Li the only real threat to queen Williams
Updated: 2014-05-25 07:14
By Reuters in Paris (China Daily)
China's Li Na looms as the greatest threat to defending French Open champion Serena Williams at Roland Garros. Li won the year's first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January. Matthew Stockman / Getty Images / AFP
Serena poised to join Navratilova and Evert with 18 Slam titles
Six different champions over the past six years suggest that tipping a French Open women's champion is something of a lottery, but those backing world No 1 Serena Williams are surely investing wisely.
The American powerhouse claimed a second Roland Garros crown last year-11 years after her first-and warmed up for the defense of her crown by winning the Rome title last Sunday, dropping just one set and 22 games all week.
It was a return to the form that helped Williams win 11 titles in 2013 and proof, if any was needed, that the fire within burns as ferociously as ever as she returns to the city she calls her second home, chasing an 18th major singles that would tie her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
Former French Open champion Li Na is probably her main rival as the Chinese attempts to become the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the year's first two Slams.
Maria Sharapova, winner in 2012 and runner-up last year, will also be confident of a strong run after beating Li on the way to claiming the Madrid title this month.
Poland's gritty world No 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, and Serbian duo Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, the champion in 2008, will also be strong contenders while Simona Halep, the aggressive Romanian baseliner who has blasted into the top four, is more than capable of causing an upset.
Whoever Williams faces, however, she will not be feeling any extra pressure just because she is defending champion.
"Usually I'm like, 'Oh my God, I have to defend'. This time I'm going to be cool with it," Williams, who has bought a second Paris apartment near the Eiffel Tower, said recently when looking ahead to the French Open.
"I've been feeling that way for a while now. I think that's a good way to feel, since I won so many titles last year."
Ominously for her rivals, Williams' previous French Open triumphs both came following a title run in Rome.
Former semifinalist and reigning Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, now retired, said Williams's match temperament was her biggest asset and the reason she still sets the standard.
"I'm so impressed with how focused she is going into every Grand Slam," Bartoli, who will work as a commentator for ITV and Eurosport this year, said.
"She doesn't act like she's a favorite. She is just focused on winning every single match, which is why she is a champion. She goes into every match thinking she needs to play her best tennis, not that she's the favorite."
Gone are the days, it seems, when a teenager would jump out of the pack to capture a Grand Slam.
World No 2 Li is also 32 and, like Williams, appears to still be improving. She showed with her magnificent 2011 run in Paris when becoming the first player from an Asian country to win a Grand Slam singles title that she has the tools and the temperament to survive two weeks of claycourt battles.
A second-round defeat last year to American Bethanie Mattek-Sands left her at a low ebb but she rebounded impressively, reaching at least the quarterfinals in 13 of her next 14 tournaments and winning this year's Australian Open.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Li said during her run to the quarterfinals in Rome last week." I'm playing some high-quality matches. And I'm feeling pretty loose-I'm just going to do my best out there."
Sharapova, now comfortable sliding around on clay after looking clumsy on it earlier in her career, will benefit from being slightly under the radar this year after a shoulder injury meant a slow start to the year.
The former world No 1, now down at eighth in the WTA rankings, returned to her best form once the claycourt season started, winning back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Madrid.
"I've done a really good job of transitioning from the hard to the clay and really improving physically and recovering well from match to match," the Russian told the WTA's website.
"I've benefited from that in the last couple of years. I enjoy playing on all surfaces. But I'm really happy about changing my results on clay the last few years."
A dark horse for the title could be Romanian Halep, who is the most improved player on the Tour over the past couple of years.
Wins against Ivanovic and Petra Kvitova on the way to the final in Madrid have given her plenty of confidence as she bids to avoid a hat-trick of first-round exits at Roland Garros.
Women to watch
Country: United States
2014 match record:23-3
2014 singles titles: 3
Career singles titles: 60
Major titles:17 - French Open ( '02, '13), Wimbledon ( '02,'03,'09,'10, '12), US Open ( '99,'02,'08,'12, '13), Australian Open ( '03,'05,'07,'09, '10)
Past five French Opens: '13-Won Championship, '12-Lost in 1st Round, '11-Did Not Play, '10-QF, '09-QF
Topspin: Since the start of the 2012 claycourt season, she is 53-2 on the clay...Williams' 11 WTA clay titles are the most among active players...Is one Grand Slam title from matching Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18, the fourth-highest total behind Margaret Smith Court's record of 24.
2014 match record: 26-5
2014 singles titles: 2
Career singles titles: 9
Major titles:2 - French Open ( '11), Australian Open ( '14)
Past five French Opens: '13-2nd, '12-4th, '11-W, '10-3rd, '09-4th
Topspin: Won her second Grand Slam title in January at the Australian Open...At 2011 French Open, became the first player from China to win a Grand Slam singles championship...Won 73.4 percent of her service games in 2014, fourth - Best on tour.
2014 match record: 19-7
2014 singles titles: 1
Career singles titles: 7
Major titles:0 - Best: QF, at Australian Open ( '14)
Past five French Opens: '13-1st, '12-1st, '11-2nd, '10-1st, '09-DNP
Topspin: After finishing 2012 at 47th in the WTA rankings, then closing 2013 at a career - Best 11th... All seven of her career titles have come in the past 12 months...Had never been past the second round of a Grand Slam tournament until getting to the fourth round at the US Open last Septembe.
2014 match record: 24-6
2014 singles titles: 2
Career singles titles: 31
Major titles:4 - French Open ( '12), Wimbledon ( '04), US Open ( '06), Australian Open ( '08)
Past five French Opens: '13-F, '12-W, '11-SF, '10-3rd, '09-QF
Topspin: Is 46-4 on clay since 2012, including that year's title at the French Open and last year's runner-up finish to Williams. Three of those four losses came against Williams; the other was against Ana Ivanovic at Rome this month...Won clay titles at Madrid and Stuttgart this season.
2014 match record: 24-11
2014 singles titles: 1
Career singles titles: 4
Major titles:0 - Best: F, Australian Open ( '14)
Past five French Opens: '13-2nd, '12-QF, '11-1st, '10-3rd, '09-SF
2014 match record: 30-8
2014 singles titles: 2
Career singles titles: 13
Major titles:1 - French Open ( '08)
Past five French Opens: '13-4th, '12-3rd, '11-1st, '10-2nd, '09-4th
(China Daily 05/25/2014 page11)