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?
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.
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.
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.
Dark Horse players to watch
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
But really, if I had to put actual dollars on it, I'd go with Nadal and Serena.
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.
Women: Radwanska will take advantage of a blown-up draw to capture her first career major and raise her breakthrough season another notch.