ROME -- If you can believe it, we're one week away from the start of the French Open (qualifying begins May 22nd) and it's only now that we'll get to see (hopefully) a full ATP and WTA field go at it on the traditional European red clay. The Internazionali BNL D'Italia is already underway in Rome, where tournament organizers are waiting with bated breath to see if Roger Federer will withdraw from the tournament. The newly crowned Madrid champ landed in Rome on Monday, but says he'll wait to make a decision after he gets a couple of days rest.
If Federer's body is feeling the ill-effects from Madrid -- his first tournament since losing to Andy Roddick in Miami -- then it makes sense not to risk his health this close to the French Open. But that would mean his only preparation for the French would be a quasi-indoor tournament on blue clay that bears no resemblance, in color or play, to the dirt in Paris. That's a tough calculus to make, but I'd be surprised to see him skip Rome. If Federer does play then we'll have the top four into a draw for the first time since Miami.
Men's draw breakdown
Djokovic's half: Novak said coming back to the red clay in Rome after the calamity of Madrid "felt like paradise." The Italians love him here and why wouldn't they? He has an Italian clothing sponsor and he's fluent in the native language as well. The defending champion has drawn Federer in his half, along with Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Janko Tipsarevic and John Isner. Del Potro and Tsonga are scheduled for a third round clash and if Isner can put together a string of wins, he could face Federer in the quarterfinals in a rematch of their Davis Cup match. Keep an eye on John. He needs to make a statement here after a disappointing loss in his first match in Madrid.
Nadal's half: Rafa may have dodged a bullet when Milos Raonic lost to Florian Mayer in the first round on Sunday, denying fans of a highly anticipated match-up against the surging Canuck. But Tomas Berdych is in his quarter and the Czech is looking very solid on clay this year, making the semifinals of Monte Carlo and finals in Madrid. Anything less than the final will be a major disappointment for Rafa.
And then there's Andy Murray. The Brit pulled out of Madrid citing a back injury that he says is all healed up, and given his pre-tournament comments it sounds like his decision to skip Madrid was more about avoiding the blue clay and continuing his training on red clay than any real injury concern. He'll be looking to jumpstart his clay season, but he's got the trickiest road to the semifinals of any of the top four. His projected route: David Nalbandian, Richard Gasquet, David Ferrer and then Rafa in the semis.
Early-round matches to watch: Del Potro vs. Michael Llodra (first round), Gilles Simon vs. Donald Young (first round), Richard Gasquet vs. Jurgen Melzer (first round), Sam Querrey vs. Nicolas Almagro (second round), Djokovic vs. Bernard Tomic (second round), Ferrer vs. Verdasco (second round), Murray vs. Nalbandian (second round), Del Potro vs. Tsonga (third round).
My pick: Nadal def. Federer.
Women's draw breakdown
As for the ladies, Serena Williams is the focus as she tries to win her third straight title on clay. Despite her 13-0 clay record this year, questions remain as to her form on "true clay", as her two wins were on Charleston's green clay and Madrid's blue. A win in Rome would solidify her as the presumptive favorite for Roland Garros. Can anyone stop her?
Azarenka's half: One of these days the Tennis Gods will let Agnieszka Radwanska off the hook for whatever she's done to tick them off, but today is not that day. She's been drawn into Azarenka's half of the draw once again, but this time she's got a huge roadblock in her way: Serena. If Serena can get past Caroline Wozniacki in the third round, she could play Radwanska in the quarterfinals. Radwanska hasn't lost to anyone other than Vika all year. Serena could end that streak. As for Azarenka, she's got a pretty clean road to the quarterfinals where she could square up against Li Na for the second week in a row. Both of their matches in 2012 have gone the full three sets with Azarenka winning. Beating Azarenka here would be a huge statement as Li heads into Paris to defend her title.
Sharapova's half: Maria's road to the final is a tough one. She could face Christina McHale, Ana Ivanovic, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova just to get there. But the player to watch here is Kvitova. By this time last year the Czech already had three titles. This year she's still trying to make her first tournament final. With semifinal appearances at the Australian Open and Stuttgart, it's hard to say she's mired in a slump. But... you know... she's mired in a slump.
Aside from the big names, keep an eye on the women who are on the brink of establishing themselves as legitimate spoilers in Paris: Ivanovic, Stosur, Marion Bartoli, and Venus Williams. All four are floating in Sharapova's half.
Early-round matches to watch: Maria Kirilenko vs. Flavia Pennetta (first round), Sloane Stephens vs. Anna Chakvetadze (first round), Jelena Jankovic vs. Sorana Cirstea (first round), Venus Williams vs. Simona Halep (first round), Sharapova vs. McHale (second round), Bartoli vs. Julia Goerges (second round), Sharapova vs. Ivanovic (third round), Serena vs. Wozniacki (third round), Azarenka vs. Dominika Cibulkova (third round). My pick: Serena def. Sharapova.