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Expect great feats on clay at French Open

  • Story Highlights
  • Rafael Nadal is the king of clay at Roland Garros and favorite to win forth title
  • Roger Federer aiming to hand Spaniard first ever defeat at Roland Garros
  • Retirement of Justine Henin means women's competition most open for years
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By Dean Irvine
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(CNN) -- From May 25 the world's best tennis players will gather in Paris, each aiming to leave their mark on the red clay of Roland Garros during the French Open.

The red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier has been ruled by Rafael Nadal for the last three years.

The shock news earlier this month that Justine Henin, the women's champion at Roland Garros for the last three years, is retiring from the game immediately means the women's event will be more open than for years.

If the Queen of Roland Garros won't be defending her crown, Rafael Nadal, the king of clay, has no plans to give up his throne.

The second Grand Slam tournament of the year should serve up some treats for tennis lovers, but the officials of Roland Garros are aware that tennis' reputation has been dirtied recently.

An investigation into match-fixing and betting in the game led to an attempt to ban online gambling companies from offering bets on the championship. It failed, so those who like long odds could place a bet against Rafael Nadal picking up a forth consecutive title if they like.

The champion for the past three years has criticized the ATP's tournament scheduling that left him complaining of blisters and sore hamstrings after another tournament win in Hamburg last week. However no one will doubt his will to win again in Paris.

Handing Nadal his first ever defeat in Paris will probably take a feat of endurance and daring redolent of Roland Garros himself, the pioneering French aviator of whom the championship is named after.

The clay court season is the only time of the year that Roger Federer has to play second fiddle. However despite talk that the Swiss maestro is fallible on clay, if it wasn't for Nadal, who has beaten him in at Roland Garros in the last three years, Federer would have had the full set of Grand Slams he so desperately wants.

To capture the elusive French title, Federer has hired new coach Jose Higueras, a two time semi-finalist in Paris and a man who should know about how to get the best out of the Swiss on the red stuff.

Andy Roddick won't feature at all in the men's draw because of a shoulder injury, but he has rarely bothered the event organizers much in the second week in Paris.

Expect there to be a number of Spanish names still in the draw in the later stages of the competition, including world number five David Ferrer, while world number three, Novak Djokovic won on the Roman clay earlier this month and carries the belief and form to replicate his Australian Open success in Paris.

The home crowd will look to Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to provide some Gallic joy in the men's draw, although Gasquet, the French number 1, admits to being woefully out of form.

Bowing out from the game after the tournament will be Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, a former three-time champion.

It would be fitting if he had the chance to say goodbye on Court Philippe Chatrier, something Henin won't be able to do.

The women's game will be a poorer place without Justine Henin. It's a great loss for tennis to be losing such a unique competitor and the possessor of the sweetest single-fisted backhand in the game, but it will give hope to the ladies who have been waiting to take her crown.

In the race for rankings points in the WTA, it's tight at the top of the women's game.

However, a final showdown between last year's beaten finalist Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova the current Australian Open champion could point towards who will inherit Henin's role as world number 1 in the coming years, as well as testing the cameramen's powers of concentration on the match.

This year the luck of the draw might have a larger part to play in determining the finalists on June 7. Other top players Jelana Jankovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova and the Williams sisters will all believe that they can win it.

Outside of the top 10, Dinara Safina has proven she can beat the best on clay this year. It could prove to be a breakthrough event for Safina as it was for Ivanovic last year.

After two week of relentless baseline rallies on the court, and champagne corks popped off it, we'll just have to see where the red dust settles.

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