The week before any Grand Slam is a time for questions, many of which will not be answered until the final weekend, and the lead-in to this year's Roland Garros is just as plum full of uncertainty as always, especially on the women's side.
Men's tennis offers plenty of imponderables as the '05 French Open soars into view. Can Roger Federer win the one major title that has eluded him so far? Can Rafael Nadal turn his fiercely hot clay court form an into Grand Slam title on what will be his debut in Paris? Is any American, British or Australian man – including past champ Andre Agassi and last year's surprise semifinalist Tim Henman – likely to make it past the first weekend? What can we expect from the clay court specialists: quick Argentine Guillermo Coria, defending champ Gaston Gaudio and former titlist Juan Carlos Ferrero?
These questions and more will plague those whose minds – whether through hobby, profession or both – tingle into life as they count down the days until the tournament begins on Monday; it is arguably the women's event on which we should all be focussing.
While the men's side may produce a terrific, king-of-the hill clash between Federer and Nadal, it the emotional, topsy-turvy world of Sony-Ericsson WTA Tour that currently offers the most intrigue.
Heading Into the French, females are finally become fascinatingly unpredictable
The emotional, topsy-turvy world of Sony-Ericsson WTA Tour that currently offers the most intrigue. Gone are the days when there was a single woman to beat at each major; nowadays things are fascinatingly unpredictable in the women's game.
For starters, for the second year running, there is no dominant figure in women's tennis right now, no female Federer, no Steffi Graf-like empress of the courts. Last year's spate of injuries gave no one the chance to sink their teeth into the tour and growl at those who tried to wrestle it from them. Lindsay Davenport seems to regard the No. 1 ranking like a bored mother who has been given a balloon to hold in the playground, while everyone one else is busy running around. It's as if she knows it isn't hers to keep and appears more than happy to hand it back to the first child that asks.
That may well be the prodigious Maria Sharapova, who outshines her rivals like a 1000-watt bulb when it comes to superstar glamour and crossover appeal, but hasn't yet shown the maturity in her game to dominate the sport through her tennis. She is certainly not yet a canny enough clay court player to be considered as favorite for the honours at Roland Garros. Her run to the Rome semifinals last week was the first journey past the last eight of a clay court event and, while it put her a little nearer the No. 1 spot to grab it in Paris, she will have to better last year's run to the quarterfinals there. She may also have to hope that Davenport, who hasn't played since winning Amelia Island on green clay last month, loses very early.
Having the top spot up for grabs at a Grand Slam always infuses the draw with a little extra spice, but a little further down the women's rankings there are a number of other more vexing question marks which will be erased over the course of the French Open.
which serena will arrive in paris?
Serena Williams' win at the Australian Open offered hope that she planned to do more than just turn up at tournaments and pay lip service to her day job of being a professional athlete. The seven-time Grand Slam champion cannot be blamed for the ankle injury which forced her to miss warm-ups in Amelia Island and Berlin. But she admitted that it had no bearing on her dismal performance in losing to Francesca Schiavone in her opening match in Rome, where she looked off the pace and, in the opinion of some keen observers, a little out of shape.
Arriving at major tournaments undercooked and warming up through the early rounds has been something of a Williams' specialty down the years, but it would be remarkable even by her standards to pull it off on an unforgiving surface like clay.
Serena's sister, Venus, is the in the midst of the longest title drought of her career since she began playing full-time. The former French finalist's refusal to hire an additional coach outside of her parents has crimped her attempts at fixing the technical problems on her forehand and serve.
Had Kim Clijsters not sustained that infuriating knee injury in Berlin, her glorious march on the US hardcourts, when she won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back, would have made her firm favorite to break her Grand Slam duck by winning Roland Garros. Clijsters has resumed gym work, but has yet to start hitting balls again and will not make a decision on whether or not to play in Paris until the end of this week. But if she does, the '00 finalist certainly has the speed, style and hunger to win it all. The question is, does the locker room's most popular player have the stomach for it?
France's Amelie Mauresmo also has a shot at No. 1, but admittedly has always frozen up under the intense Parisian spotlight. But she's enlisted the consul of France's last male champion, sometimes rocker Yannick Noah, and finally may find a way to calm her jittery nerves.
russian repeat seems unlikely
Then there's the questions of the other two Russian Grand Slam champions: defending champion Anastasia Myskina and US Open victor Svetlana Kuznetsova. After an amazing 2004, Russian Fed Cup leader Myskina had fallen on hard times, saddled with an aching shoulder, lack of confidence and alleged personal problems. The sometimes brooding, sometimes giggly but always court-smart Myskina won't go down quietly, but she could go down early. The super-athletic Kuznetsova's brutish game seems perfect for the surface, but she's going through mental growing pains after her breakout year and needs to right her ship quickly.
If there is a slight favorite then it has to be Justine Henin-Hardenne, whose return to form on the clay courts of Charleston, Warsaw and Berlin suggests that she is hungry to put her horrible, illness-ravaged 2004 behind her. She is the in-form player, but even she has no idea if her body will hold up for two grueling at Roland Garros so soon after returning from her long lay-off with a virus, not to mention the knee injury she sustained in January.
But the feisty loner Henin-Hardenne always produces good copy on court and off, but her take-no-prisoner's approach inside the lines also transfers to the locker room, where she has almost no friends and rarely cracks a smile. She may be the most intimidating persona for her small size in history. Just ask Serena, who JH-H reduced to tears in '03 semifinals.
While the final weekend of men's tennis could be one of the best ever, the women will hold the world's attention for two weeks with plenty of sizzling subplots.