Serena Williams prepared for clay

MIAMI -- As you read this, Serena Williams already has been slipping and sliding on the soft, green clay at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston for a day or two now.

"I love the clay," she said after winning the Sony Open title here Saturday. "I'll probably hit just a few tomorrow just to get sliding a little bit because I have a match so soon."

Because the hard courts play slower than they used to, she said, it's an easier transition to clay than it used to be.

While some players tend to exaggerate their love for certain surfaces -- the lush lawn of Wimbledon always gets a lot of love -- Serena is telling the truth.

"It's just such an easy game to play," she explained.

Roland Garros is the only major she's won only once, but last spring she tore it up on the dirt.

After winning the title in Charleston, Williams went 2-0 in Fed Cup matches against the Ukraine. Then there was Madrid, where she won another championship, dispatching Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova by identical 6-1, 6-3 scores, no less. She was cruising in Rome, having won four matches, when she withdrew from her semifinal match against Li Na complaining of a back injury.

That works out to a 17-0 record on clay, but it didn't translate at the French Open. In one of the biggest Grand Slam upsets ever, she fell in the first round to Virginie Razzano.

That loss, she said, motivated her to stick around in Paris and work on her game with coach Patrick Mouratoglou. You know what happened next … she won Wimbledon, the Olympic gold medal, the U.S. Open and the WTA year-end tournament.

With that ignominious defeat evidently fresh in her mind, Serena had this to say about her ultimate hope: "My goal is to win a match at Roland Garros this year."

Seems doable. But what about the larger picture?

Let's get cracking with the five things we're hoping to learn in the coming weeks of the clay-court season that culminates in Paris:

1. Can Serena Williams actually win the French Open?

Two words: Of course.

It's been 11 years since Serena broke through at Roland Garros for her only title there. How long ago was that?

The last three players she beat for the title were: Mary Pierce, Jennifer Capriati -- and Venus Williams.

Serena has never had a problem getting up for the top players; it's the Razzanos of the world that sometimes catch her napping.

Since her magnificent 2012 season grew out of the ashes of Paris, she'll be especially keen on a good showing this year. It all starts in Charleston, where Caroline Wozniacki, Samantha Stosur, Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams are the other top seeds.

2. Will Maria Sharapova regroup and defend her French Open title?

Sharapova has fond memories of last year's victory, which gave her a complete set of Grand Slam singles trophies.

"Absolutely," she said after falling in the Sony Open final. "When you experience such a nice moment in your career, to be able to come back there and to play on that court again where you lifted the trophy, won the match point, it's always special and meaningful, especially for the amount of years that you've worked so hard to get to that point.

"I would love to win it again."

Historically, Sharapova has struggled on clay, but last year the stars aligned when Petra Kvitova was the only top-10 player she faced. What are the odds of that happening this year?

3. Which unlikely finalist/champion will Roland Garros offer up this year?

Belgian Justine Henin won three straight crowns in Paris from 2005-07, and then Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Francesca Schiavone, Li Na and Maria Sharapova all won their first French Opens. Based on those quirky results, maybe Jelena Jankovic or Stosur can get on the board.

Maybe Anastasia Myskina, the improbable 2004 champion, will come out of retirement.

4. Can Victoria Azarenka reach a career-best semifinal in Paris?

The world No. 3 originally planned to play this week in Monterrey, Mexico, but withdrew from her second straight tournament with a right ankle injury sustained at Indian Wells. Best bet? Probably Madrid in May.

"My biggest target is going to be French Open," she said here. "So I'm going to do everything I can to be ready, to make sure that I come in in the best form there and try to win the title."

Consider yourself warned.

5. Will Petra Kvitova take the next step?

She lost to Sharapova 6-3, 6-3 in the Roland Garros semifinals, but was aided by a very fortunate draw. Odds are, she'll see a few more dangerous players in the early rounds this year.

Of course, she has surprised us before. See Wimbledon, 2011.