No woman favored at French Open the way Nadal is
Asked if there's a real favorite for this year's French Open, Serena Williams shot back a quick answer. "Yeah," she replied, "I definitely think Nadal is probably a big-time favorite."
Four-time champion Rafael Nadal surely is the man to beat. But what about the women's field?
"I don't know," she said. "I'm just here to play and go for it."
As the year's second Grand Slam tournament begins on Sunday, no one seems to know which woman is the likeliest to hoist the trophy in two weeks.
"It's very hard to pick one," said Ana Ivanovic, the defending champion.
If a fourth consecutive men's final between Nadal and Roger Federer seems like a possibility, the women's event appears less predictable.
Williams and Ivanovic each has struggled recently with a bothersome knee. Maria Sharapova returned to the tour this week after missing nearly 10 months, and she was wearing white tape on her surgically repaired right shoulder as she practiced at Roland Garros on Saturday.
Top-seeded Dinara Safina is playing better than anyone on clay lately, but she never has won a major title, nor has Jelena Jankovic. Williams' older sister Venus loses power on the slow, red surface. Up-and-comers Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark and Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland are still untested at the late stages of a major.
"They just need a little bit more experience in the Grand Slams and playing at this level," Ivanovic said. "But I think definitely in the future they have very good potential."
Ivanovic opens Sunday's schedule on center court against Sara Errani of Italy. Others slated to play on Day 1 include Amelie Mauresmo, Andy Murray, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt. Serena Williams' most recent match, at the Madrid Open this month, ended when she stopped after dropping the first set, citing her injured knee making for her fourth loss in a row. Still, other players aren't assuming the younger Williams won't be a factor in Paris.
"If she's going to play, I'm sure she's going to be 100 per cent, feels ready to compete," Ivanovic said. "Both Williams, they are great champions, and they always perform well at the big events." That much is true. The sisters own a total of 17 major singles titles, including from each of the past three Grand Slam tournaments: Serena won the Australian Open and US Open after losing to Venus in the Wimbledon final.
That streak began after a wobbly showing at last year's French Open, when both sisters lost on the same day, in the third round. Serena Williams doesn't often downplay her chances at any tournament, much less one she's won in the past.
Shortly before the start at Roland Garros two years ago, for example, the 2002 champion called the French Open her "No. 1 priority, simply because I only have one trophy and she's really lonely, so she really wants a friend."
Compare that attitude to her approach this time, when she acknowledged she isn't the favorite and added: "I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."
She hasn't been to a French Open final since beating her sister for the title seven years ago. Nadal, meanwhile, never has failed to reach the championship match in Paris.
"Well, look, certainly Rafa wants to win it again and again and again," said fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic, a French Open semifinalist the last two years. "But certainly there is always motivation, even though he won it already four times. But who knows? I mean, there is always hope and belief from my side and I think Roger and all the players in the top that they can surprise him." Nadal was greeted by a standing ovation when he stepped onto center court on Saturday for what turned out to be a 7-5 loss to Brian Dabul of Argentina. Nadal's 28-0 record at Roland Garros is still intact, however, because he was playing an exhibition match during the traditional pre-tournament charity day, when children under 7 get in free.