5 21 2008 12214 l - New era crown beckons for Sharapova and Ivanovic

New era crown beckons for Sharapova and Ivanovic

PARIS: Seldom has the French Open got underway with so much uncertainty shrouding the women's game.

Justine Henin's shock retirement last week saw the year's second Grand Slam tournament lose its queen and hot favourite, the little Belgian having triumphed here in four of the last five years including the last three straight.

Who will take over her tiara in Paris is anything but clear with the top candidates all struggling to a greater or lesser degree with a combination of injuries, loss of form and sheer fatigue.

In Henin's absence, Maria Sharapova will inherit the top seeding and just a few weeks ago, the tall Russian, who once said she was like "a cow on ice" when playing on clay, looked like she could mount a serious challenge for the first time.

But her storming start to the season, including a first clay-court title at Amelia Island, was badly stalled in Rome last week when she had to pull out of her semi-final with Jelena Jankovic due to a strained calf muscle.

There are serious doubts over whether her fragile physical state can withstand two weeks of grind and grit at Roland Garros.

Sharapova, who reached the semi-finals here last year for the first time in five attempts, like Roger Federer says that Wimbledon will always remain her top priority, but like the Swiss magician, she is desperate to win in Paris to complete a career Grand Slam.

Serena Williams met a similar fate to Sharapova in Italy having to withdraw from her quarter-final tie after hurting her back while training, just the latest in a long litany of injuries that regularly sideline the former world No.1.

She insists the injury should not prevent her from challenging for a second French Open crown after that of 2002, but the 26-year-old, like older sister Venus, has never felt that comfortable in Paris where their power games are defused by the slow surface and their popularity has never been high.

All that could open the door for Italian Open winner Jankovic and her younger compatriot Ana Ivanovic who made the final last year only to embarrassingly collapse in a heap of nerves when faced with Henin.

Ivanovic will have the added incentive of knowing that a win in Paris could see her become world No.1 for the first time at the age of just 20 opening up a huge panorama of riches and fame that could possibly rival that of 21-year-old Sharapova, whom she crushed in straight sets in last year's semis.

A Grand Slam final between the two glamour girls of women's tennis, one blonde, one brunette, would be a huge draw for the tournament and possibly set the stage for a lengthy rivalry that could underpin the sport's popularity in the years to come.

That leaves the rest of the Russian brigade with any of 2006 runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova, 2004 runner-up Elena Dementieva, Anna Chakvetadze or Vera
Zvonareva capable of mounting a challenge.

Hopes of a first French win on home soil since Mary Pierce in 2000 look dim.

Amelie Mauresmo looks set to be in a downward spiral and will be lucky to make it past the first week, Marion Bartoli is not at her best on clay and last week's suprise Italian Open finalist Alize Cornet is still too tender at just 18.