Players Set for French Open

They came, they saw -- they practiced.

Switzerland's Roger Federer versus Belgium's Xavier Malisse. America's Lindsay Davenport versus Russia's Maria Sharapova. Brazil's Gustavo Kuertan versus France's Michael Llorda.

All for a workout. Not for the money.

As the world's top tennis players converged on Paris for the French Open, the glamour of the international tennis tour faded under the glare of intense preparation. Practice courts filled up with Big Names hitting against Big Names.

Sharapova, her blond hair and face nearly hidden beneath a blue cap and visor, stroked for an hour with Davenport, whose broad, tanned features were often contorted with doubt. Across the net on the Chartrier Stadium Court, they slammed scores of errors and dozens of winners. It was a standoff.

The reigning Wimbledon champion, Sharapova, is seeded second here and could face a difficult test two full rounds before the final. By luck of the draw, she could face Belgium's resurgent Justine Henin-Hardenne in the quarterfinals.

Another Belgian, also regaining top form, is Kim Clijsters, who finds herself in an equally interesting position: Assuming she and the top-seeded Davenport conquer their early foes (and doubts), they too could meet in the quarterfinals.

The Belgians stumbled with injuries in the last two years, but their return signals a resumption of an intensively rigorous women's tour, a phenomenon underscored by the decision of America's Serena Williams to withdraw because of an ankle injury without playing this year at Roland Garros.

With Williams out, the only player of either gender with a mathematical chance at the Grand Slam this year is the mercurial Russian, Marat Safin. He won the Australian Open in January but has fallen off form and is considered not likely to regain his footing on the red clay of this championship.

The men's tour seems relatively injury-free at the moment, but it is the mental strain that seems most intense.

Federer, the world's top-ranked men's player, struggles to regain his footing as the presumptive world champion. Despite enormous expectations, he lost in January in the Australian Open to Safin.

On Friday, Federer snapped and slashed a series of backhands across the red clay in his workout; his footwork was impeccable, his arms and legs moved smoothly in sweet synchronization that has become a hallmark.

Yet despite the calm, approving gaze of his coach, Australia's Tony Roche, Federer seemed displeased with his performance. He lost here last year in the quarterfinals.

Even so, Federer told Christopher Clarey of The New York Times: "I'm having a good feeling this year. I'm not saying I'm going to win it, but I have the feeling I'm going to do better."

Roche knows the feeling of pent-up desire to win. He lost here to Fred Stolle in the French Championship final 40 years ago, then turned around his performance the following year and won in 1966.

Federer hopes to do the same this year.

Awaiting Federer in the semifinals could be the Spanish sensation, 18-year-old Rafael Nadal, a lefthander with three championships (Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome) already this year under the belt of his longish tennis pants. With growing confidence, Nadal is the longish shot to win the men's title at Roland Garros this year.

As sometimes happens, many of the best men's and women's matches could come before the finals.