French Open promises intrigue

Defending champion Rafael Nadal says Novak Djokovic, unbeaten in 2011, is the favorite to win the French Open, which starts at Roland Garros on Sunday. Djokovic says, no, no, it’s Nadal.

On the women’s side, Maria Sharapova says it’s not her business to predict such things but admits it’s a wide-open field.

So the chat continues, but the draw was made in Paris on Friday and now we have some hard facts to cling to. The earliest match of real fascination in the men’s draw should be the predicted third-round clash between Djokovic and the re-emerging former US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, who says he has recovered from a recent injury scare.

Del Potro has the fire power to worry Djokovic, especially as the championships have switched to a much faster ball, made by Babolat, this year instead of the traditional Dunlop.

"I think the balls will favor big servers and big hitters," Djokovic said when talking to the media Friday.

Well, if that’s not a description of the 6-foot-6 Argentine, I don’t know what is.

Searching for other candidates who might just have an outside chance of breaking the Serb’s 39-match winning streak — which he began in the Davis Cup final against France last December — one sees No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet in his quarter, along with Tomas Berdych, a surprise semifinalist at Roland Garros last year. Berdych had a good week in Nice, but Friday he went down in the semifinal to Spain’s Nicolas Almagro 6-4, 6-4 after having points for 4-0 in the first set.

Presuming he survives all that, Djokovic may find himself playing Roger Federer, the 2009 French titlist, or that tenacious Spaniard David Ferrer in the semifinal.

Nadal, meanwhile, will be facing a man who really should enjoy the change in balls — John Isner. This first-round clash is unlikely to threaten Isner’s Wimbledon record for longevity — three days — but he could keep Nadal on court a long time if he serves at maximum power and accuracy.

Nikolay Davydenko, an old foe, could face Nadal in round three, and either Mardy Fish, now the top-ranked American, or Sam Querrey could get a crack at him before the semifinal stage.

Querrey opens up against the talented German Philipp Kohlschreiber and may have to play Fernando Verdasco two rounds later if he survives. Fish, meanwhile, has Gilles Simon as the first seed he might have to face with two-time finalist Robin Soderling looming soon after.

Having had such a tough time against him in the Monte Carlo semifinal, Nadal will keep an eye on Andy Murray, who may come through to meet him in the last four, providing the Scot beats Jurgen Melzer, among others. Murray has been practicing in London and says he is feeling fine after a slight muscle twinge. He had a batch of the Babolat balls to hit with and is fine with them but is asking for consistency.

"They are different from what we used in Madrid and Rome," he pointed out. "It’s the same in the summer in the States. We use Wilson at the US Open, but Penn is used at all the preceding tournaments. It would be better on wrists, elbows and shoulders, if we didn’t switch."

Maria Sharapova’s unexpected victory in Rome has pushed her back into the limelight, and although she can hardly be called the favorite — because Roland Garros is the only Slam she has never won — she cannot be discounted in a year that is really up for grabs. No Williams sisters; last year’s winner Francesca Schiavone not looking like a repeat champion; world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki still searching for her first Grand Slam — where do you look for a winner?

Inevitably the name of Kim Clijsters must come into the mix, but, firstly, she has only just returned from injury and will play with her right ankle strapped. And secondly, she has never considered clay her best surface, despite reaching the final in Paris in 2001 and 2003.

Nevertheless, Clijsters was happy to be back for the first time since 2006.

"I got to hit on the center court and felt like a little girl again," she bubbled. "Nice feeling to have."

She was also keen to put a couple of things straight about how she suffered her injury, which seemed like a bit of a comedy routine despite its serious consequences.

"First of all, a lot of people thought I was dancing in high heels," she said. "I was in bare feet because I couldn’t dance in high heels. So then I landed on another girl’s foot and twisted my ankle. Then, as I was walking off, somebody stepped on the outside of my left toe. I was having a really good time until then!"

Serena, who stepped on all that glass in Munich, will know the feeling. These ladies really need to mind how they enjoy themselves.

Clijsters could run into Sharapova at the quarterfinal stage but, first, may have to deal with 15th-seeded Andrea Petkovic, who has started to look a threat in recent weeks, as has her German compatriot Julia Goerges, who is in Wozniacki’s quarter. Outside bets? Probably too soon, but the Germans need watching.

Melanie Oudin has a chance to make a name for herself when she plays Schiavone first up while another young American hope, Christina McHale, opens against Italy’s Sara Errani, with either Daniela Hantuchova or Shuai Zhang of China waiting in the next round.

Last year’s finalist Sam Stosur showed glimpses of good form in Rome and will be hoping to give Australian tennis an even bigger boost this year. But she remains a big maybe. Certainties in the women’s field are thin on the ground.