In a year of change at Roland Garros, the winners may stay the same

PARIS: It is another year of change at the French Open. The plan for a new stadium with a retractable roof might be on hold because of London's victory over Paris for the 2012 Summer Olympics. But the signs of progress are still there in this leafy corner of the French capital.

For the first time, the women's and men's champion will be paid equally. That is no small triumph in a country where women's tennis - Suzanne Lenglen aside - has long been perceived as the weak sibling of the men's game.

For the first time, the tournament will begin on a Sunday. Also no small triumph for a sport that is trying to increase its appeal to television and sponsors. It should not have quite the same impact this year, with the start of soccer's World Cup set to cast a huge shadow over the final stages of this event. But extending a Grand Slam to 15 days and, above all, into a third weekend is a good shop window for the game.

The players were already here. The stadium was already open for business with the qualifying tournament and the charity tournament. Why not start the real thing a day earlier and benefit from the increased exposure?

"It's hard to believe nobody has done this before," said the American player Paul Goldstein, whose own national championship, the U.S. Open, could eventually follow suit.

The French move not only makes commercial sense. It makes linguistic sense. The French were already calling their tournament "la quinzaine," a French expression that has come to mean two weeks. The trouble is, it translates as "15 days." Now, Roland Garros is a true quinzaine, one that will stage the first round over three days instead of two.

That will mean an extra bit of restfor some of the top players, who are often in need of repose as the most physically demanding major reaches a climax. Yet despite the change in the schedule and the change in Friday's draw, which was electronic instead of manual this year, it is unclear how much will change on the crushed red brick.

On current form, it would be no surprise to see last year's singles champions, Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin- Hardenne, turn into this year's singles champions.

Nadal, who turns 20 next Saturday, will set a new Open-era record if he wins his 54th consecutive claycourt match by beating the unseeded Swede Robin Soderling in his first round. "I'm going to try my best," said Nadal. "Not for the record. For Roland Garros."

Other seeded men have tougher opening hurdles, none tougher than No. 9 Fernando Gonzalez, the huge-hitting Chilean who faces the struggling but still dangerous Marat Safin. No. 3 David Nalbandian plays the promising Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, and No. 5 Andy Roddick, who is uncertain to play after spraining two ligaments in his left ankle in Düsseldorf, is to face another tough clay-courter, Alberto Martin of Spain.

Although Henin-Hardenne is seeded just fifth, she remains the most accomplished woman on clay, a surface on which she moves beautifully and which allows her the split-second extra to bring her wide variety of shots into play.

Yet she is hardly an overwhelming favorite. She remains injury prone, and though she sagely limited her play this spring to conserve her resources, she was beaten twice: first by the streaky Swiss left-hander Patty Schnyder in the semifinals in Charleston, South Carolina, and then by Nadia Petrova in a fine three-set final in Berlin.

Henin-Hardenne already had beaten Petrova in three sets on clay in the quarterfinals of Fed Cup in Belgium. If there is a rematch here, it will also come in the quarterfinals.

Petrova, seeded third, has been the surprise of the season. Clearly talented but mentally fragile, the square- shouldered Russian has consistently failed to seize opportunities in major tournaments, but she has won four Sony Ericsson WTA Tour events this year, three of them on clay. Now comes Roland Garros, where she reached the semifinals in 2003 and 2005.

"I think it's clear that Nadia and Justine are a bit in front of everyone else on clay," said Amélie Mauresmo, the No. 1 seed from France. "But after that, it's very open."

It could have become even more open if Mauresmo had injured herself on Friday when her chair collapsed as she sat down for her news conference. But she recovered her balance beautifully and also laughed hysterically - maybe she is looser this year - and the only French star who had to withdraw turned out to be last year's finalist, Mary Pierce.

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