A one-on-one combative exchange, where tempers can flare and personalities clash, it’s no surprise that tennis is often compared to boxing.
Serena Williams enters this year’s French Open as the one to beat.
Not only did she secure her number one ranking with a straight sets win over world number two Maria Sharapova in the final in Madrid, she has a newfound confidence on red clay, a surface that has been her Achilles heel throughout her stellar career.
William also won Madrid in 2012 in the lead-up to Paris, but the new blue clay last year was analysed as playing at a similar speed to that of a hard court. This year Madrid returned to the traditional red ‘terre battue’ European clay, and her victory there should buoy her for an assault on the French Open title.
The closest surface in conditions to Roland Garros is that of the Italian Open in Rome, so a victory there this week will only further cement her favouritism for Paris.
Defending French champion Maria Sharapova is developing a love affair with clay having discovered confidence on it in 2012. This is a surface that Sharapova once said made her move “like a cow on glass.” Although she moved well in Madrid, it was a woeful serving effort that cost her any chance of challenging Serena Williams for the title and the number one ranking.
World number three Victoria Azarenka is dangerous on all surfaces but at her best on the hard courts. She is a very tall girl but unlike Sharapova she has not quite mastered the movement necessary to threaten for the title on clay.
The best mover on the women’s circuit is China’s Li Na. She is a good bet to reclaim the title she won in 2011, her maiden Grand Slam and still her only one to this point.
Her pace of shot and movement during her semi-final defeat of Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open was a step up from any previous form shown from her.
Na is now coached by Carlos Rodriguez who took Justin Henin to four French Open titles. He has the tactical knowledge that could should make Na a more complete player than she was when she won the title in 2011.
Spaniard Carla Suarez-Navarro is back up the rankings to world number 22 and is the top-ranked Spaniard. She is a blast from the past, and perhaps the only ‘old style’ clay court player remaining. Her play is similar to Gabriella Sabatini, utilising loads of topspin from both sides.
As the pace of the clay has quickened in recent times players with flatter style strokes now have a greater chance on a surface that was once the domain of South Americans and Spaniards with severe grips on their groundstrokes. Rafael Nadal seems to be the last of those owning a French Open title.
Like the men, there is an army of Spanish women that will trouble seeds and those who prefer faster surfaces. Ditto the Italians.
2012 runner up Serra Errani will have a load of points to defend, but without a kind draw could struggle once she meets anyone in the top ten where her record is not strong.
Errani is likely to be seeded sixth, and would be scheduled to meet either Sharapova or Williams in the quarter finals.
Popular player and 2008 champion, Serb Ana Ivanovic, showed flashes of her former brilliance in Madrid, but her erratic serve will always remain her kryptonite. On her day Ivanovic can beat anyone, including herself.
2009 champion Russian Svetlana Kutznetsova will be a name in the draw that no seeded player will want to see next to theirs in the early rounds.
She is most likely to be unseeded as she is currently ranked 37. With her knee injury fully in the past, she has nothing to lose.
The most dangerous outsiders could be left-handed world number 20 Russian Ekaterina Makarova, who makes a habit of early upsets in majors. Perhaps 16-year-old Croat Donna Vekic, currently ranked 72, is also in that boat.
Australia’s best chance will come in the ladies doubles since the calf muscle injury to Sam Stosur in March has left her short of clay court match practice, as well as wins, leading into Paris.
Australian Open runners-up Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty are planning to team up at all the Grand Slams this year.
Ranked 23rd in doubles, Dellacqua knows how to win in the pairs in Paris, having taken the 2011 mixed doubles crown with American Scott Linksy as well as being runner up in the womens’ in 2008 with Schiavone.
The French Open is the hardest Grand Slam to predict as it is one the most upset-prone tournaments of the year. The best outcome is that the world’s current top two of Sharapova and Williams meet in the final to decide the championship, as well as who gets the number one ranking.