Women's field for French Open surrounded by air of mystery

PARIS - Asked if there's a real favorite for this year's French Open, Serena Williams shot back a quick answer.

'Yeah,' she replied, 'I definitely think Nadal is probably a big-time favorite.'

Well, yes, Serena, you're right, four-time champion Rafael Nadal surely is the man to beat. But what about the women's field?

'I don't know,' she said. 'I'm just here to play and go for it.'

As the year's second Grand Slam tournament begins today, no one seems to know which woman is the likeliest to hoist the trophy in two weeks.

'It's very hard to pick one,' said Ana Ivanovic, the defending champion.

If a fourth consecutive men's final between Nadal and Roger Federer seems like a possibility, the women's event appears less predictable.

Williams and Ivanovic each has struggled recently with a bothersome knee. Maria Sharapova returned to the tour this week after missing nearly 10 months, and she was wearing white tape on her surgically repaired right shoulder as she practiced at Roland Garros on Saturday.

Top-seeded Dinara Safina is playing better than anyone on clay lately, but she never has won a major title, nor has Jelena Jankovic. Williams' older sister Venus loses power on the slow, red surface. Up-and-comers Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark and Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland are still untested at the late stages of a major.

'They just need a little bit more experience in the Grand Slams and playing at this level,' Ivanovic said. 'But I think definitely in the future they have very good potential.'

Ivanovic opens today's schedule on center court against Sara Errani of Italy. Others slated to play on Day 1 include Amelie Mauresmo, Andy Murray, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt.

Serena Williams' most recent match, at the Madrid Open this month, ended when she stopped after dropping the first set, citing her bum knee - making for her fourth loss in a row.

Still, other players aren't assuming the younger Williams won't be a factor in Paris.

'If she's going to play, I'm sure she's going to be 100 percent, feels ready to compete,' Ivanovic said. 'Both Williams, they are great champions, and they always perform well at the big events.'

That much is true. The sisters own a total of 17 major singles titles, including from each of the past three Grand Slam tournaments: Serena won the Australian Open and U.S. Open after losing to Venus in the Wimbledon final.

SideBar: At a glance

A look ahead to Day 1 of the French Open tennis tournament:

· Today's Schedule: Day 1; play starts on all courts at 11 a.m.

· Today's Top Men's Matches: No. 3 Andy Murray vs. Juan Ignacio Chela, No. 7 Gilles Simon vs. Wayne Odesnik, No. 20 Marat Safin vs. Alexandre Sidorenko, No. 26 Ivo Karlovic vs. Lleyton Hewitt.

· Today's Top Women's Matches: No. 8 Ana Ivanovic vs. Sara Errani, No. 9 Victoria Azarenka vs. Roberta Vinci, No. 16 Amelie Mauresmo vs. Anna-Lena Groenefeld, No. 11 Nadia Petrova vs. Lauren Embree.

· No. 1-Seeded Man: Rafael Nadal, trying to become the first man to win the French Open five years in a row.

· No. 1-Seeded Woman: Dinara Safina, seeking her first Grand Slam title. She was the runner-up at last year's French Open and this year's Australian Open.

· 2008 Men's Singles Final: Nadal beat Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 to join Bjorn Borg (1978-81) as the only men to win four consecutive French Open championships.

· 2008 Women's Singles Final: Ana Ivanovic beat Safina 6-4, 6-3 to win her first Grand Slam title and rise to No. 1 in the rankings.

· Key Statistic: 13 - Grand Slam singles titles for Federer, one shy of Pete Sampras' career record.

· Prize Money: At the current exchange rate, the total is about $21.8 million, with about $1.4 million each to the men's and women's singles champions.

· TV: Tennis Channel (5 a.m. to noon), ESPN2 (noon to 6 p.m.)