One is tempted to say that "anything goes" this year at the French Open, but really--since the retirement of Justine Henin--it's been pretty much that way every year. Of the recent championships, I found Francesca Schiavone's to be the least surprising, but even that win came from a place where most of us weren't concentrating our focus.
This year promises to be as unpredictable as ever, with two non-clay experts--Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova--getting the most nods for becoming the likely winner. Such is the cruelty of the draw, however, that--provided neither of them is upset in the early rounds--only one of them will be left standing after the quarterfinals. Both of them have turned in excellent clay season results: Williams won in Charleston and Madrid, and Sharapova won in Stuttgart and Rome.
What of world number 1 and Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka? This will be the first time in her career that Azarenka is the top seed at a major, and she's getting a bit of extra coaching help from former French star Amelie Mauresmo. Mauresmo never won at Roland Garros, but she does know a thing or two about clay court play, and about the development of the champion's mindset.
Azarenka tops the first quarter, and lurking in that quarter is the mercurial Dominika Cibulkova, who reached the semifinals in 2009 (taking out Sharapova along the way). Cibulkova can have inexplicable collapses, but she can also deal lethal blows from the baseline and send higher-ranked players packing. Azarenka should take her seriously.
Should the world number 1 get as far as the quarterfinals, 2010 finalist Sam Stosur is likely to be waiting for her (if Stosur isn't knocked off by Nadia Petrova). "Mercurial" doesn't even begin to describe Stosur, but on a good day--and she can be expected to have good days in Paris--her serve can give Azarenka a lot of trouble.
Of note in the first quarter are Lucie Safarova (2012 Charleston finalist) and Iveta Benesova. Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez is not the clay court threat she once was, Simona Halep is injured, and Sabine Lisicki--in my opinion--really isn't part of the conversation right now.
The second quarter is interesting. Agnieszka Radwanska should meet Venus Williams in the second round, and if she survives that match, she could find 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova waiting for her. 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic is in that quarter, too, as is 2011 semifinalist Marion Bartoli. Bartoli's game has taken a big slide since this time last year, however. And while Radwanska (who just won the tournament in Brussels) has never gotten past the quarterfinals at the French, her chances this year look good. She may have to fight fatigue, but I suspect her confidence is higher than it has been in the past.
However, danger does lurk in Radwanska's quarter, in forms that have nothing to do with former French Open champions. Sara Errani is knocking around there, and can never be discounted. And so is new world number 10 Angelique Kerber, who--by this time--should strike fear into the minds of her peers. Kerber will probably get Flavia Pennetta in the third round, and is likely to prevail. Given her levels of fitness and confidence (I'm assuming), Kerber could work through the field like she did at the U.S. Open.
Also of note in the second quarter is the presence of Anabel Medina Garrigues, who knows her way around a clay court.
In the third quarter is defending champion Li Na, who is on a collision course with Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Will they both make it as far as the quarterfinsla? Li is as well known for choking as she is for winning, and Kvitova's season, with the blessed exception of Fed Cup, has been quite a disappointment so far. Fomer clay court winners Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic are in that quarter, but neither poses much of a threat these days.
Enter Mona Barthel, seeded 30th, and capable of pulling off all manner of upsets on the right day. Barthel is likely to meet Li in the third round. And, oh yes, there's another noted player in that quarter--2010 champion and 2011 finalist Francesca Schiavone. Schiavone plays the "senior" event again in the first round--she goes up against Kimiko Date-Krumm. If she wins that and gets past Yanina Wickmayer, she may see Jankovic in the next round.
Of note: Sometime giant-killer Sorana Cirstea plays Li in the opening round.
Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova both make an appearance in the fourth quarter of the draw. Should they both reach the quarters, that match will be the most talked-about of the week. Williams is more vulnerable in the draw than Sharapova in that she may have to get past either Lucie Hradecka or Julia Goerges in the third round. And while neither possibility sounds very threatening to the likes of Williams, the French Open has not historically been a comfortable home for the Madrid champion. Hradecka has a huge serve, and Goerges (the 2011 Stuttgart champion)--when she isn't in the middle of a giant mental collapse--can be quite skillful on clay.
Also in the fourth quarter are Kaia Kanepi, Maria Kirilenko and--not to be forgotten--Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki was the last player on the tour to beat Williams (in Miami). There are no particular expectations of the Dane at the French Open, but neither has it ever been a walk in the park to play her.
So who will rule Paris? Five former champions (Serena Williams, Ivanovic, Kuznetsova, Schiavone, Li) will be there, yet none of the five has won the tournament more than once. Azarenka is number 1, Radwanska is the hottest player on the tour right now, Kvitova and Stosur have the skills, but may not have the mental strength at this time. Angelique Kerber is head-down, minding her own business, but could possibly have a lot of business in the making.
Will there be a first-time champion? What do you think?