Top players struggle with health

The French Open defending champion has been infested with a curious virus that leaves the once-indomitable competitor weak and listless. The robust fellow Belgian she defeated in last year's final, heretofore one of the hardiest players in the game, is sidelined with a throbbing left wrist. The American sisters, both former world No. 1s, are in various stages of disrepair -- one is troubled by a surgically repaired knee that kept her sidelined for eight months, while the other has suffered from leg and ankle ailments.

No wonder organizers of the French Open, which begins Monday in Paris, were thrilled to announce that 47-year-old Martina Navratilova would play singles at Roland Garros -- a decade after her last appearance at Court Philippe Chatrier.

"Hopefully," Navratilova said of her French finale, "I'll put on a good show. They can put me on Court 16 if they like -- I don't care.

"Am I afraid? Afraid of what? Afraid of losing? It's not like I'm getting in the ring with Mike Tyson."

Uh, no. With all of the injuries and illnesses, Navratilova -- always a threat in doubles and mixed doubles -- might actually pull off a victory or two in singles. The Porsche Race to the Championship standings (as distinguished from the overall rankings) do not exactly inspire fear. Svetlana (Kuznetsova), Anastasia (Myskina), Patty (Schnyder), Vera (Zvonareva) and Silvia (Farina Elia) do not roll off the tennis tongue quite like Justine, Kim, Venus and Serena, but they, too, are ranked among the season's top 10.

Justine Henin-Hardenne has been the best player in women's tennis for the last year. She broke through for her first Grand Slam victory at last year's French Open, then followed up with a victory at the U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open, giving her three of four titles. But that superlative run may have taxed her modest 5-foot-6, 126-pound frame.

Henin-Hardenne withdrew from the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, where she was the defending champion, in mid-April. She complained of being light-headed, a condition she said was due to low blood sugar.

"I felt bad for two weeks, and that's enough," she said. "I will now go back home and do everything I have to do in order to get better."

That was five weeks ago. Henin-Hardenne did not play in Rome or Berlin and while she remains in the French Open field, there are grave questions about her ability to withstand seven matches in two weeks after that kind of sabbatical.

Kim Clijsters, a finalist at Roland Garros in 2001 and 2003, pulled out of the tournament last week. She has suffered from a torn tendon in her left wrist and after withdrawing from Berlin before her third-round match was advised by doctors to rest for at least five weeks before it became a chronic injury. Clijsters is right-handed, but needs her left hand for her two-handed backhand.

With the decline of the Belgians, the tennis world seemed poised for a Williams sisters' reign. Instead Serena and Venus Williams fell to No. 3 and No. 11 in the world -- their lowest combined rankings since 1998, their first full season on the WTA Tour. While they both reached the 2003 Wimbledon final -- with Serena winning over an ailing Venus -- it was their last effort on a truly grand scale.

Venus took off the last half of the season to nurse a severe abdominal muscle pull. Serena had surgery to repair her left knee on Aug. 1 and didn't return to action until March. She withdrew before her third-round match at Charleston in April. At the Italian Open in Rome, Serena was the top seed but fell to Jennifer Capriati 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals -- after winning the previous eight matches.

"There are some things I want to work on going into the French," Serena told reporters after the match. "I'm definitely going to ameliorate them and become a real force, for sure, by French Open time."

For sure. While her rapidly expanding vocabulary has been in fine form, Serena's French form cannot be gauged. Venus, too, is shrouded by mystery.

When she won at Warsaw in early May, Venus looked like the French favorite. It was her second consecutive title, to go with the Family Circle Cup taken three weeks earlier. In between, there was a pair of Federation Cup victories over Slovenia. And then -- riding a 15-match winning streak -- Venus sprained her left ankle during a semifinal match in Berlin. She couldn't play the final and Amelie Mauresmo was crowned champion.

"I'm optimistic," said Venus, who was on crutches the day of the final. "I would really, really like to play the French."

Mauresmo backed that up with a finals victory the following week in Rome. She saved two match points, defeating Capriati 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6) on Sunday. The only other women to win the German and Italian Opens back to back were Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, in 1987 and 1990. Both won the French later the same spring.

And so, the favorite heading into the season's second Grand Slam suddenly is Mauresmo, the pride of St, Germains en Laye, France. Perhaps only Britain's Tim Henman, the frenzied, favorite son each year at Wimbledon, feels the kind of pressure Mauresmo has endured in Paris. After failing to escape the fourth round in her previous eight tournaments at Roland Garros, Mauresmo reached the quarterfinals last year, losing to Serena Williams.

Not even Mauresmo has been immune to the health issues in the women's game. A back injury forced her to withdraw from her quarterfinal match at the Australian Open. Still, with all the attrition in the women's game, can she finally win in Paris?

"I hope -- we'll see," Mauresmo said. "Of course, it gives a lot of confidence to win these kind of matches, especially in the final."

Even Capriati, the 2001 French Open champion, and Lindsay Davenport -- a semifinalist in 1998 and a two-time quarterfinalist -- would seem to have a chance in the coming fortnight.

On clay, the ball hangs longer in the air, which makes for longer matches. More time on the court places more stress on already stressed-out muscles and tendons. In life and in tennis, the strongest usually survives in the end. This year at Roland Garros, the old adage never will be more true.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.