Federer gets tough Paris mission

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Rafael Nadal claimed the first victory of the French Open on Friday after defending champion Roger Federer was handed a tricky draw while Serena Williams was on collision course with long-time rival Justine Henin.

Federer, whose Roland Garros win in 2009 allowed him to complete a career Grand Slam, opens against Australia’s Peter Luczak and could face Swiss compatriot Stanilas Wawrinka in the fourth round. However, last year’s runner-up Robin Soderling, who sent four-time champion Nadal crashing to his first French Open defeat in 2009, could be a quarterfinal opponent.
The same applies to Latvia’s in-form Ernests Gulbis, the man who beat Federer at the Rome Masters in April and Spain’s Albert Montanes who defeated the top seed in the semi-finals in Estoril. Should Federer make the semi-final, fourth-seeded Briton Andy Murray, who has a 6-5 career advantage over the Swiss, may be waiting.
Murray has an intriguing first round clash with France’s Richard Gasquet. Second seed Nadal, fresh from sweeping all three claycourt Masters title and the overwhelming favourite to regain his Roland Garros title, will face French wildcard Gianni Mina, the world 653, in his first round.
Australian veteran Lleyton Hewitt, who has lost three times in four years to Nadal in Paris, is a possible third round opponent. Nadal’s Spanish compatriot Fernando Verdasco, who has a 0-10 against the world number two, is a potential quarter-final foe.
World number four Novak Djokovic, who has been battling allergy problems, is seeded to meet Nadal in the semi-finals. Federer, with a record 16 Grand Slam titles, has admitted he will go into the French Open with all the pressure off after finally winning a first Paris title.
“I’m more relaxed. From 2002, people were asking me: ‘So you are going to do it?’ You just had to ignore it,” said Federer, who has warmed up for his title defence by playing an exhibition tournament in Paris.
Before Federer defeated Soderling in the 2009 final, he had lost the 2006, 2007 and 2008 finals to Nadal as well as the 2005 semi-final against the Spaniard. “Now I come into the tournament with more enthusiasm. In the past I never knew if I was happy or not about returning.
“It was always hard leaving Paris having lost the final and knowing that I’d have to come back the next year, face new challengers and win seven matches. There was always a lot of pressure.”
In the women’s draw, top seed Serena Williams, the 2002 champion, was handed a testing path with four-time champion Justine Henin a possible quarter-final opponent. Henin, the winner in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007 before sensationally quitting the sport on the eve of the 2008 event, is playing here for the first time since her return to the game. — AFP
Belgium’s former number one lost in three sets to Williams in the final of the Australian Open in January, a result that gave the American a 12th Grand Slam title. Williams holds an 8-6 career record over Henin, but the Belgian, seeded 22, has won both their Roland Garros meetings — in 2003 and 2007.
Also in Williams’s top half of the draw is another former world number one, Maria Sharapova, another possible last eight opponent, but whose recent form has been blighted by injury.
Serena starts her French Open campaign against Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele while Henin faces Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova. Venus Williams, the second seed and runner-up to her sister in 2002, faces Swiss veteran Patty Schnyder in the first round while defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, the sixth seed, starts against Romania’s Sorana Cirstea.
World number three Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, who has been struggling with an ankle injury, tackles Russia’s Alla Kudryavtseva in the first round. — AFP

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