Stosur heating up at right time

PARIS -- The sun had barely climbed past the eastern rim of Court Philippe Chatrier on Saturday morning, but Maria Sharapova, visor pulled down tightly over her narrowed eyes, was already conferring with her coach, Thomas Hogstedt. Virtually all of the 15,000 seats were empty, aside from a few sound technicians, scattered ushers and a handful of players ogling the world's largest clay tennis court.

The French Open is the only major to open play on Sunday -- which can be considered either generous or merely mercenary -- so after a day of good-natured exhibitions on the three show courts, the serious business begins ahead of the usual curve.

The dominant storylines, however, will have to wait. Novak Djokovic, with his 37-match winning streak to start the 2011 season, will not be in action. Nor will Rafael Nadal, who is seeking his sixth title at Roland Garros in seven years, but finds himself something of an underdog. Kim Clijsters, Roger Federer and Sharapova also will have to wait a day or two before they begin the quest for the title.

Perhaps the most intriguing combatant is No. 8-seeded Samantha Stosur, the strapping Aussie who reached the final here a year ago before losing in straight sets to Francesca Schiavone. Stosur, who meets Iveta Benesova in the first round, extracted a measure of revenge a week ago in Rome, beating Schiavone in the quarterfinals before losing to Sharapova in the final. But Stosur's play made her one of the French favorites in a women's draw devoid of a dominant favorite.

"It was nice to come back to Paris and come back to Roland Garros and walk through the door and see the Aussie flag on the center court," Stosur said on Friday. "It was all a nice feeling, yeah. Didn't bring back any bad memories. I've tried to erase all those, and now it's only good ones."

If Stosur wins her first three matches, she could find Julia Goerges, the No. 17 seed, waiting in the round of 16. Goerges, a 22-year-old German, raised her profile dramatically by beating world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki twice in two weeks, in Stuttgart and Madrid. Goerges also beat Stosur in Germany, marking herself as a possibility here, and will play Mathilde Johansson in the first round.

No fewer than four Americans take the court on Sunday and, if history holds, they will be challenged to advance. The exception could be Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has won four of her past eight matches on clay. Mattek-Sands, better known for her biker-influenced fashion, could soon be the highest-ranked U.S. woman, since the ailing (and descending) Williams sisters have played only a collective 10 matches in the past 10 months.

Mattek-Sands faces Arantxa Parra Santonja and, as luck would have it, could meet the winner of fellow American Varvara Lepchenko versus No. 18 seed Flavia Pennetta.

You'll find the same unfortunate pattern on the men's side. With Andy Roddick sitting this one out, the top three ranked Americans are all in the same quarter as Nadal, the five-time champion. It's hard enough for Americans to play in Paris, but this year they are likely to leave early and often.

John Isner, No. 39 in the world, draws Nadal in the first round. Isner is 2-4 on the Euro clay circuit. No. 26 Sam Querrey (1-4) has some tough matches ahead of him (can you say Kohlschreiber -- or Verdasco?) if he wants to see Rafa in the fourth round. No. 10-ranked Mardy Fish (3-3) would have to get through No. 5 Robin Soderling to reach a quarterfinal matchup with Rafa.

Robert Kendrick, who plays No. 30 seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, is the only U.S. man on Sunday's schedule.

Sharapova, on the other hand, is expected to go deep here. She is one of only five women in the field to have won at least one Grand Slam singles title. In fact, only Clijsters (four) has more than Sharapova's three; a win in Paris would complete her career Grand Slam. Considering that Clijsters has missed the past month with an ankle injury, it could actually happen.

"It's always difficult not to play for a few weeks and come back as a Grand Slam being your first tournament," Sharapova said Friday. "But she has a tremendous amount of experience behind her back. It might take her a few matches to get into form."

So, all things considered, is Sharapova the favorite?

"I mean, it's not really my job to say whether I am or not," Sharapova told journalists. "I think that's more your job than mine. My job is to go out and play tennis and compete, and I was really happy with the way [Rome] turned out. Just hoping to take this form and bring it over to Roland Garros."

Before the first ball goes up, hope springs in this eternal city. In 15 days, no earlier, we'll have all the definitive answers.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.