COMMENTARY | It's time for one of the most anticipated Grand Slams of the year - the French Open. Players and fans alike have waited five months for one of the biggest events of the season. The beauty of the clay court game is unlike any other - the sliding, the crushed brick staining the players in battle, and the amorous city of Paris providing a prestigious ambiance that is quite different from Wimbledon.
France hasn't seen a royal at its throne since the mid-18th century. But, there has been a different Queen of Clay every year at Roland Garros since Justine Henin-Hardenne defended her title in 2007. In those five years, Ana Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone, and Li Na picked up their only career slams and ruled the courts of Paris.
This year's field of top contenders deems that there will be a different winner, yet again. With one or two clear favorites, there still rests a chance for the tradition of a surprise winner to continue.
There is one definite front-runner for the French Open title, and she goes by the name Serena Williams. Her dominance has been exceptional this season. Gathering five titles since the start of the year, is a statistic that draws her apart from the rest of her competition. She entered the French Open after winning three straight clay court titles, and held 24 match-win streak (if we're counting her two Fed Cup wins) going into the tournament.
There's nothing bad that you can say about Serena's year, except for the fact that she lost in the quarterfinals of the first Grand Slam of the season, succumbing to Sloane Stephens in a surprise defeat. Her only other loss came to then-ranked world No.1 Victoria Azarenka in the final of Doha in February. On the flip side, Williams gave up a total of only nine games in the last two finals she contested against Maria Sharapova and world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka.
Williams suffered one of the most, if not the most, dismal losses of her career at last year's Roland Garros, losing to a relatively unknown Virginie Razzano in the opening round. Combine the psychological aftereffects of that blowout with the fact that she hasn't won the Grand Slam since 2002 (the only time she ever did), and you have a Serena that will be hungrier, and more ready than ever, to win. Even though clay has been her weakest surface in her illustrious career, 2013 may script a different story line for Serena.
Then there's Serena's nemesis, Maria Sharapova. If, somehow, Serena doesn't make the final, defending champion Sharapova has a pretty good chance of defending her title. Once, a self-proclaimed "cow on ice" when describing her ability to play on the red dirt, Sharapova was able to break away from that moniker after winning her first Grand Slam on the Parisian clay last year. At the age of 26 she has already won the Career Slam, collecting each of the four at least once.
When looking at Sharapova's record, there has been a noticeable time lapse between her third and forth slam victories. A shoulder injury, and a new crop of players during that time period was what distanced Sharapova from hoisting a Grand Slam trophy. Now, Sharapova is back to the top and looking to successfully defend a Grand Slam for the first time in her career, and she may be the only one who can give Serena a run for her money.
Victoria Azarenka now holds two Grand Slams to her name. The Belarusian's lone claim to fame is at the Australian Open, a hard court event. She's had some mixed results at the French, losing as early as the first round in 2010. Despite only winning one clay tournament in her career, Azarenka has brought an impressive 22-2 overall record for the year coming into Roland Garros. Azarenka's lack of match play on clay may turn against her, though. The 23-year-old has reached the final in Rome, but has only contested in seven matches, far less than her counterparts Sharapova and Williams. This may make or break her tournament.
Most of us can abide by the saying "It's the quiet ones you have to look out for." The "quiet" one we are talking about here is Li Na. Let's not forget that she reached the final of the Australian Open this year, where she had a close call in the final with Azarenka.
Li Na hasn't had the most favorable clay court season this year, but she has a bigger asset on her resume - she's a former champion in Paris. En route to her title in 2011, Li Na defeated Petra Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova, three of the biggest names in the game. With that said, she can hang with the big girls. Whether or not she can be in the running for winning the title in 2013, Li Na can make a deep run in the tournament. On a good day, she will be out to beat anyone.
It's been a while since Petra Kvitova has won a slam, but the Czech is one to watch on clay. Her game consists of heavy ground strokes, and a tang of craftiness. Kvitova isn't afraid to change it up with a slice and some drop shots. She reached the semifinals in Paris last season, during a year that wasn't her best.
She hasn't had the best of years this year, either. After losing to Laura Robson in the second round in Melbourne, Kvitova hasn't had too bad of a record, however. She won a hard court tournament in Dubai, and reached the finals in Katowice on clay. Her most recent results on clay haven't given her much hype, but the No. 7-ranked Kvitova is one to look out for in the draw as she has already proven herself on clay. Remember, no one likes a player who can throw sharp angles at them.
With Sharapova and Williams positioned at opposite sides of the draw, and the others dispersed throughout, who do you think will be the new Queen of Clay in Paris in 2013? Will anyone be able to stop Serena's recent supremacy?
Olivia Glinka covers on-court and off-court tennis news as a blogger and writer. You can read her content on One Stop Tennis.
Get the latest tennis scoop by following her on Twitter @OneStopTennis.
- Sports & Recreation
- Serena Williams
- Maria Sharapova
- Victoria Azarenka
- Li Na