Clay giant returns to Paris

Al Jazeera's Chris Tortise says Rafael Nadal is in ominous form at the French Open.

    Nadal is on course for an unprecedented 'Clay Slam' [AFP]

    Rafael Nadal held an unbeaten record at Roland Garros until Robin Soderling unseated the Spanish king at last year's French Open.

    It was one of the greatest shocks in men's tennis for years, and seemingly left Nadal a broken man.

    After dropping to number four in the world, the Spaniard has slowly worked his way back to fitness, and has returned to Paris in extraordinary form.

    Never before has anyone won the 'Clay Slam'; the three Masters 1000 titles at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid, and the French Open, all in one season.

    But I believe Nadal is on course to do that.

    The second seed had a deceptively tricky match against Gael Monfils-lookalike Gianni Mina.

    The French wildcard could be his countryman's double…but is ranked about 600 places lower in the world.

    But the 18-year-old produced an impressive display in front of a partisan crowd and pushed Nadal more than the 6-2 6-2 6-2 scoreline suggested, and is a name of the future.

    And yet the four-time winner at Roland Garros ground out victory with some stunning play.


    Any lesser player than Nadal would have crumbled under the onslaught of shots from the young Frenchman.

    No greater preparation at the French Open could have suited the Spaniard more, and he looks to be odds-on favourite to regain his beloved title.

    Roger Federer, the defending champion, and world number three Novak Djokovic had uneventful passages into the second round, both not being unduly tested.

    "Nobody has worked harder at her tennis than Safina, but for all the effort she puts into her game, she might as well be hitting the ball with a blade of grass"

    Chris Tortise

    But Britain's Andy Murray endured the most engaging match of the first round in Paris.

    Against a resurgent Richard Gasquet, the fourth seed fell two sets and a break behind, before suddenly finding his form and breaking the resolve of the home favourite.

    Clay is certainly the Scot's least favourite surface, but his performance against the former world number seven should give him heaps of confidence.

    He has a very tough draw, but could at least match his quarter-final showing of 2009.

    It would also be worth keeping a close eye on Spaniards Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer.

    Both are very competent on the clay, and could feature deep into the tournament.

    Performance of the round: Andy Murray coming back to beat Richard Gasquet in five.

    The women saw a welcome return to the legendary Justine Henin on Tuesday.

    The game has missed her beautiful play, stunning backhand, and dominance at Roland Garros.

    Like Nadal, the Belgian has won the title four times in Paris, and has not dropped a set since 2005 – 37 in a row!


    That is a stunning record that stretches the boundaries of belief.

    The returning Henin has an extraordinary record at Roland Garros [AFP]

    There's an aura about her on the clay, and it would be difficult to see her falling before the final.

    A quarter-final with Serena Williams could produce some fireworks, and after a three-set victory for Henin, she will go on to win the title.

    As for the 2008 and 2009 runner-up, Dinara Safina, her career seems to have taken a sharp downward plummet.

    I certainly feel sorry for the former world number one.

    Nobody has worked harder at her tennis than the Russian, but for all the effort she puts into her game, she might as well be hitting the ball with a blade of grass.

    Her build and strength should have the ball going through opponents' racquets, and yet sometimes it barely reaches them.

    The oldest player on the tour, Kimiko Date Krumm, made a mockery of her 39 years to beat the Russian, making her the oldest to ever beat a top ten player.

    Safina suffered a horrible back injury which could still be troubling her, and she needs to take some time out to recover fully and rediscover her long-lost form.

    Elena Dementieva has had a torrid time in recent months too, barely winning a match since early March.

    But she looks in good form, as does Caroline Wozniacki and the Serbians Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.

    They will probably all fall painfully early, but they could produce an upset.

    Defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is also struggling through, and is yet to be tested. Expect her to lose early this year.

    Performance of the round: 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm beating Dinara Safina.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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