Serena may be one to beat at French Open

Serena Williams does not ordinarily require luck on the tennis court, but when it comes to the red clay of Roland Garros, she will take every break she can get. Friday's release of the French Open draw appears to be the first big one.

The top-seeded Williams, who counts among her 15 Grand Slam titles just one French 11 years ago, will avoid defending champion and second-seeded Maria Sharapova and third-seeded Victoria Azarenka until the finals.

There is no definitive reason to favor Williams except that when she is healthy and at the top of her game, as she is now, it is all but impossible to envision a trophy without her under it. And she seems to share the same vision, working hard on her French so she can accept that trophy in the native language.

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Serena Williams is looking for vindication after an early exit at the 2012 French Open.

But this is also the same Roland Garros red clay that has given Williams fits in the past and has produced six women's singles champions in the past six years. A look at the draw, and it's still full of possibilities.

First Quarter

Williams, who suffered perhaps the biggest upset of her career when she was eliminated in the first round last year by an unseeded player, is playing some of her best tennis. She won the past three European clay titles and has a dominant record against all possible opponents until the fourth round.

The second round, however, could be interesting, with Williams possibly facing France's 19-year-old Caroline Garcia. As a wild card in the 2011 French Open, Garcia had a 6-3, 4-1, 15-0 lead over Sharapova before the former No. 1 reeled off 11 games for the win.

In the round of 16, Williams is slated to meet No. 15 Roberta Vinci, then No. 8 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals, and either No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska or more likely No. 5 Sara Errani in the semifinals.

"Her [second French Open win] is long overdue," ESPN tennis analyst and 18-time Grand Slam winner Chris Evert said of Williams. "It's mind-boggling to me that she hasn't been in the final since 2002 ... [but] she has improved tremendously on clay. ... I'm impressed with how consistent she has become and how patient she has become and how she's harnessing that power to be not only an effective clay-court player but a tremendous clay-court player. ...

"The thing is, if Serena Williams doesn't have a bad day like she did last year against [Virginie] Razzano, if she just manages to play her normal game, I think she will win her second French Open."

Prediction: Williams over Svetlana Kuznetsova, no explanation needed.

Second Quarter

No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, who is battling an injury and isn't a particularly strong player on clay, should nevertheless make it to the quarterfinals. In the third round, she could meet 30th-seeded Venus Williams, who has missed most of the clay-court season with back problems, or younger sister Urszula Radwanska.

In the round of 16, the best match could be 2008 French champ Ana Ivanovic, who has had an inconsistent clay-court season, against Radwanska. The winner will take on last year's runner-up, No. 5 Sara Errani.

Also looming in this quarter is American Madison Keys, who easily defeated 2011 French Open champ Li Na in Madrid on red clay.

Prediction: Errani, with an easy draw, should get past Ivanovic.

Third Quarter

This quarter of the draw should be dominated by Victoria Azarenka and Li Na. Azarenka, who was beaten soundly by Serena Williams in the finals of the Italian Open last week, has never gone beyond the quarterfinals of the French. Azarenka will likely have to get past 2010 champ Francesca Schiavone or possibly No. 13 Marion Bartoli before meeting Li, but has the talent, if not the temperament all the time, to do it.

One challenge will be to avoid looking ahead to a possible semifinal matchup with Sharapova.

As for Li, she has a tougher road from the start against Spain's Anabel Medina Garrigues, who actually challenged Williams at the Madrid Open. After that, Li will face a strong clay-court opponent in Lourdes Dominguez Lino or American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has been coming on as of late.

Prediction: Azarenka keeps her emotions in check over Li to set up the match of the tournament against Sharapova.

Fourth Quarter

Sharapova should make it to the semis against Azarenka but should have a rougher road than Williams, with possible opponents including No. 16 Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round followed by No. 7 Petra Kvitova or No. 9 Sam Stosur in the quarters, then Azarenka in the semis.

"She's just such a mentally tough competitor, always has been," ESPN tennis analyst Cliff Drysdale said of Sharapova. "[But] it's all about Serena. Every tournament is all about Serena. But Maria is still in there with her mental strength. She could do it. Look, Serena may lose again early. You never know."

Stosur, the 2010 French runner-up and 2011 U.S. Open champ, is lined up to face 2011 Wimbledon champ Kvitova, who is seeded eighth.

American Sloane Stephens, seeded 17th, is also in this quarter and reached the round of 16 last year. She should make it to the third round, where she would meet Dominika Cibulkova, and after her well-publicized criticism of Williams, would probably like to get the attention back on her tennis.

Prediction: This quarter is all about Sharapova, who will defeat Kvitova to set up the much-anticipated match with Azarenka.

Semifinals: Williams def. Errani; Sharapova def. Li

Final: Williams def. Sharapova

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