PARIS – Ask fans who are hustling to a court in the tight, crowded walkways at the French Open who is going to win the women's title and you'll get at least 10 different answers.
That's not the case on the men's side, where about seven out of 10 folks will answer Rafael Nadal, two might say Roger Federer and one will throw in a dark horse.
For the first time in memory, almost no top women's player has entered a major supremely confident or in great form.
Top-ranked Serena Williams has been completely unpredictable on clay during the past seven years. Her second-ranked sister Venus is unpredictable on any surface. Third-ranked Caroline Wozniacki hasn't put up a huge result at a big tournament all year. And while No. 4 Jelena Jankovic looks like she's on the brink of a major resurgence, her disappointing results at the majors over the past year cannot be completely dismissed.
Then there's No. 5 Elena Dementieva, who destroyed Petra Martic 6-1, 6-1 on Monday in the first round. Coming off a clay court warm up season where she admittedly did nothing due to overplaying on hardcourts, she doesn't even want to discuss her possibilities of winning the tournament. This despite the following facts:
she won't have to face a high seed until the quarters thanks to an excellent draw; she is arguably the best player not to have won a Grand Slam; she's won plenty of huge clay court matches before; and she has reached the French final before and says that it's her favorite tournament and the title she desires the most. The Russian already looks to have peaked, however, and if she can't get charged up and play the suffocating relentless style that nearly led her to an upset of Serena at last year's Wimbledon, she could lose to just about anyone.
"I don't even think about my chances," Dementieva said. "Just trying to take one match at a time, and trying to improve every game."
Dementieva did differ when it was posed that the French Open is anyone's to take. At the age of 28, she's been hearing about the up-and-comers until her golden skin has turned the color of rust, so it's the veterans who know how to win on the big stage who usually catch her attention.
One of those is four-time champion Justine Henin, who has looked particularly lethal at times during her comeback this season, but has also fallen flat on her face a couple of times.
"I think there are a couple of players that really have a pretty good chance of winning here, and it will be very interesting to see Justine, coming back and playing her first French Open since she retired," Dementieva said. "It's really hard to even talk about the chances. It's only first round, so first two days, so I think the second week that you can start to think. There are a lot of good players."
There's no question about that, but who is ready to seize control of the tour this year, much less the French Open? Serena Williams survived Stefanie Voegele 7-6, 6-2. and while she has never lost a first-round match at a Slam, she was completely disgusted with her play. She found no positives in pushing back a hard-hitting player.
"I definitely didn't feel good about it," Serena said. "Across the board, nothing, really, just to be honest. At least I won. I think I'm still in the tournament; that's what matters."
Wozniacki was a little more pleased with her performance -- and she should been, because any victory is important to her after taking early losses at Rome, Madrid and Warsaw. She's been struggling with a right ankle injury but has played week after week. If her ankle begins to heal and she shows the same sprinter's speed and defensive abilities that she showed in reaching last year's U.S. Open, she might be able to turn her season around. But like the rest of the top players, she isn't exactly brimming with confidence.
"There's a lot of things going on, so I'm just taking one match at a time," she said.
Jankovic was satisfied with her 6-0, 6-4 dispatching of Alicia Molik and can take heart that during the clay season, she beat the Williams sisters back to back in Rome, but she did lose in the final to the tricky Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and then was stunned by young Frenchwoman Aravane Rezai in Madrid. She pulled off some impressive wins, but she's not consistently closing the door, and that can be troubling at a Slam, where a killer instinct is mandatory.
"I like playing on clay courts, and I had some good couple tournaments before the French Open, so I feel good about my game," Jankovic said. "I just hope that I can keep improving with each match, and always give my best. I hope that I can go far."
The only player bold enough to declare that she can win the title without going into the mind-numbing "I'll take it match-by-match" mantra is Venus, which is a bit surprising given that's she nearly 30 years old and hasn't reached the second week of the French Open in four years. But attitude does matter when going to war on the treacherous terre battue, so maybe making a bold prediction is the right way to go about your business.
Or perhaps it's better to be humble and just wait for things to break the right way. But if Venus were a humble person, she wouldn't be a Williams sister.
"Absolutely. It goes without saying, believe I can win," she said.