Women's tennis is enjoying an exciting, chaotic renaissance with the return from retirement of not one, but two top-flight players in Belgium's Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
But until the Belgians get their tour rankings up to their true worth, they're throwing a monkey wrench into the rankings that tournament organizers use to seed the players. This year's French Open is likely to be only slightly less unbridled as the 2010 Australian Open, where unseeded Justine Henin went all the way to the final, slaughtering seeded players right and left in her wake.
In the next few weeks, the Belgians will try to remedy this shortcoming by picking up ranking points in Rome, Madrid, Warsaw and other clay court events leading up to the French Open, which starts May 23.
Even if she wins a few titles, it will be virtually impossible for Henin, whose current rank is 23, to get inside the top 8 rankings in time for the French Open. Which means that, depending on the luck of the draw, she could face Serena Williams or Clijsters in a round of 16 match. Fun for the fans, but a tournament organizer's nightmare.
Clijsters, whose current rank is 10, should be able to move up a few notches to get safely inside the top 8 -- which will protect her from meeting Serena in the early rounds, if not Justine.
I suspect all three women will be in the top 4 by years' end -- but in what order?
I also think one of these three will be holding the 2010 French Open trophy, too. Let's start with Serena.
Serena "Bleep!" Williams
The good news is that world No. 1 Williams, who has been out with a knee injury since winning the Australian Open in January, has committed to play in the Rome tournament which begins May 2. That doesn't mean she won't pull out at the last minute, which she's done many times along the years from her various ailments. But it is a good sign she's going to be laboring on the red clay of Roland Garros.
Clay is Serena's worst surface. It mutes her ferocious groundstrokes and saps the sizzle on her serve. Serena's game is all aggression, and clay is all about patience. Long rallies, back and forth, before setting up the winning shot.
Can Williams win a second French Open to go with her 2002 win? Absolutely. Williams has proven over and over again that she is the fiercest competitor in the game, and can will her body -- injured, out of shape, whatever -- to win.
Will she win any of the tournaments leading up to the French Open? Doubtful. Serena doesn't get psyched up for the lesser tournaments anymore. Her wins in 2009 were the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the end of the season championships. If you're only going to win three tournaments in a year, those are pretty good ones.
She'll also need to keep her emotions in check, since she's still on probation with the WTA for the "If I could, I would take this BLEEP! ball and shove it down your BLEEP! throat" debacle at the 2009 U.S. Open.
Kim "Super Mom" Clijsters
Unless you've been on Mars, you know that Clijsters came back from a two-year retirement in which she got married and had a baby, to win the 2009 U.S. Open as an unseeded player (see above, Belgians, monkey wrench).
Virtually every interview with Kim leads to a discussion about how much happier she is to have her main focus on daughter Jada, rather than tennis. Having the daughter lets her put tennis in the correct perspective, life is more fun, etc.
That's all well and good, if a little rote at this point. But I'm noticing something about Clijsters that I didn't notice in the first half of her career before retirement.
She's a little bit like a Stepford wife.
Kim Clijsters is so completely controlled and committed to being nice that even when she's enduring the most horrific meltdowns of her game -- and there have been a few incidents since her comeback -- her face and demeanor show nothing more alarming than an internal debate about what's she's going to pick up at the grocery store after the match.
She inexplicably loses control of matches she has well underhand, including a weird 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 walkabout win against Venus Williams at last year's U.S. Open. She's had two matches this year against Henin (no love lost between those two) in which she was up a set and a break before squandering her momentum and letting Henin force it to a closely-contested third. Narrow escapes for Kim in both cases.
I thought this all might be just temporary rust in her game until I heard commentator Lindsay Davenport make the same point, describing how Clijsters once had a huge lead against her years back and yet somehow let Davenport back in to win.
Will Clijsters do well in the clay season? Probably. Will she win the 2010 French Open? Maybe, if she can keep her focus. Will she ever throw a Grade A hissy fit on court? Never!
Justine "Eponine" Henin
In the musical "Les Miserables" there's a character named Eponine, a street urchin who is the daughter of pickpockets. I think of scrappy Justine that way, with her deceptively scrawny frame, picking the pockets of bigger, stronger girls on the tour.
When she retired in 2008, Henin was the world's premier clay court player, having won the French Open four times, including three in a row 2005-07. She's come back at an extremely high level, and one can only expect her game to continue growing as she moves onto her best surface.
Rankings be damned, Henin is the one to beat at Roland Garros. At Wimbledon, tournament organizers sometimes ignore the computer rankings and order the players in terms of their grass court skill. If the Roland Garros folks have any sense they'll do the same and seed her in the top 4.
Playing well, has one several minor tournaments this year; but at 29 is probably not going to win on her worst surface. Looking to get to Wimbledon.
World's No. 2 player has good well-rounded game but no huge weapons. Could do well in the clay court season but unlikely to wear the crown in Paris.
See Wozniacki, above
Former No. 1 collapsed under the pressure of being No. 1 without ever having won a grand slam. Out with back injury, might be back for Paris but unlikely to excel.
If I had to pick someone outside the Serena-Kim-Justine triad, it would be this feisty Russian who has had Serena on the ropes several times. She's a grand slam winner just waiting to happen.
Since the rankings are so skewed, there is a scenario where Justine and Serena play an epic round of 16 match, and it takes so much out of the survivor that she falls in the next round to some lucky player. But I have to believe that Serena, Kim or Justine will be holding the trophy in Paris.
What do you think?