Serena Williams returns a shot against Maria Kirilenko at the Madrid Open. (Andres Kudacki / Associated…)
Serena Williams has won the French Open only once, and that was 11 years ago . . . and yet it is difficult to find anyone to pick against her this year.
The 31-year-old Williams, winner of 15 major titles including the 2012 U.S. Open, is on a 24-match winning streak and ranked No. 1 in the world. Last summer, after being upset in the first round of the French Open (it happens), she went on to win Wimbledon and Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles before the Open. And she seemed on the way to winning the 2013 Australian Open before being upset by 17-year-old American Sloane Stephens in the semifinals.
Williams played with a badly sprained ankle, and recently Stephens has refuted reports from early in her career that Williams had been her friend and mentor.
"She's off my friends list," Stephens told reporters in Europe.
The men's favorite seems equally clear cut.
Though he missed much of last season because of knee injuries, Rafael Nadal didn't disappear until he won his seventh French Open (he has 11 majors). So far this year, after returning to hard courts at Indian Wells, Nadal has lost only twice, won six titles and reached eight finals. As he's played only eight events, that's a pretty impressive comeback.
For those who want to hold out hope someone might beat the No. 4-ranked Nadal on the red clay of Roland Garros, No. 1 Novak Djokovic did beat the Spaniard on the surface at Monte Carlo last month.
According to broadcaster John McEnroe, the grounds crew hasn't watered the Roland Garros courts as frequently as in the past, a plus for the hard-hitting Nadal and his tender knees. What the groundskeepers haven't done, though, is control the weather. It has been cold and rainy and McEnroe described the clay as "muddy."
Clay has never been Williams' favorite surface. Her stunning first-round loss to Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano last year caused some to say Williams will never win at Roland Garros again.
Broadcaster Chris Evert is not one of those.
"I think another is long overdue," Evert said on a conference call last week. "It's mind-boggling to me that she hasn't been in the final since 2002. She has improved tremendously on the clay. We talk about how she's improved her game but in my mind I'm impressed with how consistent she's become, how patient she's become, how she's harnessing her power to be a tremendous clay court player.
"The thing is, if Serena doesn't have a bad day like she did last year against Razzano, if she just manages to play her normal game, yes, I think she will win her second French Open."
A week ago on red clay in Rome, Williams beat No. 3 Victoria Azarenka in the final, 6-1, 6-3.
Nadal, who turns 27 on June 3, is 52-1 at the French Open in his career, which doesn't mean that Djokovic or No. 2-seeded Roger Federer don't feel optimistic. Djokovic is trying to be the first man in two decades to start off a season with wins at the Australian and French Open. Even Federer, whose 17 major titles are a record in men's tennis, couldn't do that.
Federer, 31, appeared used up on clay last week when Nadal overpowered him, 6-1, 6-3, in the Rome final. There is the sense that Federer, who won his only French Open title in 2009, is no longer a threat on clay, though whenever he is written off he seems to come back stronger than ever. And a note: Federer will be appearing in his 54th consecutive major tournament. Write him off at your peril.
French Open facts
Site: Roland Garros
Surface: Red clay
Schedule: The 15-day tournament, one of tennis' four majors, begins Sunday. The women's singles final is June 8, the men's final June 9.
Defending men's champion: Rafael Nadal
Defending women's champion: Maria Sharapova
Total prize money: $28.4 million. Each singles winner will receive $1.9 million