French Open champions ready to defy convention

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The Independent Online

According to modern tennis wisdom it is well nigh impossible for French Open champions to dust off the clay from Roland Garros and win on the green grass of Wimbledon a month later.

Within the next seven days we will know whether that theory still holds good, but evidence to the contrary is gathering pace. Twelve months ago Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin-Hardenne, the French champions, came to Wimbledon and won one match between them. Nadal beat Vince Spadea before losing to Gilles Muller, while Henin-Hardenne lost to Eleni Daniilidou of Greece in the first round.

This year Nadal and Henin-Hardenne retained their Paris titles and have safely negotiated the first week at Wimbledon. Henin-Hardenne in particular is looking in excellent shape to win the only Grand Slam tournament that has eluded her and if a Nadal victory would be a much greater surprise it would still take a brave pundit to discount totally the chances of the man from Majorca.

Given the comparative lack of strength in depth, women's tournaments are always more difficult to assess in the early stages than men's. Although three contenders in Venus Williams, Martina Hingis and Svetlana Kuznetsova have gone out here, the top four in the seedings, Amélie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne and Maria Sharapova, have yet to drop a set.

The top half of the draw is likely to see Mauresmo and three Russians - Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva - contest the quarter-finals. In the other half Henin-Hardenne looks likely to renew her rivalry in the semi-finals with Clijsters, although Nicole Vaidisova, French Open semi-finalist, could yet trip up Clijsters.

The men's singles appears more clear-cut. Roger Federer believes he has made his best ever start at Wimbledon and has yet to drop a set, although he could face major challenges against young guns in the next two rounds. If the world No 1 beats Tomas Berdych he faces the winner of a fascinating fourth-round match between Novak Djokovic and Mario Ancic, two of the game's most improved players.

Djokovic, a good friend of Andy Murray's and born within a week of the Scot, enjoyed a great run to the French Open quarter-finals before losing to Nadal and has brought that form to the All England Club. He has already beaten Tommy Robredo, the No 11 seed, and in the last round showed great composure to come back from a set down against Mikhail Youzhny.

Ancic is the last player to have beaten Federer at Wimbledon. The Croat has not had the simplest of passages to the fourth round, but he proved his grass-court credentials with his victory in the Rosmalen tournament last month.

One of the semi-finalists in Federer's half of the draw will come from Fernando Verdasco, Radek Stepanek, Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi. Verdasco will be the favourite, having knocked out David Nalbandian. Bjorkman and Mirnyi, who face each other, are doubles partners. Bjorkman is enjoying an Indian summer as a singles player, while Mirnyi is at last living up to the potential he has always shown on grass.

The bottom half of the men's draw is intriguing. Lleyton Hewitt is the player with the grass-court pedigree, having won the Wimbledon title four years ago, but his form here has been patchy and he does not quite cut the dashing figure of 2002. If he plays Murray in the quarter-finals, the Scot will have the psychological advantage of having beaten him on their only previous meeting, in San Jose earlier this year.

Which leaves us with Nadal's quarter of the draw. The Spaniard appears to have the easiest task in the fourth round, against Irakli Labadze, a Georgian qualifier ranked No 166 in the world. The winner meets either Dmitry Tursunov or Jarkko Nieminen.

Nadal has beaten Federer in four finals this year. If he were to meet the world No 1 on his own territory there is no doubt that Federer would be fancied to win his fourth successive title, but, as the likes of Brazil and Argentina have discovered in Germany, being favourite can count for nothing in the heat of battle.