Russian superstar Maria Sharapova will attempt to defend her title against the likes of the great Serena Williams and fellow former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka when the 2013 French Open begins Sunday at Stade Roland Garros.
Sharapova completed the coveted career Grand Slam last year by capturing her first-ever French Open title, as the tall Russian capped off her Parisian fortnight by beating surprising Italian Sara Errani in the finale on Court Chatrier.
The 26-year-old Sharapova, however, will not head to Paris as the top seed, or even the favorite this year, as the incomparable Serena is playing some of the best tennis of her meritorious career, which includes a seemingly unstoppable career-best 24-match winning streak.
Serena already owns 15 Grand Slam singles titles, including last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships, but she hasn't had an undefeated fortnight at Roland Garros since way back in 2002. As a matter of fact, '02 marks her lone French Open title, as she hasn't typically played her best tennis on the red clay.
But this year, the 31-year-old American bruiser is unbeaten on the stuff, going 11-0 in her last two events, with sexy wins coming in two of her favorite cities -- Madrid and Rome.
Serena has lost only two matches all year, with her last one coming five tournaments ago against Azarenka in Doha, Qatar, in February. And the American avenged that defeat by tattooing the Belarusian star in the final in Rome last week.
Note: Serena has straight-setted her last eight opponents, sprinkling in a trio of bagel sets.
Serena was a shocking first-round loser against French journeywoman Virginie Razzano at last year's French Open, marking her first-ever opening-round loss at a major. I'm still in shock.
Since that loss to Razzano, however, Serena has practically been lights out, securing hardware at Wimbledon, the Olympics, U.S. Open, WTA Championships, Miami, etc., etc.
Can she be beaten in Paris this year? Her history there would suggest a yes, but I think you can probably throw out the history right now.
The Aussie Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up Azarenka is certainly in the mix. The Belarusian shriek artist has reached three of the last five Grand Slam finals, including back-to-back wins at the Aussie, but she's never fared all that well in Paris.
The 23-year-old was a disappointing fourth-round loser a year ago and surprisingly has never made it past the quarterfinals at the lone clay-court major.
Azarenka, like Serena, has lost only two matches this season, but they've come over her last six outings, which means she's picking a bad time to cool off.
Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka, of course, comprise the "Big Three" on the women's tour, and I'm almost certain one will take it all in Paris next month. The formidable ladies have combined to sweep the last five Grand Slam titles, and a member of the unofficial exclusive group also has been the runner-up at four of the last seven Slams. And Serena and Sharapova were the combatants in last year's gold medal match at the London Games to boot.
OK, so there are some other women on the WTA circuit -- like Agnieszka Radwanska, the aforementioned Errani and Li Na.
Radwanska is probably the fourth-best women's player in the world and was last year's Wimbledon runner-up to Serena, but the quiet Polish star and the French Open don't seem to get along. She was a third-round loser there a year ago and has never advanced beyond the fourth round in Paris in six trips.
Safe to say that clay is not Radwanska's surface of choice, as evidenced by a mere two career titles on the dirt.
Prognosis: No French title.
Errani is as gritty as they come, but a return trip to the French final just seems unlikely. Just because it does. Sure, her countrywoman Francesca Schiavone shocked most by reaching back-to-back finals there in 2010 and 2011, including that stunning title run in '10, but I don't see Errani winning six straight matches to reach the title tilt at Roland Garros for a second straight year.
Errani has not been producing the same type of results she did last year when she piled up four clay-court titles, three of which came before the French. She only has one clay title heading into Roland Garros this time around and has appeared in only one clay-court final this season (won in Acapulco, Mexico).
Li was this year's Aussie runner-up to Azarenka and captured the French Open as recently as two years ago. The 31-year-old Chinese slugger has played some quality ball since the middle of last year, including a trip into a clay-court final in Stuttgart, Germany, last month (lost to Sharapova), and would appear to have a real chance in Paris, but, again, she's not a member of the Big Three.
Did I fail to mention lefty stars Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber, or 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki or 2002 runner-up Venus Williams? There, I just did. No one in this bunch is a real candidate to win the French this year.
This year's draw will feature six former champions, as Sharapova, Li, Schiavone and Serena are joined by Svetlana Kuznetsova and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.
All right, time to make a pick.
How could I go with anyone other than Serena here? She should be able to hoist her first Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 11 years.
Notes: The record for most women's titles in Paris in the Open Era (since 1968) belongs to American legend Chris Evert, who piled up seven between 1974 and 1986. The great Steffi Graf is next with six. Four other women have tallied three or more in the post-Amateur Era -- Justine Henin, with four, and Margaret Court, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Monica Seles, who captured three apiece.
The United States is the women's Open Era leader with 13 titles at RG. No other nation has even won five. But Serena was the last American to turn the trick, back in '02, and there have been only two American wins there since 1986, with Jennifer Capriati (2001) accounting for the other victory.