over him at the French Open. Of course, that cloud floated away when he lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2009 after losing to Rafael Nadal in the final three years in a row, and now, two years on, Federer is entering the tournament with what he describes as a "little less pressure" for the first time in seven years. "Last year I was the defending champion," he said. "The year before, and the years before that I was trying to win Paris for the first time."

Now all eyes are on Novak Djokovic and his incredible 37-match winning streak to open the season, not to mention the threat posed by five-time Roland Garros champion Nadal. "I think this year maybe they expect more from Rafa and Novak, and that could be a good thing for me and more pressure for them," Federer continued. "In the French Open I was never the top favourite. It's true I didn't have as much pressure here than in other tournaments, but this year I have even less pressure because Rafa wants to keep his title and Novak wants to win it."
Nadal meanwhile refuses - as is his wont - to accept that he is a favourite for the title, claiming that this "honour" lies firmly at the feet of Djokovic. "Even last year or three years ago when you told me 'You are the favourite', I didn't feel like this," the humble defending champion said. The Majorcan is under no illusion about the enormity of the task he will face in the first round against John Isner, the 6'9" American who helped create Wimbledon history last year with his three-day marathon first round win over Nicolas Mahut that took 11 hours, five minutes and finished 70-68 in the fifth set. "Thinking about winning the tournament before the start of the tournament is too arrogant for me," Nadal said. "I will have a very difficult round against Isner in the first round, so I am focused on that."
And what of his new arch-rival Djokovic - the man who has defeated him in four consecutive ATP Masters 1000 finals this year? "He's playing well and the confidence is high. For that reason he's doing everything well. So the thing is he's good and we can congratulate him for everything, because what's he's doing is very difficult," he added. Far be it from Nadal to rain on anybody's parade....