Even at age 32, Serena Williams stands head and shoulders above the rest of the women's tennis field. Williams remains the top-ranked singles players in the world, and with a win at the Italian Open she appears primed to defend her French Open crown.
However, if there's a major where Williams is vulnerable, it's the French. Williams has won just twice at Roland Garros, easily her worst performance at any grand slam. With six different champions the past six years, the French Open is the most likely major to see a dark-horse winner.
So which women are the most likely threats to derail Williams from repeating? Here's a look at the best candidates to rule the clay over the next two weeks.
Sharapova has been terrific for the majority of the clay court season, with a pair of tournament wins in Germany and Spain. However, her undefeated streak came to an end at the Italian Open, as she suffered a shocking 6-4, 6-1 third-round defeat to Ana Ivanovic. The loss was rare for Sharapova, who has dominated clay over the past three years:
Sharapova's loss to Ivanovic marks only the 4th loss in last 50 clay matches (since '11 French Open). Previous three defeats came to Serena.— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) May 15, 2014
Even with the loss Sharapova has to remain among the small handful of favorites. After advancing past the quarterfinals just once in her first eight tries at Roland Garros, Sharapova has posted a semifinal appearance, win and finals appearance the last three years. As USA Today's Chris Chase notes, part of that improvement stems from her ability to wear opponents down:
How did it happen? Sharapova didn’t all of a sudden become a graceful mover on the court. It’s not as if she watched countless hours of Bjorn Borg tapes and tailored her game to win on tennis’s slowest surface. Her footwork has improved, but she’s not sliding all around the court like Nadal in his prime.
The easiest answer is that she simply learned how to win on clay. Whether that’s because of increased patience (as Peter Bodo theorized) or the benefit of experience, Sharapova seems to have figured out how to wear down opponents.
Of course, Serena is still Sharapova's biggest kryptonite. The Russian star has a 2-16 lifetime record against Williams, and hasn't beaten her since 2004. Indeed, in 10 of the past 11 matchups, Sharapova has failed to even steal a set off Williams.
Thus, a French Open title would be more likely if someone else eliminated Williams first. Sharapova may be the best clay court player in the world, but Williams has always held the upper hand.
The Aussie Open champion looks to have a legitimate opportunity at adding to her grand slam hardware collection. Li, who won the French in 2011, has actually had shockingly little success in the event, never having advanced past the fourth round in any other year.
Nevertheless, Li has had a superb year with a 26-5 record so far. Like Serena, Li is 32 years old and at the top of her game. As she told ABC News following her Australian Open victory, Li has thrived off the doubt that comes with her age:
When like last year, I say I want to be top three, nobody believe.
Beginning of this year, I say I want to win another grand slam title; nobody believe.
More important is I believe, Carlos believe, my team believe. That's all.
Like Sharapova, however, Li has a poor history against Serena. She is 2-10 lifetime against Williams (which includes a walkover win), though she did win their only clay court meeting at Rome in 2012. That fairly recent result should give the Chinese star more confidence if the two meet at Roland Garros.
After falling off the radar for a few years, Ivanovic has re-emerged as one of the best players in the world. Her upset victory over Sharapova in Rome underscores a solid year in which she has won twice.
Though she has not won on clay, Ivanovic has reached the quarterfinals, finals and semifinals in her three events. As SI.com's Courtney Nguyen notes, Ivanovic's form should make the 2008 champion an underrated favorite in the French:
The Serb moved up one spot, to No. 12, after advancing to the semifinals in Rome, where she handed Maria Sharapova her first clay loss to anyone other than Williams since 2011. In reality, though, Ivanovic is playing top-five tennis right now. After upsetting Sharapova and testing Williams in the semifinals, Ivanovic is on my short list of French Open favorites.
Indeed, the win over Sharapova underscored what has been Ivanovic's best year since 2008, when she ascended to the top ranking:
Unlike Sharapova and Li, Ivanovic has a recent victory against Serena, having knocked her out of this year's Aussie Open. Serena has won the other five matchups, including this year's clay court meeting at Rome, but Ivanovic did take a set off Williams in defeat.
For a player who has slowly climbed the rankings, it would be fitting for Ivanovic to return to the top 10 at the site of her greatest triumph.