Ferrero facing tough defense of title

In America, young athletes dream of winning the World Series or the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. In Europe, tiny tennis players see themselves winning the French Open on the marvelous red clay of Roland Garros. Last year, two of them -- Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium and Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero -- achieved that goal for the first time.

Ferrero's ascension to the crown was logical; he reached the semifinals in his first two appearances in Paris and then lost the 2002 final to eventual champion Albert Costa. In 2003, Ferrero defeated Costa in the semifinals and won the first Grand Slam event of his career against Martin Verkerk in stark, straight sets.

If very recent history is any indication, it was a brief reign.

Ferrero, who finished 2003 as the No. 3 ranked player in the world, has struggled this year. He started well enough, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, though losing to Roger Federer. That gave Ferrero, who was also the runner-up to Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open, three semifinals in four Grand Slam appearances. But then there was a loss to Lleyton Hewitt in the final at Rotterdam and a bout with chicken pox in March. Ferrero produced a nice pair of Davis Cup victories against The Netherlands, but then there was a semifinal exit in Valencia courtesy of countryman Fernando Verdasco. But the telling moment came in Monte Carlo, where Ferrero was the two-time defending champion. He lost a first-round match to Alex Corretja 6-2, 6-3 and promptly left without speaking to the media.

To make matters worse, Ferrero fell on his right wrist practicing in Valencia two days before the Hamburg tournament began. He says he'll defend his title, but his form is suspect at best.

The favorites for this year's French, by a wide, wide margin are Federer and Guillermo Coria, who met earlier this month in the Hamburg Masters final. Federer ended Coria's 31-match, clay-court winning streak with a decisive 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 victory.

Since winning his first Grand Slam at last year's Wimbledon, Federer has taken two of the past three Slams and went undefeated in the season-ending Masters Cup. He handled Marat Safin in the Australian Open final and has fashioned a sparkling 32-3 record this year that includes four titles (Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells and Hamburg). His record on clay is 9-1. Only Coria has done better; he was 16-0 entering the Hamburg final.

Last year, Coria played better at Roland Garros, defeating Andre Agassi in the quarterfinals before losing to Martin Verkerk in the semifinal. Federer, memorably, lost in the first round for the second consecutive year, to Luis Horna. That was, of course, before Federer found his confidence at Wimbledon.

"I'm more relaxed now," Federer said after winning the Hamburg title. "The last two years I went to Paris with very high hopes. I thought if I had been in the quarterfinals in 2001 and had won Hamburg in 2002, I can do better at the French. That was tough for me mentally in the last two years.

"Now I'm more relaxed and know how to approach Grand Slams. Before, I was hoping to squeeze through the first round. Now I know what it takes to get through."

The other man to watch is Carlos Moya, the 1998 champion at Roland Garros. He is currently second to Federer in the INDESIT ATP 2004 Race and won five titles on five continents in the first five months of the season. Moya's record is 36-8.

Andy Roddick, fourth in the Race standings, has four clay titles among the 13 he has amassed in his brief career. Still, he lost to Guillermo Canas in the first round at Rome and Roland Garros, where he has exited in the first round the last two years, is the only Grand Slam in which he has a losing record (2-3).

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.