When Serena Williams lost in the first round of the French Open last year, I remember thinking: "Okay--all Roland Garros potential opponents are in for it now." I wasn't wrong, though it was a while before I acknowledged the materialization of my thought. Since her only first-round loss in a major, Williams--with some help from Patrick Mouratoglou--has turned clay into a highly "favored" surface. The champion in Charleston, Madrid and Rome, the world number 1 now looks as ready to win in Paris as she normally looks ready to win in London.
In a way--but in a much more obvious way--Williams' arrival at the 2013 French Open echoes Maria Sharapova's arrival in Paris in 2012. The Cow on Ice came prepared to manage the special skills required for red clay dominance, and it paid off. Sharapova has become a much better mover and strategist on clay. Her chances of defending her title seemed very good--until Williams went on a hell-bent mission to dominate on tennis's grittiest surface.
I can think of only three women who have any likelihood of lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in a couple of weeks--Williams, Sharapova and Li Na. Each of them has won the tournament one time. Each of them can do it. But at this stage, Williams is clearly the favorite (Li is kind of the "un-favorite" but things can change in a short period of time when a championship is at stake).
Williams, the top seed in Paris, really doesn't have too much to fear in her quarter. 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is there, and I don't want to underestimate her, but she has her own problems, which include her mentality, and the presence of Ekaterina Makarova as her first-round opponent. Also lurking in that quarter is Angelique Kerber, which brings me to what I think is the one of the most--if not the most--interesting first-round match-ups: Kerber plays countrywoman Mona Barthel. Barthel's game has gone to pieces again (suddenly an annual springtime event), but she could get it back in Paris, and Kerber has been a physical wreck recently. Barthel is fond of clay, and an upset is possible. Another player to keep an eye on in that quarter, of couse, is Roberta Vinci.
Agnieszka Radwanska leads the second quarter, but Radwanska is having so much trouble with her shoulder, one has to wonder how far she can go (bear in mind, however, that we all said exactly the same thing right before she won the two big Asian tournaments back to back). Radwanska has been off lately, and just doesn't appear to be that much of a threat.
Nadia Petrova and 2012 runner-up Sara Errani are also in that quarter. And while it may seem foolish to even consider Oh-Nadia a contender within the quarter, there was a time when she was superb on clay. In fact, in 2006, she was considered a major contender to win the French Open, but her run was cut short by an injury she sustained during a warm-up. On a given day, Petrova can do damage.
Another really interesting first round contest takes place in the Radwanska quarter: Simona Halep plays Carla Suarez Navarro. Both women are excellent clay players, and Halep recently reached the semifinals in Rome by taking out Daniela Hantuchova, Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Jelena Jankovic. As for Errani--a better serve would give her a probable fast track to the semifinals to back to the final. At any rate, there isn't likely to be anyone pleased to see her on the other side of the net. When it comes to clay finesse, the Italian player just "gets" it.
Li is in the third quarter, and her Roland Garros effort starts with a bang; she plays Anabel Medina Garrigues, a clay court veteran who can beat just about anyone on the right day. Brussels champion Kaia Kanepi is hanging out in that quarter, too, as well as 2010 French Open champion (and runner-up to Li in 2011) Francesca Schiavone. Oh--and Victoria Azarenka. Li, in other words, has her work cut out for her.
Sharapova is in the last quarter of the draw, and an interesting one it is. Petra Kvitova is there, as well as Jelena Jankovic, 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur, and Dominika Cibulkova (a comeback could happen at any time). Of interest: Jankovic's first opponent will be Daniela Hantuchova.
Popular wisdom is that Serena Williams' greatest threat at this French Open is herself. She hasn't won in Paris since 2002, and obstacles tend to appear whenever she makes a run at the title. Last year, the obstacle was Virginie Razzano, who fought Williams for three hours and sent her out of the tournament in the opening round. And while anything can happen, 2013 appears to be the year when obstacles to another Williams French championship can be swatted away with the quick swing of a Wilson Blade.