Russia's French Open Romance

ReutersSharapova has returned from a shoulder injury just in time for Roland Garos.
Paris and the French Open have always had a special place in the hearts of Russian tennis fans.

It was there that Yevgeny Kafelnikov made his historic breakthrough in 1996 when he became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam title.

Eight years later, on the same red clay of Roland Garros, Anastasia Myskina became the first Russian woman to be crowned a Grand Slam champion, lifting the Suzanne Lenglen trophy after beating Yelena Dementyeva in an all-Russian final.

Paris was also the site of Russia's greatest tennis triumph when it beat France 3-2 in the 2002 final to clinch its first Davis Cup title.

Next week, Russians once again will be out in force for their annual assault on the French Open, though two names from the past will be missing.

Myskina has not played on the tour since the start of the year, while Dementyeva has contemplated retirement after battling injuries earlier this year.

Others, though, are ready to pick up the challenge.

World No. 2 Maria Sharapova leads the Russian contingent.

Although the U.S. Open champion has not had a good buildup to the clay season, pulling out of several high-profile tournaments with a shoulder injury, she is in confident mood after reaching the fourth round last year.

"I have the same goal in every tournament, that is to win it," said Sharapova, 20, who will have an added incentive to do well, as she could overtake Justine Henin as world No. 1 if the Belgian flops in Paris.

World No. 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova wants to go one better than last year, when she lost to Henin in the final.

To do that, the Russian, who has lost four finals this year including back-to-back ones at the German and Italian Opens, must find a way to overcome her nerves on big occasions.

"Maybe it's mental -- something that only happens in finals. I know I can play much better," Kuznetsova said after a 7-5, 6-1 defeat by in-form Jelena Jankovic in Rome last Sunday.

Nadia Petrova, who won three titles on clay leading up to last year's French Open, Dinara Safina, who upset Sharapova on her way to reaching the quarterfinals in 2006, and newcomer and world No. 10 Anna Chakvetadze, also have a chance.

Russia's men have not done as well as the women on the Paris clay in recent years, although world No. 3 Nikolai Davydenko reached the quarterfinals last year and the semifinals the year before.

It will be tough, however, for him -- or anyone else for that matter -- to upset defending champion Rafael Nadal, who had his 81-match winning streak on the surface, dating back to April 2005, snapped by Roger Federer on Sunday.

Igor Andreev, the last man to defeat the Spaniard on clay before Federer, is always a threat, as is Russia's 2002 Davis Cup hero Mikhail Youzhny, who has beaten Nadal twice in the past eight months, albeit on hard courts.

Marat Safin may have been past his prime when he was considered one of the main titles contenders in Paris, but the former world No. 1 is still strong enough to cause an upset or two.

"I'm gradually trying to regain my form. It's just a few things here and there that must be improved and I can be my former self again," Safin said last week.

"The French Open is one of my favorite tournaments and if I could finally win there it would be a dream come true."

 The All England Club confirmed Wednesday that HawkEye technology will be used at this year's Wimbledon championships.

It was announced last month that the multicamera system which tracks the flight of a moving ball would be introduced, as it has been at the hardcourt Australian and U.S. Opens, although exactly how it would be deployed on grass was undecided.

After the accuracy of the system was tested on grass courts this month, tournament organizers have agreed to allow players three incorrect challenges per set rather than the two at Flushing Meadows and Melbourne.