ROME, Italy - The clay court season is about to hit its peak as the tour turns to the last major tournament before the French Open. A field of favorites has already begun to take shape after exciting weeks at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and the Mutua Madrid Open, but there's still plenty of time for the game's biggest names to stake their claim on the second Grand Slam of 2017.
1. New No.1 Kerber lands in tricky first quarter.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber returns to World No.1 as main draw action gets underway in Rome, but will have to hit the ground running once play begins. The German will open against one of two dangerous qualifiers in Andrea Petkovic and Stuttgart quarterfinalist Anett Kontaveit, with No.16 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni or wildcard Maria Sharapova as potential third round opponents.
2. Is a Sharapova/Lucic-Baroni rematch on the cards?
Speaking of Sharapova, the Russian is in Rome for the first time since 2015, when she took home her third title at the Foro Italico. She opens against American Christina McHale, and could play Lucic-Baroni for the second week in a row should the in-form Croat outlast former French Open finalist Lucie Safarova. Sharapova edged past Lucic-Baroni in three tough sets in Madrid.
3. Pliskova looks to get her clay court groove in Rome.
The Czech powerhouse has never been a big fan of red clay, but told press in Madrid that she expects big results on the surface all the same. Pliskova could open against 2015 finalist and resurgent Spaniard Carla Suárez Navarro, with Volvo Car Open champion Daria Kasatkina or No.14 seed Barbora Strycova standing between her and a maiden quarterfinal in Rome.
4. Can Cibulkova kickstart her clay court season this week?
No.4 seed Dominika Cibulkova saw her clay court preparations take a big hit when a left wrist injury took her out of Stuttgart, and a tough loss to the big-hitting Océane Dodin took her out early in Madrid. Should she get past either Ekaterina Makarova or Roberta Vinci to start, the Slovak is projected to play No.15 seed Kiki Bertens, who reached the quarterfinals last week.
5. How will the Madrid cohort fare in Rome?
The events may be held a week apart, but Madrid and Rome are played in two different conditions, with the former's altitude favoring faster court players - though the rain certainly slowed things down towards the end of the week. Mutua Madrid Open finalists Simona Halep and Kristina Mladenovic have been two of the best clay court players this season, and could meet in a second straight final should they bring that form to Rome.
6. Kuznetsova aims for first title in 14th appearance.
No.7 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova made her Roman debut in 2003 - a mere months after Serena Williams completed her first "Serena Slam." Over a decade later, the Russian has gone on to win a pair of major titles and is playing better than ever in 2017, reaching the semifinals in Madrid. Narrowly losing to doubles partner Mladenovic, the biggest seeds in Kuznetsova's quarter this week are all either returning from injury or uncomfortable on clay. Can the wily veteran take advantage?
7. Can Svitolina take home a second Premier 5 crown in 2017?
Elina Svitolina rode a 10-match winning streak to the biggest title of her career at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The Ukrainian youngster won a tour-leading third title at the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup, and as a former French Open quarterfinalist, can certainly play on clay. Svitolina is projected to face reigning BNP Paribas Open champion Elena Vesnina with No.2 seed Pliskova anchoring her quarter.
8. Gavrilova's qualifying odyssey comes to a happy close.
2015 semifinalist Daria Gavrilova nearly went missing from the tournament when she forgot to enter the main draw. Forced to play qualifying, the young Aussie survived Aliaksandra Sasnovich and surged past Bethanie Mattek-Sands to make a triumphant return, and will open against No.10 seed Madison Keys, last year's runner-up. Can Gavrilova defy the odds one more time?
9. Makarova and Vesnina headline stacked doubles draw.
Olympic Gold medalists Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina will be looking to capture their second Premier 5 title of 2017 (after winning in Dubai) against a doubles field slowly taking shape after multiple splits and shake-ups. No.4 seeds Timea Babos and Andrea Hlavackova are the high seeds in their half and have already made a splash since pairing up in Rabat, winning the Grand Prix de SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem and riding an eight-match winning streak into the Madrid final.
10. Hingis and Chan shoot for Madrid-Rome double.
Since pairing up at the start of the Middle East Swing, Martina Hingis and Chan Yung-Jan have gotten stronger and stronger, winning two of the last three Premier Mandatory titles in Indian Wells and Rome. Seeded No.2 in Italy, the pair could open against World No.1 Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who is playing with fellow American Madison Keys.