Injury and illness beset reigning champions

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Their faces told the story yesterday as the reigning French Open singles champions, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Justine Henin-Hardenne, discussed their prospects of competing here at Roland Garros.

Their faces told the story yesterday as the reigning French Open singles champions, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Justine Henin-Hardenne, discussed their prospects of competing here at Roland Garros.

While a disappointed Ferrero is likely to withdraw from the tournament, which starts today, because of sore ribs, a smiling Henin-Hardenne is looking forward to testing herself in the first round on her comeback after suffering from the glandular condition, cytomegalovirus.

Ferrero, a guest at the royal wedding in Madrid on Saturday, was not optimistic after practising here yesterday. He gave himself only a 40-60 chance of playing his opening match against Tommy Haas, of Germany, tomorrow.

The 24-year-old Spanish master of clay courts has been beset by illness and injury this year, starting with chickenpox, after which he had to battle a viral condition. He then hurt the right side of his rib cage in falling on his racket during practice in Valencia. He still winces every time he plays a shot.

"Any movement that I do, I have pain," Ferrero said. "This morning I tried it, and I didn't feel so good. I will try again tomorrow and then I will decide. Last year I played unbelievable tennis the whole year, and now nothing is going right."

Henin-Hardenne, whose triumph here against her Belgian compatriot, Kim Clijsters, was the springboard to winning three of the last four Grand Slam singles titles - a sequence interrupted by Serena Williams at Wimbledon - has had health problems since winning the Australian Open in January.

Bronchitis caused the 21-year-old world No 1 to withdraw from a tournament in Antwerp, and many observers were surprised last week when she confirmed she was coming to Paris. "A few weeks ago it seemed impossible for me to come here and play," Henin-Hardenne admitted. Today she faces what appears to be a gentle opening match against the 32-year-old Sandrine Testud, a French wild card, ranked No 310.

"I'm very happy that I'll be on the court," Henin-Hardenne said. "I think I'm ready, but we'll see. I decided to come. I take my responsibilities. Probably I'm going to feel nervous. That's pretty normal. All first rounds are tough for everybody, especially in Grand Slams, so I know that this first match is going to be really important."

Serena Williams, the second seed, is about to compete in her first Grand Slam championships since defeating her older sister, Venus, in last summer's Wimbledon final. True to form, Serena is ready to make a grand entrance for her opening match, against Iveta Benesova, of the Czech Republic. The American plans to wear a white leather jacket, with her name "laser-stitched" on the back, over her tennis outfit.

Not that Williams is trying to curry favour at the tournament where she ended up in tears after her treatment by the crowd during her semi-final defeat by the French-speaking Henin-Hardenne. "I'm not trying to win over any crowd, anyone," Williams said. "I'm just here to play tennis. I'm here to have a fun time. Most of all, I want to please myself and be real happy and do the best that I can." So she has put last year's unhappy episode behind her? "I had to, or else I wouldn't have been able to come back and win Wimbledon. I would still be stuck in that moment. You can't just stay stuck in that moment. You've got to be able to move forward."

Your correspondent, noticing that Williams was wearing a ring on her wedding finger, wondered if she was engaged. "If this was my engagement ring, then I would need to reconsider," she said amid laughter. I" would seriously need to reconsider where my life would be heading." The ring looked expensive to me.

Henin-Hardenne suggested that "the draw is open for everybody this year," a point which may apply equally to the men. Roger Federer, the Wimbledon and Australian champion and world No 1, will be expected to improve on an iffy record here after winning in Hamburg.

Anything Tim Henman achieves here will be regarded as a bonus, although the British No 1, yet to advance beyond the third round, is never short of optimism. As he prepared for his first-round contest against Cyril Saulnier, of France, Henman said: "The set I took off Ferrero [last year] was as good as I'd played on clay at that stage, but I feel my game is at a different level now. The way I've been playing on clay, the third round at the French is not good enough.

"Last time I was in Paris, I won a Masters Series at Bercy [on indoor carpet] but when I turned up at Roland Garros last week the courts were still red clay. It's not my least favourite surface - I love playing here - but it's the hardest for me." In some ways, this tournament is the hardest for everybody.

FRENCH OPEN SEEDINGS

MEN
1 R Federer (Swit)
2 A Roddick (US)
3 G Coria (Arg)
4 J-C Ferrero (Sp)
5 C Moya (Sp)
6 A Agassi (US)
7 R Schüttler (Ger)
8 D Nalbandian (Arg)
9 T Henman (GB)
10 S Grosjean (Fr)
11 N Massu (Chile)
12 L Hewitt (Aus)
13 P Srichaphan (Thai)
14 S Novak (Cz Rep)
15 S Schalken (Neth)
16 F Gonzalez (Chile)
17 T Robredo (Sp)
18 M Philippoussis (Aus)
19 M Verkerk (Neth)
20 M Safin (Rus)
21 A Pavel (Rom)
22 J I Chela (Arg)
23 F Lopez (Sp)
24 J Bjorkman (Swe)
25 I Ljubicic (Croa)
26 A Costa (Sp)
27 V Spadea (US)
28 G Kuerten (Br)
29 M Mirnyi (Bela)
30 M Zabaleta (Arg)
31 D Hrbaty (Slovak)
32 A Clement (Fr)

WOMEN
1 J Henin-Hardenne (Bel)
2 S Williams (US)
3 A Mauresmo (Fr)
4 V Williams (US)
5 L Davenport (US)
6 A Myskina (Rus)
7 J Capriati (US)
8 N Petrova (Rus)
9 E Dementieva (Rus)
10 V Zvonareva (Rus)
11 S Kuznetsova (Rus)
12 A Sugiyama (Japan)
13 C Rubin (US)
14 P Suarez (Arg)
15 S Farina Elia (It)
16 P Schnyder (Swit)
17 F Schiavone (It)
18 M Sharapova (Rus)
19 A Smashnova-Pistolesi (Isr)
20 C Martinez (Sp)
21 M Maleeva (Bul)
22 K Sprem (Croa)
23 F Zuluaga (US)
24 J Dokic (Serb-M)
25 E Bovina (Rus)
26 N Dechy (Fr)
27 E Daniilidou (Gr)
28 L Raymond (US)
29 P Mandula (Hun)
30 M Pierce (Fr)
31 E Loit (Fr)
32 D Safina (Rus)

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