Five questions to ponder as the French Open approaches ...
1. Can Serena Williams shake her demons? She's the favorite. There's no way around it. She can try to downplay her chances all she wants, say her goal is just to do better than last year (which means simply winning one match) and dismiss the notion that she feels any pressure to win the French Open for the first time since 2002. She can do all that, and it still doesn't erase the fact that she's the No. 1 player in the world and riding a four-title, career-best 24-match winning streak that includes convincing victories against her two primary "rivals," defending champion Maria Sharapova and Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.
Williams says she's more focused this year, given her stunning loss to Virginie Razzano in 2012, Serena's first defeat in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament. I believe her, having watched her and spoken to her during title runs in both Charleston, S.C., and Rome. She's not taking anything lightly, especially the early rounds of the tournament, which is where she's struggled. The fact that Williams hasn't made it past the quarterfinals of Roland Garros since 2003 is a pretty amazing stat, though it should be noted that she missed the tournament in 2005, 2006 and 2011. But she's peaking at the right time, thumping the field at the Italian Open by losing no more than four games to any opponent. If she plays as well as she's capable of, then it's her title to lose.
2. Can anyone stop Rafael Nadal? The Spaniard is going for his eighth Roland Garros title and is coming in on a three-title, 15-match winning streak. He's lost only once in Paris, in 2009 to Robin Soderling, compiling a ridiculous 52-1 record over the last eight years. After his recent destruction of Roger Federer in the Rome final and his repeated thrashings of fifth-ranked David Ferrer, the search for a "Nadal stopper" begins and ends with Novak Djokovic. The Serb snapped Nadal's eight-year winning streak in Monte Carlo in April, beating him 6-2, 7-6 (1) in the final.
The problem is that Djokovic's head hasn't been the same since. He's won just two matches in two tournaments, with three-set losses to Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid and Tomas Berdych in Rome, both matches he looked poised to win handily. A few matches under his belt in the early rounds will only help put those losses behind Djokovic as he tries to win his first French Open title to become the fourth man in the Open Era to complete the career Slam. It's no secret how badly he wants it, and that added pressure could either cripple or refocus him over the next two weeks.
3. Whose path will be paved by slumpers? What is it about being ranked No. 10? Caroline Wozniacki comes into Paris having gone 0-4 on European red clay this season. Janko Tipsarevic hasn't beaten a top-50 player on clay. The highest-ranked player he's defeated all year was 29th-ranked Kevin Anderson in March. Anyone drawing these two in the early rounds will be counting his or her blessings.
Add to that list of slumpers No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, who has been horrible on clay and pulled out of Brussels this week with a shoulder injury, and No. 13 Marion Bartoli, who has shown no signs she can replicate her semifinal run of 2011. As for the men, No. 13 Nicolas Almagro has been very up and down, as has No. 19 Juan Monaco.
4. Who will be this year's bracket buster? Ernests Gulbis anointed himself the most dangerous unseeded player at Roland Garros, and he's probably right. Last week, Gulbis pushed Nadal to three sets before losing 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the third round of the Italian Open. He's peaking at just the right time and will be a very dangerous floater in the draw. Gael Monfils is also rounding into form just in time. He won the Bordeaux Challenger last week and is making a deep run at the ATP 250 tournament in Nice, France, this week. Ranked shockingly low at No. 109 after an injury break, Monfils should be energized by the Parisian crowd.
For the women, Kaia Kanepi, Simona Halep and Svetlana Kuznetsova are your best bets for a surprise run to the second week, though can we really be surprised by anything Kuznetsova does anymore? The 2009 champion, now ranked No. 39, is more than capable of pulling off the big upset, but her clay season has been mediocre.
5. How will the weather affect play? No other Slam is affected by the weather the way the French Open is, not just because of rain delays but in how the conditions affect the speed of the court as well as the kick. In Nadal's only loss at the French Open, Soderling undoubtedly benefited from the damp conditions that day, which mitigated Nadal's heavy topspin and allowed the Swede to hit flat through the court with both depth and power. Those conditions generally favor the big hitters like Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the big servers such as Milos Raonic and John Isner. Right now, the forecast is for cool and wet conditions at least through the first week. PHOTO: Hail halts Federer's French Open practice