PARIS, May 20 – Roland Garros is preparing for an old-style US-Russia battle for top honours in the women's tournament at next week's French Open.Representing the Americans will be sisters act, and world N.2 and No.3, Serena and Venus Williams who are both bent on burying the charge that neither of them are a force on clay any more going by the shabby performances they produced last year.
On the Russian side will be world No.1 Dinara Safina and No.4 Elena Dementieva with backing from top tenners Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Serbian pair Jelena Jankovic and title holder Ana Ivanovic could also threaten, while the young guns will be headed by Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
The last time the Williams sisters shone in Paris was in 2002 when Serena defeated Venus in the final to kick off the greatest run of her career at the end of which she held all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.
Since then neither has seemed that interested in getting down and dirty on the sticky red clay that is the mark of the gruelling Paris tournament culminating in last year’s shoddy third round exits.
All that, both say, has changed.
"Last year I had some personal problems," 28-year-old Venus said. "But that was last year. This time around things are going to be totally different."
For her part, 27-year-old Serena has been making the point that since last year’s tournament it has been the sisters who have dominated women’s tennis with Venus winning Wimbledon and herself triumphing at the US and Australian Opens.
"Venus and I are trying to do the Grand Slam between us," she said recently. "It’s a family project."
That sounds ominous for the rest of the field as when they put their mind to it, the Williams siblings are rock solid and mentally tough to beat.
The same cannot be said for the Russians and east Europeans that dominate the world top 10, best represented by current world No.1 Safina.
The little sister of Marat Safin knocked Serena off the top spot in April despite never having won a Grand Slam title and admitted that now her priority would be to prove to everyone that she deserved to be where she was.
"It’s going to be another step," said the determined Russian.
"You have steps to take in your life. The first step for me was either to win a Grand Slam or become number one, so I already have one.
"For the next step, I have my whole career and I’m going to continue working hard to win a Grand Slam.
"This year, next year – I still have many years in front of me and I think I can do it.
"I’ve been already in two finals and I just want to have another chance to go for it."
Similarly Dementieva has yet to win a Slam having lost in the 2004 French and US Open finals, while Kuznetsova has struggled to live up to her upset win in the 2006 US Open.
The two Serbs are even more perplexing.
Ivanovic was a popular and convincing winner in Paris last year, defeating Safina in a one-sided final, but with the tennis world at her feet, she then went into a slump from which she is still struggling to emerge.
A knee injury that kept her out of last week’s Madrid Masters has done little to raise the hopes of her fans, but the ever-sunny Belgrade beauty is hopeful that Paris will once again bring out the best in her.
"As soon as I set foot on Phillipe Chatrier court, all the emotions come flooding back every time," she said.
"It really gives me an extraordinary feeling. I can’t wait to get back to Paris."
Jankovic, like Safina, reached the world No.1 spot last year despite failing to win a Grand Slam event, but her form has been poor recently as injuries have taken their toll.
Of the newcomers, Azarenka appears to belong to the flaky Safina/Dementieva mould while Wozniacki is solid enough but needs to inject some personality and risk-taking into her game to be truly competitive at the top level.