Clay-court tennis has evoked expressive variety in Serena Williams this season. The world No. 1 has captured clay-court championships in three different countries -- and delivered victory speeches in three different languages: English (Charleston), Spanish (Madrid) and Italian (Rome).
Williams roars into Roland Garros on a career-best 24-match winning streak and has cleaned up on clay, posting a 16-0 clay-court record this year and a 33-1 mark on the dirt since the start of the 2012 clay-court season. She blasted former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka off the Rome red clay, 6-1, 6-3, to collect her 51st career title and regained the Rome crown she last won in 2002 when she beat Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin back-to-back and solidified her status as the woman to beat in Paris.
Here's a look the leading contenders for the French Open title.
Why she’ll win: An iconic champion is inspired to regain the Roland Garros championship she last won 11 years ago. That may sound like a lifetime ago in tennis terms, but consider Williams' 2012 U.S. Open crown came 13 years after she won her first Flushing Meadows major in 1999. She's playing some of her best tennis right now, and she has won two of the past three majors. You know she will be pumped up for Paris, where she owns a home and has trained with coaching consultant Patrick Mouratoglou. Although dirt does blunt her power a bit, it expands her variety. Serena has used her slice serve out wide to set up her first strike; she ripped some emphatic running forehand winners against Azarenka; she plays the short, sharp-angled backhand more; and she has even deployed the drop shot on occasion during her unbeaten clay run.
Why she won’t: The dirt diminishes her most imposing weapon -- the serve -- which can bail her out of trouble with one swing on other surfaces, but if it's a damp fortnight and the terre battue becomes an even slower track, that could create complications. Although Williams is the dominant player in the sport, she has not reached a French Open final four in a decade and has played tight, tentative tennis in Paris in the past. Serena was 46-0 in the first round of Slams and undefeated on clay in 2012 before suffering a shocking 4-6, 7-6 (5) 6-3 upset to 111th-ranked Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano in the opening round.
Why she’ll win: The reigning Roland Garros champion has been dynamic on dirt. Five of Sharapova's past six titles have come on clay. At her best, the aggressive baseliner can command the center of the court, dictate play from the first strike and is a tremendous fighter. Sharapova has won 17 of her past 19 three-setters with only Azarenka (2012 U.S. Open semifinals) and Serena Williams (2013 Miami final) scoring wins in that span. She once famously compared her movement on clay to "a cow on ice," but Sharapova has found her footing in Paris, reaching at least the quarterfinals in four of the past six years.
Why she won’t: Sharapova finds beating Serena is a task as easy as leaping the Seine in a single bound. Williams has 12 consecutive wins over Sharapova, winning 24 of the past 27 sets they've played during the past nine years. Sharapova has never successfully defended a major title and while her flat serve can effectively set up her first strike when she's landing it, she can also lose the serving plot under pressure. Sharapova has hit 141 aces against 163 double faults and can become skittish on serve against heavy hitters. A viral illness forced Sharapova to withdraw from her scheduled Rome quarterfinal against Sara Errani last week, causing some concern about her health for Paris.
Why she’ll win: The two-time Australian Open champion is a sniper on return. Vika has won nearly 57 percent of her return games and converted nearly 55 percent of her break-point chances this season. "Vika is probably the best returner in the game," says Marion Bartoli. Her bold two-handed backhand is one of the best in the game, and she's one of only two women to beat top-ranked Serena this year with a 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 victory in the Doha final. She has been a major player in Grand Slam tournaments recently, reaching the finals in three of her past five majors. Though 15 of her 16 career titles have come on hard courts, Azarenka was 12-3 on clay in 2012, registering runner-up appearances in Stuttgart and Madrid.
Why she won’t: Recent history reinforces the tough task she faces. No woman has won the Australian Open and Roland Garros in succession since Jennifer Capriati's comeback fight against Kim Clijsters in the 2001 French Open final. The slower clay courts can diminish some of the sting from her groundstrokes, and while she's a sound lateral mover, Azarenka is still developing her transition game and can be a plodding player when dragged forward into the front court. Consequently, she's vulnerable to the drop shot and short slice on dirt and is 0-4 combined in clay-court meetings with former French Open champions Williams and Sharapova. Azarenka has not exactly peaked in Paris in the past. She has fallen in the first round three times and has failed to survive the fourth round in five of seven French Open appearances.
Why she’ll win: An agile, athletic player, Li electrified the City of Light defeating Petra Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova and defending champion Francesca Schiavone in succession to capture the 2011 French Open. Working with coach Carlos Rodriguez, who guided Justine Henin to four French Open championships, Li is applying her all-court skills more effectively. She's constructing sounder points, and she's shown the ability to elevate her game on major stages. An extremely fit player, the 31-year-old advanced to her second Australian Open final in January, was the runner-up to Sharapova in Stuttgart and advanced to at least the semifinals in four of her first five tournaments in 2013.
Why she won’t: Despite her historic triumph in Paris as the first Asian player, male or female, to win a major singles title, clay is Li's least favorite surface. She has failed to surpass the round of 16 in five of her six Roland Garros appearances and only one of her seven career titles have come on clay. Li's emotional intensity can be a strength -- when she channels it into positive action -- but she has been prone to implosions under pressure. When she gets tight, Li can lose the shape of her swing on the forehand and serve and sometimes flat-line those shots into net, which can cause streakiness. Li opened her clay season by reaching the Stuttgart final, but was underwhelming in both Madrid and Rome, winning just one match at those two important French Open tune-up tournaments.
Why she’ll win: One of the purest ball-strikers in tennis, the left-hander's ability to detonate points with a single swing disarms opponents, denying them the rhythm that comes from playing longer rallies. When Kvitova is on her game, she is dangerous off both serve and return and is a well-balanced player who can rip the ball off both forehand and backhand. She can impose her game on almost anyone. Kvitova's flat blasts can rob opponents of time and make them feel as unsettled as if they're operating at the wrong end of a shooting gallery. "She hits so strong," 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani said. "It's tough to move her. It's hard to play because her ball is very flat." The 2011 Wimbledon champion has played deep into the second week of majors before. Kvitova is a 2012 French Open semifinalist and has reached the final four of every major except for the U.S. Open.
Why she won’t: She's an explosive force, but Kvitova can be extremely erratic and prone to the mid-match malaise when her mind wanders and shots stray. When she loses the plot, Kvitova sometimes looks unsure how to regain her rhythm and can spray shots with abandon. The 23-year-old Czech is fitter this season, but court coverage is not an asset, which can make her suspect against quicker players who can withstand her pace and counter on the run. Though Kvitova opened the clay-court season reaching the Katowice final, little has come easy on clay since then: She's 5-4 on dirt since then and has been pushed to three sets in seven of those nine matches.