Less than three weeks remain until the start of the second major championship of 2012, the French Open in Paris.
The annual clay court event is hard to predict. While it's hard to bet against the likes of Rafael Nadal, who in 2011 won his sixth title at Roland Garros, there are other challengers. The women's draw produced a huge surprise last year when Li Na took the title and won the first major championship for a Chinese competitor.
The quality of tennis throughout the sport of tennis has been extremely high in 2012. That tells me that the favorites could steal the show come the fortnight in Paris, but some lesser-known players are lurking and having great years. The players could challenge the favorites and jump up and contend for a title.
Let's take a look at who could be factors come early June in Paris:
The usual suspects should all be hanging around come the second week of Roland Garros. This list includes the likes of Nadal, Novak Djokovic, a rested Roger Federer, and, to a lesser extent, Andy Murray and David Ferrer.
Nadal currently has six titles at Roland Garros, and he's really pointing for No. 7. He's playing a lot, as he usually does on clay, and I question whether his body will hold up. Federer and Djokovic have played much less and should be fresh come the end of May. Murray is sitting out of Madrid this week with a back issue, and I don't think he can hang with the top clay court players without being completely healthy.
Trying to break into the top group will be players like last week's winner in Portugal, Juan Martin del Potro, Nicolas Almagro, Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic. The French players always figure in the mix, so keep an eye on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils.
The American hope this year might be John Isner. Isner is currently No. 10 in the world and has beaten the likes of Federer and Tsonga on clay in 2012.
Serena won on clay in Charleston back in April and Sharapova has really improved her play on the dirt. Azarenka will be the favorite, but it should be very interesting.
Also looking to be a factor in Paris are former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na and Ana Ivanovic.
A dark horse to keep a close eye on for the women is Italian player Sara Errani. Errani has won three consecutive clay court events, including a recent event in Budapest. She's beaten Juila Goerges, Flavia Pennetta and Elena Vesnina during this stretch.
It's Madrid this week, the Italian Open next week, then final preparations for the French Open in Paris.
Rick Limpert covers sports, technology and events in and around Atlanta. He loves the French Open and the fact that shot-making comes into play on the red clay.