Belief begins now for Andy Murray & Co.

The crown jewels of the U.S. winter, Indian Wells and Miami, have passed. Now the crown jewels of the European spring, Madrid and Rome, loom.

Which players need good results in the next few weeks to give them a boost at the French Open, which starts in three-and-a-half weeks? These six, for a start.


Andy Murray: Murray reached the French Open semifinals for the first time in 2011. Coming off a miserable Indian Wells and Miami, Murray got a dose of confidence by landing in the semis in Monte Carlo and Rome. At the latter, Murray should have downed Novak Djokovic and ended the Serb's marathon winning streak.

They were the springboards to his Roland Garros success.

This clay-court season hasn't begun well for Murray. The Scot blew a set advantage and was toppled by Tomas Berdych in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals. Berdych is a more experienced player on dirt and can still overpower anyone on his day, so it wasn't a huge surprise.

However, Murray's quarterfinal loss to Milos Raonic in Barcelona was a stunner. Murray usually swallows up big servers, and Raonic is a clay-court novice.

Earlier-than-expected losses in Rome and Madrid might chip away at Murray's belief heading into Roland Garros, even with Ivan Lendl in his corner.

John Isner: Losing early in Rome and Madrid wouldn't necessarily affect Isner's confidence at the French Open. With that big serve, he can turn things around in an instant.

Take 2011. Isner went 2-4 on European clay leading into Paris, then almost engineered one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history, winning the first two sets off eventual champ Rafael Nadal in the first round.

But we expect more from Isner at the two Masters events in 2012, and so, surely, does the 6-foot-9 Isner. He has raised expectations after going 4-0 on European clay in the Davis Cup, ousting the likes of Roger Federer in Switzerland and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Monte Carlo.

With Mardy Fish's health a question mark, Isner will likely be the U.S. No. 1 in Paris.

Note that the last U.S. man to reach a Masters quarterfinal on clay was Andy Roddick three years ago in Madrid.

Nicolas Almagro: Almagro excelled (as usual) on the Latin American golden swing. Surprisingly, though, he was making an effort and doing the business on hard courts, too. In four hard-court tournaments prior to the European clay-court stretch, he had only failed to reach the quarterfinals once, in Miami, where Almagro let Fish off the hook in the fourth round.

So according to the script, Almagro, back on dirt, was supposed to be a major threat in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. It didn't happen. Go figure.

Almagro lost to Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round in Monte Carlo; Wawrinka remains dangerous, yet Almagro didn't put up much resistance, falling 6-3, 6-3. He was felled by Raonic in the same round in Barcelona.


Li Na: Li is a confident player, and the Chinese baseliner was in the right frame of mind entering the French Open last year, given she had advanced to the final four in both Rome and Madrid.

With Danish coach Michael Mortensen on her team, Li's level rose further at Roland Garros and she became China's maiden Grand Slam singles champion.

But if Li thought expectations back home capsized for the rest of 2011, imagine what fans in China will be expecting at this edition of the French Open.

Li must go deep in Rome and Madrid again as she gears up for her title defense in France. Li has reached the quarterfinals at three straight tournaments, but like in Indian Wells and Miami, she disappointed once there, this time squandering a one-set advantage to Agnieszka Radwanska in Stuttgart.

Francesca Schiavone: The swaggering Schiavone, 2010 French Open champion and a finalist last year, is nowhere to be found. An already dismal season has worsened for Schiavone after switching to clay.

Deciding she needed more matches, Schiavone accepted a wild card into Barcelona, but as the top seed, the Italian was humbled in the first round -- in straight sets -- by Olga Govortsova.

On this occasion, the Fed Cup didn't relieve Schiavone, as she then lost both her encounters in straight sets. There was reason for mild celebration in Stuttgart, with Schiavone winning a round -- before Petra Kvitova crushed her.

Could playing at home in Rome be the spark? Who knows? Only once in the past six visits has Schiavone achieved a quarterfinal, although it was in 2011.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: When Pavlyuchenkova is on, the Russian can dictate, no matter who the opponent. But Pavlyuchenkova has rarely been in form in 2012, compiling a dismal 3-11 record heading into this week. She's been, easily, one of the most disappointing players on either tour.

Perhaps this month's Fed Cup semifinals will prove to be a turning point. After going 0-2 in singles, a coach on the Russian team said Pavlyuchenkova's fitness simply wasn't good enough. That part of her game has been questioned in the past.

Even though Pavlyuchenkova lost her next match, in Stuttgart, she extended Julia Goerges to three sets.

Pavlyuchenkova has significant points to defend in Madrid, Rome and the French Open, where she reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time before succumbing to nerves in her match with Schiavone.