Spring time in Paris seems a bit…well, underbaked this year. We are huddled at Roland Garros trying to keep warm and not very successfully at that. Temperatures have been in the fifties, the skies are gray and rainy and gusts of wind have blown the red clay every which way.

The first week of a Grand Slam event is interesting often just to see how the players work the kinks out of their games. Especially the ones who were off the week before. You have to settle into things, and hope that you’re still around in the draw by the time you do get down to business. But until that happy meshing of form forms out of formlessness, things can get a bit cranky.

Ask Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova. They were given the honor of inaugurating an early first Sunday start at Roland Garros. But unfortunately neither one of them appreciated it. They said so aftrerwards in their press conferences. Now they would have two days off before their next matches (which both got through more handily this round), and players are never happy about that long a wait in between. Roger was pressed by newcomer Diego Hartfield of Argentina, a name I love. It’s right up there with baseball player Vladimir Guerrero. Mothers with a sense of humor, don’t you love ’em?

Roger had never seen nor heard of Hartfield before. He got into the draw when Arnaud Clement pulled out due to injury. So we got the extra thrill of watching Federer try and figure out a newbie. He did, but it was a little nervewracking, as the 7-5, 7-6(2), 6-2 score might indicate for the world’s number one.

Sharapova must have found her three setter against Mashona Washington more than a little nervewracking. She hung on through her own fiery quirks of character, first the whining look after she misses a point, then a moment of pouting, taking her time, and then regrouping. Many people feel her chances are not good this year at Roland Garros, her actual tournament play has been spotty and her injuries may still be lurking, not quite fully healed. But after this squeaker perhaps she feels the gods are smiling down on her.

There is no God as far as the American contingent is concerned. Andy Roddick walked into what he termed “a groundhog day” in losing his first rounder with Spaniard Alberto Martin, whom he had always beaten before. His already tweaked ankle injury got tweaked early in the match, and the air just went out of Roddick’s play entirely. He retired at 0-1 in the third, after losing the first two, 4-6 and 5-7. Roddick seemed calm but resigned in his press conference. The ankle just wasn’t ready after all. But at least Andy’s looking forward to the grass court season, his favorite time of year. See you in a few weeks, Andy.

James Blake got through his opener with Srichaphan, but I don’t expect him to get by the big-hitting newcomer, Nicholas Almagro in the next round. That would leave the Americans with one male, Kevin Kim, still alive. Roddick was the highest men’s seed to exit, at number five.

Nadia Petrova, at number 3, was the highest women’s seed gone from the tournament. Brad Gilbert reported from the announcer’s booth that apparently Petrova might have wrecked herself doing “explosive” sprints in practice the day before. “Why is she doing that?” Gilbert wondered. That should come earlier in your training, not the day before an event. A brain cramp, in Gilbert’s mind. She looked totally out of energy. Morigami from Japan took the hottest women player this spring on clay, and made her look like sushi. In fact sushi looks more alive than Petrova did, going out rather meekly, 6-2, 6-2.

Guess we will have to wait for another big tournament to see if Petrova’s conquered her nerves yet. Can we anticipate rumors now that Petrova possibly tanked the match just so she would not have to face those nerves in a later round? She and Mauresmo are rowing together in this boat now. They both endure reputations of being big-time chokers. Both women are now on the same curve in finding ways out of this psychological pressure cooker. Mauresmo has pulled it off twice now in two big tournaments. Albeit her Australian Open victory was under a pall of sorts, due to Justine Henin-Hardenne’s unfortunate decision to retire from the match. Now it’s Petrova’s turn this spring to deal with bigger and bigger occasions. But on the way there you still need to trample the little people well, and that she did not do today on court against Morigami.

In other matches, David Nalbandian drove Richard Gasquet slightly batty today, frustrating the Frenchman’s efforts to get into the match in any consistent way, until he self-imploded in the final set of four, double-faulting on match point.

Venus Williams got time at the tail end of the day, when dark clouds were settling in and the fading light was about to factor in. It seemed like a bare handful of people were still in attendance. Richard Williams had a whole corner all to himself in the stands, and seemed more by himself than I could ever remember seeing him. But he kept watching his daughter steadily, as if in that look he could channel some force to her game that she needed right then. Like getting a grip on herself. She came out walloping the forehand every which way except inside the lines. And she covered ground so aggressively that she ran through a number of shots. Someone needed to tell Venus she was on a tennis court and not a baseball diamond.

This is my first look at Finnish player Emma Laine, and she looks pretty solid for this being her first major event. By the end of the first four games, Venus realized this girl was not backing away, so Venus stepped it up and basically steadied her game. Once Venus clubbed her in the tiebreaker, the second set went more or less like we would expect it. Venus’ way.

Boy, wouldn’t that be a crock if Venus makes it to the Final. Someone pinch me.

Speaking of dreamlands, the Fantasy Tennis crowd is probably enjoying life, as most of the big seeds are still in and we are all making lots of dough. Imaginary of course, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

So far, my manly eight are still intact. Here they are:

Ljubicic, Nalbandian, Nadal, Federer, Davydenko, Robredo, Stepanek, Almagro.

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Here is how my eight will do in their following Round of 16 matches against their most likely opponents:

Ljubicic vs. Ferrer (I pick Lube to win, even though Ferrer may seem an easier pick on clay. The big Croatian could/should finally make a good dent in this major).

Stepanek vs. Martin (Stepanek has had a good year on clay, and I think he is ready to move on in this match).

Almagro vs. Gonzalez (Both have had spectacular clay seasons. Gonzalez is playing the best I have ever seen him play. I haven’t ever seen Almagro play, but the hype has sold me. This is my DARK HORSE).

Nadal vs. Hewitt (If Hewitt hangs on to get this far, that is. I look forward to Nadal ringing his bell good. Aren’t we all?).

Nalbandian vs. Tursunov (easy pickings for Nalbandian).

Davydenko vs. Gaudio (A tight match, but Davydenko has been more consistent this year).

Federer vs. Kiefer (The German’s wild five-setter today against Frenchman Gicquel was one of the more entertaining matches of the tournament. I don’t think Roger will give him such a cheap thrill. But FedMan will have to watch himself, Kiefer can be dangerous when he wants to play).

Robredo vs. Ancic (Another entertaining match. Ancic has played surprisingly well on clay, but Robredo has finally and consistently lived up to his hype this year).

The Quarters:

Ljubicic defeats Stepanek
Nadal defeats Almagro
Nalbandian defeats Davydenko
Federer defeats Robredo

The Semis:

Ljubicic paired with Nadal (interesting for a set or two, maybe even four; Lube is 1 and 2 against Nadal, but never on clay, and not this time either).

Federer over Nalbandian

The Final: It’s THEM again! At least we all hope. If I had oodles and oodles of noodles, I would bet them on Roger. Finally, I think the lad is going to figure it all out and beat Nadal.

Now, can we get some heaters out on those courts? We can see our French brethren look cold.

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