Clijsters injury leaves French picture fuzzy

Bonnie FordBy Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com
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The women's French Open picture is likely to stay muddy right up until the first ball is struck in Paris, thanks to developments over the weekend.

Kim Clijsters' fluke injury suffered in Fed Cup play -- a muscle tear on the inside of her left foot -- may threaten her attendance this year at Roland Garros, where she is a two-time finalist. She told Belgian reporters she hoped to accelerate a rehab process that was initially estimated at six weeks.

Her compatriot Justine Henin -- who has to be considered one of the favorites, if not the one to beat in Paris -- had the better stroke of bad luck when she broke a pinky finger trying to make an ill-advised catch at the net in training. Henin played a Fed Cup singles match anyway when Clijsters was unable to start on the second day, and she still plans to play in Stuttgart.

No. 3 Dinara Safina of Russia -- absent from the tour since retiring from a match at the Australian Open because of a back injury -- reemerged last week, happily tweeting that she was headed to Stuttgart and looking forward to "eating cakes." Whether she'll have her competitive dessert and eat it too is a question that will play out over the next few weeks, but Safina certainly chose an ideal time to come back. She owned most of the clay court season last year, reaching the final in Stuttgart and winning Rome and Madrid.

Her letdown came at the most inopportune time, in a dispiriting French Open final loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova where the stress of the occasion -- exacerbated by Safina's two previous losses in Slam finals -- appeared to crouch on her shoulders like a malevolent gorilla. She sagged in the hard-court season and appeared to need time off even before the injury forced her to rest. But it's funny what an injury timeout can do for a fragile or ambivalent athlete. They often come back stronger and more appreciative, and if Safina's health permits, expect her to be a force in Paris.

"What an effort last year, holding the No. 1 position for such a long time, playing with so much pressure because of you guys [the media], you know, talking that she's the No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam," said friend and fellow Russian Elena Dementieva during the Fed Cup semifinals over the weekend in Birmingham, Ala. "I think it was tough on her.

"I think she's a great player. She improved her game so much. She was able to win so many tournaments, especially on the clay courts. I realized how difficult it was physically to stay four weeks in a row, winning Rome, Madrid and then the final in Paris. It probably just was, you know, overplay for her and she was not able to get ready for the new season, starting with an injury, her back injury. I'm just happy that she's coming back."

Happy to be a fourth wheel

Just a few weeks past her 17th birthday, Sloane Stephens is in the midst of a visible growth spurt. She looks a couple of inches taller than she did last fall at the U.S. Open, and she's taking on her transition year -- playing a mix of junior, lower-tier professional and WTA-level events -- with aplomb. Anything beats the last few months of 2009, when a wrist injury kept her in a cast and out of action.

U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez named practice partner Stephens to fill the fourth official roster spot after Venus Williams officially declined last Wednesday. It was an unsettled few days, what with that uncertainty and an equal amount of doubt about which Russians would make it to Birmingham, but Stephens -- who also traveled with the team to the semifinals in the Czech Republic last year -- said the group relaxed and coalesced again toward the end of the "hectic and crazy" week.

"Liezel [Huber] is like the mom of the group, and Bethanie [Mattek-Sands] is like the cool aunt," Stephens told me. "Mary Joe is the other mom." Later, at the team press conference, she called Melanie Oudin her cousin and amended Fernandez's role to godmother.

Stephens may not be a kid much longer in this family. She qualified at Indian Wells and won her first-round match before losing quite respectably to then-No. 14 Vera Zvonareva. Stephens will try her luck at the U.S. Tennis Association's wild-card playoff next week and then head to Europe for the long May-June-July swing that will include both junior Slams, plus assorted other events -- although she won't defend her junior Italian Open title.

"The clay-court season is my favorite time of year," Stephens said.

Huber-Black trial separation

Liezel Huber and Cara Black last week confirmed that they are taking a break from the partnership that propelled them to the top of the WTA doubles rankings for the last three years.

"Do not be surprised to see us playing with each other or with someone else in the next couple of months," Huber wrote in typical straightforward fashion in a blog on the U.S. Tennis Association website. "We might get back together and we might not."

The South African-born Huber and Black, of Zimbabwe, feel a change of pace may make them sharper. They also have a considerable lead in the points race over the next-closest team, Venus and Serena Williams, and could opt to reunite if that proved to be practical competitively for the Slams or the year-end championships.

Huber's husband, Tony, stressed that the two women haven't ruled out playing together again, even possibly at Roland Garros. "It's not your normal split where two people are mad at each other," he said. "They're going to sit down again after the clay-court season and talk about it."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

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