Stage set for Nadal, Henin

Tennis French Open:Clay court specialists look to re-assert their supremacy in Paris

Stage set for Nadal, Henin

Plenty to ponder: Despite battling injury, Serena Williams still remains one of the top picks when the French Open kicks off on Sunday. APWhen the French Open begins on Sunday, the men's drawsheet will have a familiar look with Swiss world number one Federer and his claycourt nemesis seperated by 126 other players -- six wins each away from an eighth Grand Slam final clash.

Twelve months ago, Nadal's lock on Roland Garros was cracked by Sweden's Robin Soderling in a stunning fourth-round loss and Federer slid through the door to claim the elusive Major he craved.

It completed his career slam and as the Swiss marched on to claim a record breaking 15th Major at Wimbledon a few weeks later, Nadal watched from afar in Spain, the tendonitis in his knees casting doubts over his career and his off-court harmony shattered by his parents split. Suddenly, a classic rivalry that had elevated men's tennis to supreme new heights looked in jeopardy.

Thankfully, talk of his demise at age 24 was greatly exaggerated and the reassuring feel of red dust under his feet has re-ignited Nadal's engines. After dropping just 14 games on his way to a sixth successive Monte Carlo title last month, the world knew that Rafa was back.

Not that Federer, who will arrive in Paris as top seed but without a title since the Australian Open, ever doubted it.

"I expected him to come back strong, for me he was never gone," Federer said last week in Madrid before they met in a final for the first time in more than a year -- Nadal's victory taking him past Andre Agassi's record of 17 Masters titles.

Nadal, who will have plenty of Spanish company, not least the dangerous David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco, could hardly be in better shape as he arrives in Paris looking to reclaim the Coupe de Mousquetaires.

World number three Novak Djokovic has lost twice to Verdasco in the run-up, number four Andy Murray has suffered an alarming dip since losing to Federer in the Australian Open final and France's main hope, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, has struggled during the European claycourt swing.

On the women’s front, two years after Justine Henin stunned the sport by announcing her retirement at the age of 25 on the eve of her French Open defence, the Belgian is back and eager to show Roland Garros what it has been missing. Before Henin's self-enforced break, she reigned supreme on Parisian clay, winning the title on four out of the five previous years and she is already being tipped to sweep all before her over the next two weeks.

Svetlana Kuznetsova won the tournament last year, beating Dinara Safina in a mediocre final, while Ana Ivanovic claimed the title the year before. Worthy champions as they were, neither came anywhere close to emulating the tennis conjured by Henin.
With so much focus on the return of Henin, it is easy to overlook the fact that sisters Serena and Venus Williams sit at the top of the rankings.

Serena has been troubled by a left knee injury since beating Henin in Melbourne and admitted last week she is struggling for sharpness as she returns to the city where she has a house.

With Denmark's third-ranked Caroline Wozniacki troubled by an ankle injury in the build-up, former world number one Safina yet to really recover from a back injury, Kim Clijsters already ruled out and Kuznetsova just struggling for form, the stage is set for Henin.

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