At the Net: Rafa, Li Na return to Paris as French champs

The second Grand Slam event of the year will commence next week, as Rafael Nadal and Li Na look to defend their titles at the French Open.

"Rafa" captured a second straight and Open Era-record-tying sixth French Open championship a year ago by beating former titlist and great rival Roger Federer in the final at Roland Garros for a fourth time. Li became the first- ever Asian major champ, male or female, by dethroning defending titlist Francesca Schiavone in the 2011 women's finale in Paris.

So far this year, the major champions are world No. 1s Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka. Djokovic captured a third straight and fourth Grand Slam title in five tries by handling Nadal in January's Aussie Open finale. It marked the super Serb's third straight victory over Nadal in a major title tilt.

Azarenka finally got off the schneid by capturing her first-ever major championship by besting former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova in the Aussie final. The huge victory also propelled the Belarusian star to No. 1 in the world for the first time in her career, and she's been atop the women's rankings since the end of January, when she supplanted Caroline Wozniacki.

Nadal will head to Paris seeking a third straight and new-record seventh overall French championship. Last year, he matched the legendary Bjorn Borg with his sixth Open Era title on the red clay at RG.

The 25-year-old Nadal is a remarkable 45-1 at the French, with his only loss coming at the hands of big Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round three years ago. The Spanish strongman was slowed mightily by a pair of sore knees in that stunning setback, which was one of the biggest upsets in tennis history at the time. As it turned out, Soderling turned out to be a pretty good player who reached back-to-back French Open finals in '09 and 2010.

Nadal already owns a trio of clay-court titles this year, including a pair of victories over Djokovic in a pair of Masters 1000 finals in Monte Carlo and Rome. Just this week, Nadal straight-setted the Serbian slugger in a marquee title bout in Rome to establish himself as the man to beat in France. The victory also propelled the former No. 1 Nadal back to the No. 2 spot in the rankings ahead of Federer, who jumped the Spaniard for the No. 2 position just last week.

The fiery Nadal is a 10-time major champ.

Djokovic has been the best player in the world since the beginning of 2011, but even with all his recent success, which includes the three straight and four of the last five major titles, he will not be the favorite at Roland Garros ... where he still has yet to reach a final.

If the five-time major champion Djokovic can avoid Nadal and/or Federer through the semifinals, only then would I like his chances of reaching that elusive first-ever French finale. He's a combined 0-4 lifetime versus Nadal and Federer at the world's only clay-court major.

Djokovic is trying to become the first man in 43 years to win all four majors in one year, or a true Grand Slam. "Rocket" Rod Laver was the last to turn the trick, in 1969.

Back over on the women's side, Azarenka will be the top seed, but she won't be the favorite. That's because there is no clear-cut favorite in the women's draw.

It would appear to be a wide-open race, with, perhaps, four women standing out, in Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena Williams and Li. Quiet world No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, reigning Wimbledon and WTA Championships champ Petra Kvitova, 2010 French Open runner-up and 2011 U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur and even rapidly rising German Angelique Kerber also could figure into the equation in the "City of Light."

Of course, Azarenka is in the mix. She's having a great season, but has cooled off a bit of late.

After opening her year with four titles in as many events, the Belarusian bomber has failed to win one in her last four tourneys, including losses in finals in Stuttgart, where she gave way to Sharapova, and Madrid, where she succumbed to the former No. 1 standout Serena.

Azarenka's 2012 start was being compared to that of Djokovic from last year, when he opened his remarkable 2011 campaign at 43-0 before finally losing to Federer in the French Open semis in June.

The high-pitched-shrieking Azarenka got off to a sizzling 26-0 start this year before losing to former Wimbledon runner-up Marion Bartoli in the quarterfinals at the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., where the Belarusian was the defending champ at the time.

Meanwhile, the three-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova has been the runner-up at two of the last three majors and is playing some of the best tennis of her career this year. She lost to Azarenka in the Aussie final four months ago.

The Russian bomber has already appeared in five finals in seven events this season, winning a pair of titles in Stuttgart and Rome. She surprised Azarenka in the Stuttgart finale last month and is fresh off her title last week in Rome, where she outlasted Li in a hard-fought finale on the dirt at Foro Italico.

Sharapova is a surprising 11-1 on clay (her least-favorite surface) this year.

The tall Russian still needs a French Open title to complete a coveted career Grand Slam. Could this finally be the year for the 25-year-old?

Of course, Serena is always in the mix ... when healthy.

Last week, the American star pulled out of her scheduled Rome semifinal match against Li due to a back injury. The oft-injured great, however, is still a flawless 17-0 on clay this year, including a blue-clay title in Madrid two weeks ago, and will head to Paris as one of the legitimate favorites.

The 2011 U.S. Open runner-up owns 13 major singles titles, including her lone French Open one 10 years ago.

Is the 30-year-old ready for a second French title?

Li will look to defend her honor, but I'm not so sure she will, especially with the way Sharapova and Serena are playing right now. Not to mention Azarenka.

Li wasn't much of a factor on tour last year after capturing the French, but she's been playing much better ball in the early part of this season, reaching finals in Sydney and Rome and landing in quarterfinals at Key Biscayne, Indian Wells, Stuttgart and Madrid.

After showing that renewed promise in Rome last week, the Chinese star could be back in the fold.

Back over on the men's side, Djokovic and Nadal aren't the only contenders, as the 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer has proven he isn't going anywhere just yet.

The former No. 1 Swiss stalwart has already performed in four finals this year, going a perfect 4-0, including a clay-court title at the recently concluded Madrid Masters, which was staged on a most-unusual blue clay surface.

Too bad for Federer that Nadal had been around to prevent him from winning a boatload of French Open titles himself. The super Swiss has appeared in no less than five French finals, losing four of them at the hands of Rafa.

FYI: Federer hasn't captured a major title since the 2010 Aussie Open, a stretch of eight straight Slams, his longest such drought since nailing down his maiden major title at the 2003 Wimbledon extravaganza.

The 30-year-old "Fed" and Nadal already own career Grand Slams and French Open titles, so maybe the hunger factor is on Djokovic's side.

Somehow I doubt it.

Outside of the big three, long-time world No. 4 Andy Murray will make the trip to Paris seeking his first-ever major title. The solid Scot is a three-time major runner-up, but has never reached the French final. He landed in his first-ever French semi a year ago, only to lose to Nadal in straights.

Murray can probably expect to make a deep run in Paris, but the party will likely come to an end if he reaches the semis if Djokovic, Nadal or Federer are waiting for him.

Some other Top 10 stars to consider in Paris are former Aussie Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Spanish all-courter David Ferrer, former Wimbledon runner- up Tomas Berdych, and former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro. Ferrer lost to Nadal in a final in Barcelona last month, while Berdych succumbed to Federer in the recent Madrid Masters finale, and the formidable 6-foot-6 del Potro was a clay-court winner in Estoril earlier this month.

And some other Top 10 women to consider are Radwanska, Kvitova, Stosur, Wozniacki and Kerber. The rising Dubai and Sony Ericsson champion Radwanska opened the year at No. 8 and is now up to No. 3; Kvitova is an intimidating lefty who has been picking up her game of late after a slow start to her '12 campaign; Stosur reached the French final two years ago; Wozniacki is always a threat to reach a final four; and the left-handed Kerber owns a pair of titles and has a most-impressive five wins against Top 10 competition this season.

Do any American men have a chance in Paris?

Of course not.

John Isner will lead the charge for the Red, White and Blue, but I don't expect to see any of our guys in the second week, even though Isner has been very good on clay this year, including monster wins over Federer and Tsonga in two different Davis Cup ties.

Back to the women's side.

I don't see the aforementioned Schiavone making a third straight trip into the French final, as the 31-year-old's play simply has been well below par in recent months.

Venus Williams will be there (in Paris, that is), but she's never prevailed at the French. The former No. 1 lost to her younger sister in an all-Williams Roland Garros finale in 2002.

The 31-year-old Venus hasn't reached the quarterfinals in Paris since 2006.

The most notable absentees in Paris will be 2003 runner-up Kim Clijsters (hip), men's world No. 10 Mardy Fish (fatigue), former women's top-10er Andrea Petkovic (ankle) and two-time men's finalist Robin Soderling (mono).

It's about that time. Time to make some picks.

I like Nadal to secure the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a seventh time. And I think it's a toss-up between Sharapova and Serena among the ladies, but I'll go with Serena to hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen for the first time in 10 years.

American tennis icon Chris Evert boasts the women's record with seven French championships, while France's Max Decugis holds the men's mark with eight French Open singles titles, but they all came before 1915, or well, well before the Open Era started in 1968.

A Frenchman hasn't run the table in Paris in almost 30 years (Yannick Noah, 1983), while the last French-born woman to prevail at RG was Francoise Durr in 1967.

Those droughts will continue into next year.

The 2012 French Open will swing into action on Sunday.

C'est parti!