The great Rafael Nadal and feisty Italian Francesca Schiavone will be the returning champions at the French Open, but neither player would be considered the favourite right now in their respective draws at the year's second major.
Roland Garros 2011 will get underway Sunday in Paris as the lone clay-court Grand Slam event will be played out over 15 days in the "City of Light."
The nine-time major champion Nadal will head to Paris with five French championships under his belt, all in the last six years, while Schiavone will look to become the first repeat women's champion since four-time winner Justine Henin turned the trick in 2007.
The 24-year-old Nadal needs one more French Open title to match Bjorn Borg (6) for the Open Era record. Chris Evert holds the women's record with seven.
Even though Nadal is arguably the greatest clay-court player of all-time, he'll probably head to France as only the second favourite on the men's side. That's because Serbian slugger Novak Djokovic will take his complete game to Paris as one of the hottest players ever.
The 2010 U.S. Open runner-up Djokovic opened his 2011 season by capturing his second career Australian Open title...and simply hasn't lost since. As a matter of fact, at the time of this article, the mighty Djokovic is riding an unstoppable 39-match overall winning streak, which dates back to when he led his beloved Serbia to its first-ever Davis Cup title in December.
Djokovic has opened his '11 campaign with a perfect 37-0 mark, which includes no less than seven titles. The record for titles in an ATP season is 16 by Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas back in 1977.
And among the Djoker's seven '11 championships are four massive victories over Nadal in Masters events finals. The world No. 2 Serb topped the amazing Nadal in last week's Italian Masters finale in Rome, just one week after he upended the Spanish strongman in the big title tilt at the Masters tourney in Madrid.
Prior to besting Nadal in Madrid, Djokovic had never beaten the Mallorcan on dirt. He's now riding a two-match winning streak against the "King of Clay" on Nadal's dominant surface.
The reigning U.S. Open, Wimbledon and French Open champion Nadal had won 37 straight on clay before Djokovic got the best of him in the Madrid finale.
And for the record, Djokovic is not only 4-0 versus Nadal this year, he's also a perfect 3-0 against another one of his long-time rivals, Roger Federer.
Obviously, when you're 37-0 for the year, you're undefeated against everyone in that particular season.
Djokovic, who will try to reach a third straight Grand Slam final, can equal the record for the best-ever start to a year in the Open Era by reaching the semifinals in Paris. Iconic American John McEnroe opened 1984 at 42-0, with his first loss of the year coming against his arch-rival Ivan Lendl in the French Open final.
The record for a consecutive match winning streak on the ATP World Tour is 46, by Vilas. Djokovic could match the Argentine Hall-of-Famer by winning all seven matches en route to a French Open title.
And Djokovic could tie McEnroe and Lendl for the Open Era record for consecutive titles on the circuit (eight) if he can prevail in Paris.
As far as Nadal is concerned, he's still the defending champ in Paris, where he's won five of the last six titles and is a brilliant 38-1 for his career, with his lone loss coming at the hands of big Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round two years ago. Soderling's stunning victory over Nadal in 2009 is considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of Grand Slam tennis.
Nadal avenged that '09 loss against Soderling by ripping the Swede in last year's final in Paris. (Soderling is the reigning two-time runner-up at Roland Garros, having lost to Federer in the '09 finale.)
Now back over to the women's side.
The diminutive Schiavone became the first-ever Italian woman to capture a Grand Slam event last year when she beat Aussie Samantha Stosur in an unlikely final at Roland Garros, but it doesn't appear as though she is among the favourites at the upcoming French extravaganza.
The real favourites at the French fortnight will be world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Aussie and U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters, Belarusian slugger Victoria Azarenka and last week's Rome titlist Maria Sharapova.
Sharapova still needs the French Open to complete a coveted career Grand Slam. The former world No. 1 star has prevailed at Wimbledon (2004), the U.S. Open (2006) and the Aussie Open (2008), but has yet to reach a final at the French.
The tall Russian is fresh off her big clay-court title in Rome, where she hammered the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up Stosur in the title match.
Does this mean that Maria's ready for a big run in Paris?
I believe it does.
Wozniacki has been one of the most consistent players on the women's tour, as evidenced by her world No. 1 ranking. But she's only ever reached one Grand Slam final (the 2009 U.S. Open) and has yet to win a major event. She's never even advanced beyond the quarterfinals in Paris...but she's still only 20 years old.
I expect Wozniacki to head deep into the second week at RG.
Clijsters hasn't played any WTA tennis since early last month, as the Belgian stalwart has been sidelined with ankle, shoulder and wrist injuries.
But the popular former No. 1 says she is all systems go for Paris, where she is a two-time runner-up (2001, 2003). Because of injuries and her retirement from tennis in the 2000's, Clijsters hasn't played in the French Open since 2006, a year in which she reached the semis.
Can she dust off some rust and run the table in Paris?
I believe so.
Azarenka has been one of the hottest players in the women's game, having won 18 of her last 21 matches and a pair of titles, including a big one coming at the lucrative event in Miami, the so-called "Fifth Slam."
Having said that, the oft-injured Azarenka has retired from matches in three of her last six events. So health will certainly be an issue for the Minsk native over the next couple of weeks.
If Azarenka can stay on the court, she has a real chance in Paris.
Back over to the men.
Nadal and Djokovic expect stiff competition from the all-time great Federer, the two-time French runner-up Soderling, Aussie Open finalist Andy Murray and speedy Spaniard David Ferrer.
Federer completed the career Grand Slam by capturing his first-ever French title two years ago, and he's been the runner-up there on three other occasions (all against Nadal from 2006-08), so he's clearly in the mix.
The 29-year-old Federer is the all-time leader with 16 Grand Slam titles, but he hasn't won one since the 2010 Aussie Open, which was five majors ago. That's an eternity for the sublime Swiss, but he's learning to handle the fact that's he's dealing with more than just Nadal at this point, as Djokovic has finally come into his own and turned the top of the men's game into a three-headed monster.
It could be a four-headed monster if Murray can figure out what to do in a major final. The ultra-talented Scot has appeared in three career Grand Slam finals, but has yet to win even a set in any of them. He lost to Djokovic in straights in the most recent major, the 2011 Aussie Open, was last year's Oz runner-up to Federer and succumbed to Federer in the 2008 U.S. Open championship match.
Murray has the game to beat anyone one any surface. He just needs to believe it and execute on the court.
Can he reach his first-ever French final this year?
Maybe not just yet.
The aforementioned Soderling has landed in the last two French finals, so he's a clear-cut contender in Paris. But I still don't believe that he can win seven straight matches at RG. That's a very tall order, especially for a guy who's only ever titled once on red clay.
Soderling's in the mix, but don't expect him to hoist the big hardware with Nadal, Djokovic and Federer in the same Grand Slam field.
Ferrer has been the third-best player on clay this year, behind only Djokovic and Nadal. The gritty 29-year-old owns a pair of titles on the dirt this season and has twice been a runner-up to his fellow Spaniard Nadal, with those coming in back-to-back events at the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona.
Note: Ferrer has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in Paris, with his last QF appearance coming in 2008.
Did I forget to mention surging Argentine Juan Martin del Potro? The former U.S. Open champ has certainly been one of the hotter players out there, but after recovering from wrist surgery that ruined his 2010 campaign, the tall South American is now battling a hip injury which could keep him out of the French draw.
The 6-foot-6 del Potro has won his last seven matches overall, including a clay-court title in Portugal. And he's 19-2 in his last 21 matches, including a pair of titles.
If DelPo decides to play in Paris and he's healthy, he could roll into the second week. But don't expect a championship.
Are there any dark horses in the mix in the two draws? Possibly Austrian left-hander Jurgen Melzer among the men and Li Na and Petra Kvitova among the women. Melzer soared all the way into the French semis a year ago. Li became the first-ever Asian player to reach a Grand Slam final, which she did at this year's Aussie Open, while the 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova is the best left-hander on the women's tour and upset Azarenka in a final in Madrid two weeks back.
I failed to mention world No. 3 Vera Zvonareva only because she simply hasn't been playing well in recent months. The Russian star reached finals at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon last year, but has been relatively quiet since the European clay-court season commenced last month.
Glaring absences on the women's side are the Williams sisters, who are both battling injuries/health issues.
The 13-time major champion Serena Williams, who captured her lone French Open title in 2002 by beating her big sister Venus in the final, hasn't played a WTA match since capturing a fourth Wimbledon title last July. She was sidelined for several months after having surgeries on her foot, which she cut on some broken glass at a German restaurant last summer. And in addition to a pair of surgeries on the foot, the former world No. 1 was hospitalized earlier this year due to blood clots in her lung, and she also needed treatment for a hematoma on her stomach.
Meanwhile, the former No. 1 Venus hasn't played since January because of a hip injury.
The women's side will also play without the great Henin, who retired from the WTA for a second time earlier this year.
Aside from Nadal and Federer, the only other former men's French champion in field will be former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2003 titlist.
And aside from Schiavone, the only other former French Open champs in the '11 ladies' draw will be Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009) and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic (2008).
The last Frenchman to title at Roland Garros was Yannick Noah back in 1983, while the last Frenchwoman to capture the home Slam was Mary Pierce in 2000. Pierce was actually born in Canada, so the last French-born woman to win it all in Paris was Francoise Durr back in 1967.
Time for some predictions.
I'm gonna have to go with Djokovic to break through with his first-ever trip into the French final and a victory to hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Among the women, I'm gonna go with Wozniacki to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
We'll see what happens.