The French Open starts on Sunday. Rafael Nadal rides his usual clay swing hot streak, despite controversy on the blue clay in Madrid. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova come into Paris with a couple of wins on the dirt. So what's the scoop for the year's second major? The SI.com tennis team debates.
What do we make of tuneup results? Are notable winners and storylines in tuneups a big deal, or will the French be business as usual?
Jon Wertheim: Both. "Business as usual" for the men means Rafael Nadal will win the title, something he has done every year, save one, since 2005. His record at Roland Garros is a preposterous 45-1. (The one player to have beaten him, Robin Soderling, isn't even in the draw this year.) So the Euro clay swing is relevant. After a disappointing start to the year -- including that brutal loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final -- Nadal has done his usual taurine tear through the clay. Almost as important as his three titles? His two defeats over Djokovic. He couldn't ask for much more heading into Paris.
As for the women, my pick to win is Serena Williams, and my second choice is Maria Sharapova (the two could meet in the quarterfinals). Again, if this pans out, the tuneups will prove relevant. Serena won on red (Fed Cup), green (Charleston) and blue (Madrid) clay and, as only she can, has suddenly regained her form again. Likewise, Sharapova -- who lost three big-time hard-court finals in three months (Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami) -- has been in good form on clay, winning titles in Stuttgart and Rome.
Bruce Jenkins: Well, for one thing, just throw out Madrid. That didn't look, feel or play like European clay, and the tournament only made Ion Tiriac's gimmick look like some kind of practical joke. Monte Carlo was extremely revealing, for even though Djovokic was playing through grief (having lost his beloved grandfather), Nadal was brilliant as he chipped away the pieces of Djokovic's facade. Then came the decisive win at Rome, and it seems the two men are on even terms again. On the women's side, we've learned that Sharapova has better movement than she's ever shown in the past on clay, and she's even learned to slide a little. That should take her a long way in Paris.
Courtney Nguyen: How's this for splitting the baby: The tuneup events are notable insofar as they indicate that it will be business as usual in Paris. Nadal is still as dominant as ever, winning 15 straight matches on red clay this year without dropping a set (that's 30 straight sets). Djokovic is still the guy who can best the field to face him; Roger Federer needs conditions to be perfect to score an upset over the two men ahead of him in the rankings; and, once again, Andy Murray is the odd man out. Sure, there are a few men who could pull off some early upsets, but this is the Rafa and Novak show. I just don't see anyone breaking through those two, especially given what's at stake in Paris for each of them.
As for the ladies, while there's definitely more stability now than the WTA has seen in years, there's still no clear-cut favorite emerging from the lead-ups. Sharapova and Williams split the biggest titles with two apiece and Victoria Azarenka made two finals. Uncertainty is what the WTA does.
WERTHEIM: French Open men's seed report
C.W. Sesno: As my colleagues point out, the men's side will be mostly business as usual, a la Nadal strapping on his dancing shoes to continue cutting up the dirt. But how about we pause a moment and look at Brian Baker's clay results. He won the Savannah event on clay in late March, and has now marched to the semis in Nice, knocking off some quality talent on the way. All of a sudden there's a new American name in Paris to keep an eye on.
I'm on the fence about the WTA stability. I debated in The Toss that the top four were here to stay and would remain competitive, and there hasn't been any new evidence to suggest otherwise. But at a major, I still can't shake the feeling that anyone can beat anyone. Everyone will point to Sharapova and Williams riding the hot hands on the dirt, so their potential quarterfinal matchup would be appointment viewing. Don't sleep on Azarenka, who lost to each of them and may capitalize on one of the easier quarters of the draw, with her biggest test likely coming against Sabine Lisicki or Sam Stosur.
Bryan Armen Graham: Tuneups can be a helpful if not foolproof barometer of Grand Slam success, but this year's results tell us little we didn't already know. No players earned more points during the clay-court season than Nadal and Williams, and they enter Roland Garros as the consensus favorites. The top-heaviness of the men's side suggests business as usual, as does the clockwork chaos of a women's tournament that's seen a first-time major winner or double-digit seed win each of the past four French Opens.
Dark Horse players to watch
Wertheim: Hear the word "Monaco" in the context of tennis and you think about a Mediterranean tax haven that has long been so voguish with European stars. ("A sunny place for shady people," Somerset Maugham once said.) Now, though, we hear "Monaco" and we think about Juan, the lanky Argentine who is up to No. 15, having won a pair of clay titles this year and taken a set off Djokovic in recent months. As always, it's hard to see anyone outside the Big Three winning the title. But look for Monaco in Week 2.
Women: When Angelique Kerber, ranked No. 92, reached the semis of the U.S. Open last fall, it was seen as a pleasantly quirky result -- and nice payday, representing almost half her career earnings to date -- for a marginal veteran player. Who knew this was the start of a staggering career upgrade? Suddenly, Kerber is a top 10 player, the highest-ranked German (which is saying something), and she comes to Paris having beaten Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova (among others) on clay. What's that? I can have another pick? OK, thanks. She's not a threat to win the title, but keep an eye on Sara Errani, a veteran from Italy who has been tearing it up on clay this spring. Note these results.
Jenkins: John Isner. Yes, there was quite a bit of Isner buzz last month, but aside from giving Nadal a first-round scare last year, he hasn't done a thing in Paris. And he was having a terrible clay-court season until resurrecting his game to a degree in Nice this week.
Women: Francesca Schiavone. She's had such a discouraging year, she must feel lucky to still be ranked No. 14. It's just been one discouraging result after another, and maybe I'm being a bit sentimental here, but I'd love to see the pulsating, endearing Schiavone who won this tournament two years ago, at least into the quarterfinals. There isn't a better show in the women's game.
Nguyen: I've been high on Tomas Berdych all week. And then I saw the draw. So ... never mind the Berd. Let's instead keep an eye on the always-mercurial, underperforming, too-much-talent-for-his-own-good Richard Gasquet. The Frenchman made the final of Estoril (loss to Juan Martin del Potro), third round of Madrid (loss to Federer) and the quarterfinals of Rome, where he beat Murray before losing to David Ferrer. If Gasquet can work through the early rounds, guess who could be waiting in the Round of 16? An ailing Andy Murray. A quarterfinal appearance here would be huge for both Gasquet and the home crowd.
Women: In lieu of picking the defending champion, Li Na, as a dark horse (she has a tough draw, but a few early-round upsets and things could really break her way), I'm going with Kerber. She's been unbelievably consistent since her semifinal run at the U.S. Open, and her quarter of the draw is hers for the taking. I've never been 100 percent convinced of Kerber's game on clay, but she's notched some impressive results on the stuff this year.
Sesno: Gilles Simon. The savvy vet wins the matches he's supposed to. Since Indian Wells, his losses have only come to players ranked ahead of him. He lopped off Janko Tipsarevic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Monte Carlo, before losing to eventual champ Nadal in the semis. Simon won the clay event in Bucharest, and the Frenchman will have the raucous support of the home crowd. What he has going against him is the draw. There's a lot of talent in his section, and his road to the fourth round would likely involve wins over Ryan Harrison, Xavier Malisse (or a streaking Baker), Stan Wawrinka and Tsonga. I expect he'll survive to the quarters, where Djokovic will send him packing.
Women: Germans. OK, not fair to pick the Germans given their recent surge. I really wanted to pick Mona Barthel as my sleeper to play spoiler, but she's got some talent lurking in her early matches. Christina McHale could push her in the second round, and if she survives the American and Li in the third round, Roberta Vinci and Vera Zvonareva loom. So scratch that. On the other hand, Lisicki has a favorable draw. Sloane Stephens could pose a challenge, but I don't see any kind of run from Sam Stosur so Lisicki could have an easy path to the quarters. Lisicki made a run through qualifiers last year before losing to No. 3 Zvonareva in the second round, and she's a much better player now than then.
Graham: Gasquet has always had talent to burn, but never the mental fortitude to match it. Yet the 25-year-old rallied from a set down to beat Murray last week after a runner-up finish at Estoril, where he fell in the final to Del Potro. Look for him to build on last year's career-best run to the fourth round after being gifted a relatively easy draw in Murray's quarter.
Women: Schiavone went 10 tournaments without consecutive wins earlier this season, but she's won 13 of her last 14 matches at Roland Garros and always seems to raise her game at the site of her first and only major. Expect more magic from the game's most magnetic stylist.
Top players to flame out early
Wertheim: I take no pleasure in saying this. But these have not exactly been boom times for Murray. Since moving off hard court and onto clay, Murray has not done a convincing impersonation of the world's No. 4 player. He lost in the quarters or earlier of all three Euro-clay events and his conquerors --Berdych, Milos Raonic and Gasquet -- are a tier down from the Big Three. Murray is back to playing too much defense, failing to penetrate the court, all the while wearing that I-just-swallowed-battery-acid look. Murray won't stay down long. He never does. But it's hard to see him replicating his semifinal run from 2011.
Women: Again, it pains me to say this, given her stylish game and endearing personality, but Schiavone, the 2011 French Open winner and the 2010 runner-up, will be lucky to win a round or two. Almost 32, her body and head are betraying her in comparable measure. She limps into this event (literally) having won just three of her last 13 matches. As Charles Barkley might say: That's turrible-issimo.
Jenkins: Juan Martin del Potro. His comeback from elbow surgery should be well complete by now, but he hasn't been able to pull off that really eye-catching win. Granted, he's coming back at a time when three of the all-time greats are playing fabulous tennis. But he doesn't look like the same guy. Gone by the quarters.
Women: Serena Williams. Not that I doubt her in any way; she's the best player in the field. But I wonder if she may have reached that Venus-like stage, where it's difficult to sustain brilliance -- and proper health -- over a full two weeks. There's no telling exactly how it would happen, but I'd imagine it comes against Sharapova in the quarters.
Nguyen: John Isner. I'd love to see the big guy show me I'm full of it, but he hasn't given us any reason to back him as of late. Since beating Federer, Tsonga and Simon at Davis Cup, Isner has lost to Monaco, Marin Cilic, Andreas Seppi and Nikolay Davydenko on clay. In fact, he's won only two matches on European clay in the last month and a half.
Women: I have no doubt that seeds will go falling early for the women, but my pick is world No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska. Clay is her worst surface by far and she's drawn Venus Williams in the second round. That combined with the fact that she's got a number of quality clay-courters floating in her section (Svetlana Kuznetsova, Errani, Ana Ivanovic and Kerber) and I just don't see her living up to her seed.
Sesno: Isner. It's a bit of a bummer given his major clay wins in Davis Cup this year. But I think the team format of Davis Cup suits him particularly well with his college background. You can never rule the big-serving American out of any match, but his Euro tuneup results have left a lot to be desired. Before crossing the Atlantic, Isner made a nice run to the Houston final, another sign he's a solid clay player. Since then, it's been ugly. And how about this for a stat: Isner has had to play at least one tiebreak in seven of his last nine matches. His serve is a threat, his return is a liability, and his wins are draining. Don't expect the world No. 11 to reach the quarters.
Women: Kvitova. The No. 4 player got a little help from the draw gods. Kvitova could potentially reach the quarters without much resistance, though you never know what Schiavone can do. Given that she's a little banged-up and has made it past the quarterfinals in just one event since the Australian Open, you wouldn't have to twist my arm to convince me anybody across the net could take her down. It says here Kvitova is the first top-five player on a flight out of Paris.
Graham: Yes, he's a top-four player with a victory over Djokovic in 2012, but a poor clay-court season augured an early exit for Murray even before Friday's draw was released. All signs point to a disappointing showing on his worst surface.
Women: Wozniacki's flameout seems predestined after dropped from No. 1 to No. 9 in less than five months, so this spot goes to Kvitova, who's yet to make a tournament final this season while battling an abdominal ailment after a breakthrough 2011 campaign.
Bold, way out there prediction
Wertheim: The Americans don't embarrass themselves. Even with Mardy Fish out, the Americans might actually fare OK in Paris, sparing us the "feat of clay" headlines and torrent of stories about "no Americans reaching the second week..." Serena is my pick to win the event, this fresh from her romp in Madrid. A number of other players -- Venus Williams, Christina McHale -- can play on the dirt, while Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber, the top doubles seeds, will compete for that title. On the men's side, Isner is a capable clay-courter. Ryan Harrison can play on clay. And Bob and Mike Bryan have won in Paris as well.
Jenkins: Baker shows why he's deserving of his wild-card status. This is one of the great stories of the tournament, a 27-year-old American who missed six years of tennis due to five multiple surgeries, and he can be dangerous. Baker causes an immediate stir by knocking out veteran Xavier Malisse in the first round, and this will get him further than Harrison, who regrettably draws Simon in the first round. Simon takes out Baker, but not without a struggle.
Women: Caroline Garcia makes another big impression on the tournament. Last year, at 17, she threw a huge scare into Sharapova and drew raves from fans, media and fellow players for her elegant and forceful game. This time, in the second round, she'll be up a set and 2-0 on Azarenka before the world No. 1 sets things straight.
Nguyen: I see your prediction, Bruce, and I'll raise you. It says here Baker makes the fourth round. Also, the Paris weather will play more of a factor in the outcome of matches than the draw, and 2008 French Open champion Ivanovic will solidify her comeback with a run to the semifinals.
Sesno: Murray goes down before the quarters. Could Igor Andreev harness that forehand to take him down in the second round? OK, that may be unlikely. But he may have to take on the funk-and-junk games of Bernard Tomic and Alex Dolgopolov in the third and fourth round. The Brit (or is it Scot?) isn't in a good head space right now. How will he handle the slice forehands? Stay tuned ...
Graham: Difficult to choose on the men's side, where the top three players are Sharpie-worthy shoo-ins for the semis. We'll go with Gasquet making a run to the last four.
Women: Kaia Kanepi upsets Serena Williams in the fourth round, opening the door for the French Open's latest surprise winner.
And the winners are ...
Wertheim: How do you pick against Nadal on red clay? Especially at an event where he's compiled a 45-1 record since 2005? When he finally appears to have solved the "Djokovic riddle," having beaten his new rival the last two times? When he comes in healthy and motivated? For a player who lost a devastating match in Melbourne, fell to Federer in Indian Wells and limped out of Miami, Nadal has righted the caravel awfully quickly. It'll be continued smooth sailing in Paris.
Women: Has it really been a decade since Serena won her one and only French Open title? You'd never know from her recent play. She has been slugging the ball like a 20-year-old, winning titles on clay and making the rest of the field look like it should be wearing those paper trainee hats. The No.1 player (Azarenka) has retreated since moving onto the clay. The No. 2 player (Sharapova) hasn't mounted much of a challenge against Serena in years. Other viable contenders are either unreliable or wilt in the face of Serena's intensity. Yes, she came into the U.S. Open last year on a similar roll, won six matches and then failed to show up for the final. But the guess here is that -- especially chastened by that experience -- she rolls this time.
Jenkins: Nadal. Wow, there's a shocker. Earlier today, I bet heavily on the sun setting in the west. Really, though: How can you not favor an in-form Nadal in this setting? He seems to have exorcised his Djokovic-related demons, at least on clay. He hasn't shown a trace of those nagging knee problems. There is a measured confidence in his public remarks (what a welcome relief to see that return), and he lights up the Roland Garros stage like no one else. The fans aren't wild about him there, to be honest, but they're usually left shaking their heads at the raw brilliance of it all.
Women: Sharapova. I can't back Azarenka in the wake of her latest injury/whatever and weak comments about the WTA being to blame. Sharapova took the measure of her, as well, in their last meeting, at Stuttgart. The emotional stakes were high that day, and Maria didn't hide her contempt for the world's No. 1 player. I'd go for a Serena-Schiavone final, in my dreams, but I already tabbed Sharapova to break through against Serena in the quarters. I wouldn't mind seeing Wozniacki or Kvitova break through their 2012 doldrums. But I'll take Sharapova over Azarenka in three compelling sets.
Nguyen: One thing sports have reminded me over the last few months is that outside of the X's and O's, the forehands and backhands, or form or surface, there is this thing called destiny. Call me crazy (and you might as well fold this in as my boldest, most-way-out-there predictions), but I'm going to go with Djokovic and Sharapova to complete their career Grand Slams (and for Djokovic to win his fourth consecutive major). What's that you say? Djokovic would have to avenge his 2011 loss to Federer and then beat a guy he hasn't taken a set from on clay this year? True. And Sharapova would have to come through the toughest half of the draw and potentially have to go through Serena, a player she hasn't beaten in more than seven years, just to make the semifinals? Also true. Call it a gut feeling.
But really, if I had to put actual dollars on it, I'd go with Nadal and Serena.
Sesno: Yeah, it's been covered (see: all the answers above and every other Nadal piece ever). Two Sundays from now, Nadal will be taking a big bite out of the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Women: Serena. She'll relish the chance to smash Sharapova in the quarters and ride that momentum to the end. It may be a decade since her last title here. It may be two years since her last major. But she seems motivated and there's no reason to think she can't power through this field.
Graham: Not sure what's left that hasn't already been written about Nadal, who enters motivated by the opportunity to eclipse Bjorn Borg with a seventh French Open title. He opened at better than even money to win the tournament, even before Friday's gift-wrapped draw that augurs a semifinal meeting with an injury-hampered Murray rather than Federer, and seems as smart a bet as ever to retain a title that's increasingly looking like a birthright.
Women: Radwanska will take advantage of a blown-up draw to capture her first career major and raise her breakthrough season another notch.