Challengers await should Nadal slip again

Rafa or Roger? Venus or Serena? If the questions were that simple, we could just fast-forward 15 days to the final of the French Open to see who wins.

But it's never that simple on the red clay of Roland Garros, the historic site that sits on the edge of Paris, surrounded by the greenery of the Bois de Boulogne and steeped in a history that stretches back from Rafael Nadal to Bjorn Borg, Nicola Pietrangeli and those Four Musketeers -- Henri Cochet, Renee Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon -- for whom the complex was built in 1928.

History teaches us that nothing can be taken for granted. Ask Nadal, beaten so shockingly by Robin Soderling last year when everyone expected the Spaniard to claim his fifth successive crown. Ask Andre Agassi, who never expected to win on clay but did, in 1999, from an impossible position against Andrei Medvedev. Ask John McEnroe, who was killing Ivan Lendl from two sets and a break up in the 1984 final before finding a way to lose.

The questions that are being posed on this warm, sunny Saturday in Paris are centered on the form of Nadal (near perfect), Federer (improving), David Ferrer (ominous), Andy Murray (better), Novak Djokovic (worrying) and Ernests Gulbis (excitingly dangerous) amongst the men. While Venus Williams has been looking as good as she has ever been on the clay, Serena's a little bit up and down and Justine Henin is hoping, but not certain, to be a threat as she continues her return to the tour.

With three straight tournament wins on clay in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid, Nadal returns in far better shape than last year and should, unless Ivan Ljubicic can create an enormous surprise, have little to worry about until he meets Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals. Along with Ferrer, Verdasco has been the most impressive of the supporting cast in the last few weeks, but has been showing signs of wear and tear and lost on Saturday to Richard Gasquet in a tough final in Nice. This will be the moment to discover if all that fitness training Verdasco has been putting himself through with Gil Reyes in Las Vegas pays off.

Gasquet's victory was significant because he is now on a 10-match winning streak and faces Murray in the first round on Monday. The pair played a dramatic match at Wimbledon a few years ago in which Murray managed to win. But this is clay, ostensibly a huge advantage for the Frenchman. However, the French feel the pressure at Roland Garros even more than Murray does at Wimbledon -- just look at the desperate record of Amelie Mauresmo whenever the whole of France was demanding she win -- and Gasquet has shown himself to be prone to nerves.

As defending champion, Federer will return with a spring in his step and should not be troubled until he runs into Gael Monfils in the fourth round. Even if he survives that, which is by no means certain, either Marin Cilic or Gulbis, the young Latvian who beat him in Rome, could pose problems for Federer in the quarters.

Djokovic's health remains a concern after suffering from respiratory problems at the tournament in Belgrade. He didn't look too great while playing a practice match against Ferrer in front of hundreds of spectators Saturday. During the 10 minutes I watched, Djokovic, looking disconsolate, hardly won a point.

And the Americans? There are nine of them in the men's draw and there is more reason for optimism than usual. Sam Querrey, who is in the bottom half with Andy Roddick, Robby Ginepri, Rajeev Ram, Michael Russell and Mardy Fish, claimed his first European clay court title in Belgrade by beating his traveling partner, John Isner. Querrey will be relishing the chance to prove how well his game adapts to the red stuff. Unfortunately, he has Ginepri first up and could meet the 2003 champion, Juan Carlos Ferrero, in the third round.

If he survives, Querrey could find himself playing Roddick in the quarters. Andy's state of health has yet to be confirmed after falling foul of a virus in Madrid. Roddick opens against Jaarko Nieminen and should survive.

Isner, who is in Federer's half with Taylor Dent and Ryan Sweeting, opens up against Andrey Golubev of Kazakstan and should make it through to Round 3 where Thomas Berdych, seeded two places higher than Isner at 15, will probably await him. Later, Isner may have to deal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the No. 8 seed and big crowd favorite.

Maria Sharapova's title win in Strasbourg offers hope that she will make an impact in the women's draw. But the Russian will probably run into Henin as early as Round 3, and the survivor will have Serena to deal with in the quarters.

Meanwhile, Venus begins against the vastly experienced Swiss left-hander Patty Schnyder and faces a possible fourth-round encounter against Aravan Rezai, the French woman who upset her in the final of Madrid last Sunday.

But one thing is certain: Win or lose, Federer will remain No. 1 in the world. That would put him at 285 weeks as No. 1, just one week short of Pete Sampras, the all-time leader.