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Henin chases rare hat-trick on Paris clay
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May 25, 2007 08:12 IST

Justine Henin chases a third consecutive French Open crown but faces a challenge from familiar rivals and a handful of hungry young ones.

The resilient 24-year-old, back at the top of the game after overcoming the breakdown of her four-year marriage, goes for a feat only Monica Seles, with back-to-back wins from 1990 to 1992, has achieved since the start of the professional era.

Henin, who had a fantastic run in 2006, has had to fight personal turmoil with a split from husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne and a subsequent withdrawal from the Australian Open in January.

Having a shorter name did not, however, diminish her skills and the combative Belgian soon showed how mentally strong she was, recapturing the number one spot with back-to-back titles in Doha and Dubai.

Her claycourt season, with just one title so far in Warsaw, has been below par to her own standards but that does not mean she should be ruled out when action starts in Paris on Sunday.

Standing in Henin's way will be a woman who has just produced her own comeback script when many felt her power-based game no longer held the same menace.

Serena Williams warned the world she was still a threat by crushing Maria Sharapova in this year's Australian Open final and certainly has what it takes to ruin Henin's plans.

A groin strain has since kept the former world number one out for weeks but her recent quarter-final appearance in Rome suggested the American could be at her devastating best in the French capital.


Russia's Sharapova, who enjoyed the view from the top while Henin was struggling, feels more at ease on faster surfaces and has never gone beyond the quarter-finals in Paris and her recent form has not suggested she might do any better this year.

Amelie Mauresmo also has a Paris problem, made even worse by the fact that the home crowd are always desperate to see her shine there.

Like Sharapova, the former world number one has never gone beyond the last eight there.

Added to that, she has only recently returned from two months out with appendicitis and is short of match practice.

The good side of it all, she said, was that she would not be expected to do well, which could take some of the pressure off.

"All eyes will not be on me this time and that could be a positive thing," she said.


For Henin, the danger will not come chiefly from Williams, Sharapova or Mauresmo but from Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova, her final opponent here last year.

"Clay is Svetlana's favourite surface", said the Belgian, who also won the French in 2003. "She has the potential to go all the way."

Russia has more than just Kuznetsova to throw at Henin with newcomer Anna Chakvetadze and Nadia Petrova among those with the right to be ambitious.

Henin knows, however, that the geography of a slightly weakened women's game is rapidly changing and Serbia now looks just as threatening as Russia.

Teenager Ana Ivanovic sounded a clear warning by beating Kuznetsova in the Berlin final earlier this month and another competitor from Serbia, Jelena Jankovic, could also do damage.

Jankovic, 22, has won three titles this year, two of them on clay, in Charleston and notably Rome, where she beat Kuznetsova in the final to reach a career-high number four in the world and highlight her status as a top French Open contender.

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