The 2013 French Open will swing into action on Sunday and Rafael Nadal will be there as your three-time defending champion.
Novak Djokovic is the current world No. 1 and will be the top seed at the 2013 Parisian fortnight, but the former top-ranked Nadal is still the man to beat on the crushed red brick at Stade Roland Garros.
The mighty Nadal has captured an Open Era-record seven French Open titles, losing only once there in his brilliant career (52-1). The mighty Spaniard was slowed mightily by a pair of sore knees when he was shocked by Swedish slugger Robin Soderling in the fourth round back in 2009. Nadal avenged that setback by beating Soderling in the final the following year.
Note: Max Decugis piled up eight French titles between 1903 and 1915 back in the Amateur Era.
Rafa beat a top-seeded Djokovic in four sets in last year's finale, as Djokovic made his long-awaited first-ever appearance in the championship match at RG.
Nadal will head to Paris playing some of the most-inspired tennis of his career. Since returning from a seven-month injury layoff (left knee) back in February, he has entered eight tournaments and appeared in as many finals. Rafa collected his sixth title of the year at last week's Italian Masters, where he's now a record seven-time champion after whipping his long-time rival Roger Federer in the finale at Foro Italico in Rome.
The 26-year-old Nadal has won his last three events in succession, including back-to-back ATP World Tour Masters 1000 wins in Madrid and Rome, and has a 15- match winning streak. His latest Masters shield added to his Masters record, which now stands at a whopping 24 championships.
Could he be any hotter?
The answer is no.
For the record, Nadal will probably be the fourth seed in Paris.
The 11-time Grand Slam singles titlist missed the Australian Open in January while recovering from his latest knee issues.
Djokovic will be the top seed in Paris, even though he's never titled there and has reached only one French Open final in eight cracks at it. Having said that, he is the three-time reigning Aussie Open champ and was the runner-up at last year's U.S. and French Opens, which means he's performed in three of the last four major finals (1-2). The super Serb has actually appeared in six of the last seven (4-2) and eight of the last 10 Slam finals (5-3).
Note: Djokovic is 3-0 in his 2013 finals, including a surprising victory over Nadal in Monte Carlo, where Nadal was the reigning eight-time champ. Yes, eight!
The six-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic, who will turn 26 on Wednesday, is a solid 31-8 lifetime at Roland Garros.
The second seed in Paris is expected to be Andy Murray, but the reigning U.S. Open champ and Australian Open and Wimbledon runner-up is suffering with a sore back and may miss the clay-court Slam.
It's no secret that Murray's least-favorite surface is red clay. He's only ever reached one semifinal (2011) at the French, where he's 18-6 for his career and has lost there before the quarterfinals in three-of-six trips.
The 26-year-old Murray broke through for his first-ever major title at last year's U.S. Open and played in the Oz Open final earlier this season, but I think it's safe to say that even if he plays well in Paris, the Scotsman will not secure his second Grand Slam title.
The 17-time Grand Slam king and reigning Wimbledon champion Federer will head to Paris in hopes of derailing the scalding-hot Nadal and high-flying Djokovic.
The 31-year-old Swiss maestro captured his lone French Open title the year Nadal lost there early four years ago and is a four-time Roland Garros runner- up to the amazing Rafa.
Federer also had his lunch handed to him by Nadal in last week's Italian Masters final and certainly hopes he doesn't have to play the "Magnificent Mallorcan" in Paris this time around.
Note: Federer has captured just one of the last nine major events, giving way to the likes of Djokovic and Nadal, and even Murray, over the last few years.
Can Federer surprise with a second French title next month?
The also-ran list in Paris should include David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Stan Wawrinka.
The 31-year-old Ferrer is probably the best player not in the top four, but he just can't beat the likes of the "Big Four" at the majors. He's probably the fourth-best clay-courter on the planet, so expect him to make a deep run in Paris (he was a semifinalist there a year ago), but his chances on going 7-0 at the year's second major are unlikely only because of the men at the very top of the draw.
The 27-year-old former Wimbledon runner-up Berdych can beat anyone, on any surface, at any time, but he's only ever reached the French Open semis once (2010) and has failed to make it out of the second round in six of his nine trips to Paris. He's a threat to reach the semis again, but I don't like his chances of going all the way (especially with the way someone like Nadal is playing right now).
Del Potro is formidable on any surface, but the former U.S. Open champ's just been too inconsistent for me to think he can run the table in the "City of Light." Like Berdych, he's capable of beating anyone, on any surface, at any time, but he hasn't shown any evidence of that over the last couple of months.
Wawrinka's not in the Top 10 (No. 11), but the "Other Swiss" has been one of the hottest guys during the European clay-court swing. The hard-hitting star appeared in back-to-back clay-court finals over the last few weeks, upsetting Ferrer in Portugal and losing to Nadal in Madrid, before running out of gas last week in Rome.
I'm not saying Stan's the man in Paris, but he appears to be a candidate to make a run into the second week at RG.
Note: Only two former champions (Nadal and Federer) and three former finalists (Nadal, Federer and Djokovic) will be in the 128-player draw.
Where have you gone (the 2009 and 2010 French Open runner-up) Soderling?
Time to make a prediction.
Nadal will win an eighth French Open title, as he starts to leave my tennis hero Bjorn Borg (six Coupes des Mousquetaires) in his dust.
Aside from Nadal and Borg, only three other men have captured at least three French Open titles in the Open Era (since 1968) -- Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl and Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten, who each has three. And Spain is the Open Era leader with 13 Roland Garros wins.