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Henin exit opens door for Sharapova, Serbs PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 26 May 2008

REUTERS, LONDON- Justine Henin's decision to call it quits at 25 earlier this month has not so much left a hole at the top of the French Open draw as a gaping chasm which new world number one Maria Sharapova will be aching to fill.  

Henin has won four of the last five grand slams at Roland Garros and her shock retirement has left the field as open as if Roger Federer hung up his strings a fortnight before Wimbledon.

For, unless Serena Williams produces the kind of cavalier run that saw her emerge from the depths of the draw at the Australian Open last year, there will be a new champion's name inscribed on the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen on June 7.

With Henin gone, Williams, victor over sister Venus in the 2002 final, is the only former champion in the 128-strong field, and form and history point elsewhere for the successor to the diminutive Belgian's crown.

The closest Sharapova, 21, has come to winning on the red dust in Paris was last year, but a crushing 6-2 6-1 loss to Ana Ivanovic in the semis suggested she may never win a slam away from the faster courts of Flushing Meadow and Wimbledon.

Sharapova exacted sweet revenge when she beat Ivanovic in the Australian Open final in January and victory in the season-ending Tour Championships in Madrid two months earlier suggested a steelier resolve than previously shown.

Despite a niggling calf injury she looks well set to break her Paris duck.

"Last year I basically played without a shoulder and I got to the semi-final," Sharapova said after her withdrawal from the Italian Open earlier this month.

FOLDED MISERABLY

"At a grand slam stage you are going to do whatever it takes," said Sharapova, who has added titles at Doha and Amelia Island since her Melbourne Park triumph.

The form of Ivanovic, who scorched her way through the draw at Roland Garros last year only to fold miserably in the final against Henin, continues to ebb between brilliant and modest.

She reached the final in Melbourne and waltzed to the title in Indian Wells in March only to exit meekly from her two appearances on clay this season in Berlin and Rome. "I'm very excited to be going back," the world number two told Reuters. "I have really nice memories from last year and it was a great achievement for me.

"It was also kind of unexpected so this year for sure I'm looking forward to taking one more step and maybe winning the title but it is going to be very hard." Ivanovic will be more aware than anyone of the threat to her Paris aspirations posed by Serbian rival Jelena Jankovic.

Unlike the top two seeds, Jankovic has a clay title under her belt this season (Rome) although she had never passed the third round at Roland Garros until last year when she seemed destined to challenge before a walloping from Henin in the last four.

"Now she's (Henin) not playing, I have a bigger chance. I am playing well at the moment, I think I have a big opportunity to do well at the French Open," she said.

The loose cannon as ever is Serena Williams and, as she proved in Melbourne last year, is at her very best when written off.

Her 17-match winning streak came to an end in Berlin only at the start of this month, beating Jankovic, Sharapova and Henin in the process while picking up titles at Bangalore, Miami and Charleston.

She pulled out of the Italian Open quarter-finals with a back injury this month, but she said: "I don't expect this to cause any problems with my preparation for the French. I feel like I am going to be good going into Roland Garros.

"I am in really good form, so I'm going to be going in there with a couple of wins under my belt."

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