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Friday, May 25, 2012
Women's draw: Five things to watch

By Joanne C. Gerstner

PARIS -- The draw of a tennis tournament can only reveal a few things: who is playing and when the match will take place. The things that can't be charted are the weather conditions, fitness of the players and the sheer emotional strength and drive to win.

Reigning French Open champions Rafael Nadal and Li Na were all smiles Friday at Roland Garros, cheerfully picking out names to complete the 2012 French Open draw. But they know too well the next two weeks are going to be a grind (and that's if they are lucky enough to make it to the final).

Here are five things to watch from the women's draw:

1. Looking for more hardware

Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are accumulating trophies at a nice clip, but they are each missing something big from their collections: the French Open. Azarenka, seeded No. 1, and Sharapova, seeded second, will have some big obstacles in their way to meet in the final. Sharapova has No. 5 seed Serena Williams likely waiting for her in the quarterfinals. Azarenka, who is coming into Roland Garros with an undisclosed right shoulder injury, doesn't have anyone ranked higher than 12th in her quarter of the draw. But if Azarenka is not 100 percent, anything can happen.

2. Williams sister watch

The Williams sisters' family will be happy, as Venus and Serena cannot meet until the final. Serena looks to have a pretty clear path in the first three rounds, with No. 9 seed Caroline Wozniacki possibly being a fourth-round opponent. Serena has been very impressive the past few weeks on clay, beating Azarenka in straight sets to take Madrid. Venus isn't seeded, and there are plenty of questions about her health. She's still working her way through learning how to play and train with Sjogren's syndrome. She opens against Paula Ormaechea of Argentina, who is ranked No. 122. No one knows how Venus will look (she hasn't made it past the fourth round of the French Open since 2006); she could be brilliant, or she could be out in straight sets.

3. Sentimental favorites

Francesca Schiavone and Li bared their hearts and souls to win the past two French Opens, and it's the only Grand Slam either has won to date. They played emotional, creative tennis, and were overwhelmed with joyful tears by their singular achievements. Since then, neither has been able to repeat that level. Li, the No. 7 seed, should be able to reach at least the third round. Schiavone is seeded 14th and will have to work her way through veteran players like Kimiko Date-Krumm and Yanina Wickmayer to advance. If Li and Schiavone move on, they could face each other in the fourth round. Bottom line: It's going to take another round of magic for either to reach the final again.

4. The weather wild card

The French Open is right up there with Wimbledon when it comes to unpredictable weather. It can be 50 degrees and nearly fall-like on one day; the next, it can be near 90 with a blazing sun cooking the terre battue into a fast and super-hard court. There will be a court with a roof at Roland Garros within the next few years (Wimbledon added a retractable roof to is Centre Court in 2009), but right now, it's still a Grand Slam tied to the whims of the weather.

Forecasters are calling for a heat wave for at least the first week, which will put an extra premium on player fitness. The sliding and movement required to win on clay means players have to be ready for long, grueling matches that test the legs. Be prepared or go home.

5. Happy to be here

Some interesting stories are shaping up, from up-and-coming American Sloane Stephens posting her best results on clay coming into the Open to rising German star Angelique Kerber breaking into the top 10. Both are unlikely to reach the second week of play, but they are showing significant progress in their careers. On the other end of the spectrum, Japanese star Date-Krumm, 41, is showing no signs of slowing down yet. Kerber, 24, was a year old when Date-Krumm started playing on the pro tour. And the 19-year-old Stephens skews the age curve even more. But they are all here, hoping to make a run of it on the clay.