I know it's been a while since I've posted, but that's no indication that there hasn't been a lot to talk about. The last two big events before the French Open featured eight distinct players battling for the crown, and each one made his or her case loud and clear that any could be real contenders at the year's next Grand Slam.
The biggest story in Madrid had nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the strange color of the court, but all complaints and dramatics aside, two of the strongest women in the field made their way to last week's final. World #1 Victoria Azarenka battled her way through a tough draw -- she faced 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round -- to make her sixth final of the year. Meanwhile Serena Williams, finally toting a single-digit ranking again, looked to extend her win streak -- she'd taken a title in Charleston and swept opponents in her Fed Cup playoffs -- and dismissed potential threats from Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova to play for the title herself.
The men in Madrid were out to make a similar statement. After both of last year's finalists lost before the semis, the remaining men knew the title was up for grabs. Roger Federer, winner here in 2009, had been on a roll recently, claiming three straight titles in February and March, and after surviving an early test from Milos Raonic in his opener, he sailed through his matches to make the final. In the other half, 2010 French semifinalist Tomas Berdych had pulled his game together, taking advantage of a Rafa-less draw and really only facing a challenge from Juan Martin Del Potro in the final four.
The drama just intensified by the time everyone made their way over to Rome this week. A couple retirements on the women's side -- including both Madrid finalists -- wreaked a little havoc on the draw, but eventually the strong survived. Last year's champion Maria Sharapova got through some early tests from up-and-comer Christina McHale and resurgent Venus Williams before avenging her Paris loss to Angelique Kerber in the semis. And 2011 French Open champ Na Li, who's been pretty quiet since winning that trophy, benefitted from both Vika's and Serena's withdrawals, making the final without dropping a set.
The men's bracket was no less exciting. Defending champion Novak Djokovic rebounded from his quarterfinal loss in Madrid and took out one threat after another, notching his fifth victory over Roger Federer in their last six meetings. More impressive, perhaps, was Rafael Nadal, fresh off his earliest clay court loss since 2004 and a slight dip in his ranking, got right back to work in Rome. He easily made his way through early rounds, took out Madrid finalist Berdych in the quarters, and blanked compatriot David Ferrer to make the final.
ended his seven-final losing streak to Nole in Monte Carlo, and no one is sporting an astonishingly unblemished record going into the championship match. The head-to-head is more even than it had been, and both have shown they're not indomitable. When they both take the court, whether it's after a long rain delay on Sunday or Monday afternoon, they'll both bring their all to reclaim the crown. And while they've both proven to be great forces on the surface, something tells me this is where the Spaniard will reassert his dominance.
Of course, not all these guys and girls will be able to take the crown at Roland Garros, and experience may favor some over others. But each one of these players reminded the world of what it takes to win on clay. And if they're able to keep it up, they might be able to do some real damage when an even bigger trophy is on the line.