WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen | All eyes are on the French Open draw; check out some of the biggest storylines shaping up around the second major tournament of 2016.
WTA Staff

PARIS, France - The French Open draw is out. We have questions.

Who will challenge Serena in the top half?

At first blush, the top half of the draw is far more loaded than the bottom half. In-form players such as Rabat champion Timea Bacsinszky, Madrid finalist Dominika Cibulkova, and Rome runner-up Madison Keys were drawn here. Also lurking are Victoria Azarenka (more on her below), Angelique Kerber, Carla Suárez Navarro, Ana Ivanovic, and Venus Williams - all quality players who nevertheless come into Paris under a cloud of question marks.

The result is a draw that is set up well for Serena. She opens against Magdalena Rybarikova, who has not played a tour match since losing 6-0, 6-0 to Azarenka in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. She's projected to face No.26 seed Kristina Mladenovic in the third round. But the most dangerous opponent that could make it through there may be unseeded Timea Babos, who can be a tough out if she has her big serve going.

From there she could face either Elina Svitolina, a quarterfinalist last year, or Ana Ivanovic, 2008 champion and 2015 semifinalist. Both are quality clay players who have not been able to find much form on the surface this season. Ivanovic has not one back-to-back matches at a tournament since February. Despite getting coaching advice from four-time French Open champion Justine Henin, Svitolina has won just one match on red clay this year.

Serena's biggest tests start in the quarterfinals, where she could play No.22 seed Cibulkova. The Slovakian is the in-form seed of that section, which includes Suárez Navarro, a struggling Andrea Petkovic, and Azarenka (no really, more on Vika below).

From there, a potential semifinal looms against Bacsinszky, who has a tricky draw, or Kerber, who has made the quarterfinals just once in Paris. Keys could play the spoiler as well, though she has a potential second round match against Daria Gavrilova, who has posted a very strong clay season.

All in all, this isn't a bad path for Serena to get back to the final and earn a shot at an Open Era record-tying 22nd major title. She'll also try and successfully defend a French Open title for the first time.

"I think now it's different because I want to win more than I think most people ever, but also I think it's different now because I don't have anything to prove," Serena said, when asked about the pressure of defending a title. "It's just a different feeling.

"Whereas five, ten years ago, oh, I'm defending and I feel that pressure. Now it's like I'm defending, I'm in Paris, it's cool, and I'm having the time of my life. I'm just happy to be here."

Victoria Azarenka

Can Azarenka bounce back?

The woman of the first quarter of the season has been quiet on clay. She's won four matches, two of which came in Fed Cup, but a lower back injury in Madrid has halted any further progress. After losing in the opening round of Rome to Irina-Camelia Begu, Azarenka took a much-needed mental break to visit family in Belarus.

"For me it was more mental to just get away and get myself, you know, focused again and motivated again," Azarenka said. "I went home, spent time with the family. For me, it's always the best recharge."

Azarenka said her standout-start to the season, which saw her win the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami, took its toll. "I didn't really have to have much time after Miami with the Fed Cup and everything," she said. "I felt that I wanted to get into training and have as many weeks possible on the clay.

"It caught up to me a little bit, and it's okay. It is what it is. I feel ready to play here. I don't feel that there is ever an ideal preparation that, you know, if you win the tournament it's guaranteed you're going to play well at another tournament. I think it's just important how you take each day, and I think I gave myself enough time to prepare here."

Azarenka says she is able to practice pain-free now, which is the best news of the last few weeks. A quarterfinal against Serena looms, but she'll have to get out of a section that includes a potential fourth round match against either Suárez Navarro or Cibulkova.

Clay has never been her best surface and Azarenka knows it. But if she can get a few clean early wins under her belt - she opens against Karin Knapp - the confidence could start to flow. And few players are as good as Azarenka in riding a wave of confidence.

"I believe that clay is the most challenging just because of the specific movement that you have to adapt on the clay, the sliding that I don't use on the hard courts where I'm able to go with one shot from defense to offense," she said.

"Here it's always a little bit more challenging, so it's a learning experience for me how to do that. Definitely adapt the game a little bit to still make those transitions, but it's more difficult to do than one, two shots.

"It takes patience."

Angelique Kerber

Can Kerber and Bacsinszky survive the second quarter?

The second quarter of the draw will see some must-see matches right out of the gate. No.3 seed Kerber and No.8 seed Bacsinszky are the favorites to make it out but Kerber in particular will need to overperform to do it. She opens against Nuremburg finalist Kiki Bertens, before a possible second round against the big-hitting, streaky, but thoroughly talented big-match player in Camila Giorgi. Looming in the third round is No.29 Daria Kasatkina, who won the junior title here two years ago. That's a tough series of potential opponents to start your tournament. And that's before a fourth round that could see her face up against Keys, Gavrilova, Konta, or Goerges.

Kerber withdrew from Nürnberg due to a shoulder injury. She received treatment at home and says she can serve virtually pain free now. But with heavy, cold conditions expected in the first week, the risk of the pain returning is real. And Kerber has to serve well to make any headway on clay. But Kerber insists she has her rhythm back after taking a frustrating loss to Eugenie Bouchard in her first match in Rome.

"After Rome I [had] like three days off where I am really not thinking about tennis," Kerber said. "I was completely trying to, you know, go for great dinner, to the cinema, something like this. Just going out of the tennis thing.

"And then I start to practicing again, also with my treatments and everything. So, yeah, right now I have my feeling back. The courts here are really good I'm looking forward to have few more days, few more practice before my first round. But the rhythm is back," she said with a smile.

Timea Bacsinszky

As for Bacsinszky, the Swiss star was dealt the trickiest draw of any top seed. A semifinalist here year who comes into Paris having won 14 of her last 17 tour-level matches, she could face landmine after landmine just to get to the quarterfinals. She opens against a qualifier, and then would face either Stuttgart finalist Laura Siegemund or Eugenie Bouchard. The third round could see a fun slice-and-dice match-up against Monica Niculescu, with a potential fourth round match against No.9 seed Venus Williams or No.23 seed Jelena Jankovic.

Can Halep and Muguruza make good on their favorable draws?

No.4 seed Garbiñe Muguruza and No.6 seed Simona Halep were the biggest winners on draw day. With so many in-form players landing in the top half, Muguruza and Halep have a good look at the semifinals if they can manage the pressure. That's a showdown many would love to see.

A two-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, Muguruza comes into Paris with just one semifinal under her belt this season. That semifinal came a week ago in Rome, when she ran up against an unwavering Keys. But while the end results have not been there, the quality of her play has steadily improved and she's been on a steady upward trajectory since February.

Garbine Muguruza

She opens against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who is on an 11-match losing streak in tour-level matches. She could face Rome quarterfinalist Christina McHale in the second round and the first seed she could face is No.27 Ekaterina Makarova, who she beat 6-1, 6-0 in Rome. The fourth will likely feature either No.13 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova - no easy task for sure - or No.24 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Her possible seeded quarterfinalists: Roberta Vinci, who struggles on clay, Petra Kvitova, who can struggle on any given day, Karolina Pliskova, who is playing on her worst surface, or a surging Irina Camelia Begu, who beat her in Madrid. All very doable for a woman who finds a way to play her best in Paris.

"For sure, it's better to come back to a tournament where you have great memories and results," Muguruza said. "It's so bad to go to a tournament where you can't play. There are some of them where, okay, it's impossible here.

"Here at Roland Garros, it's special for Spanish people. I think for everyone, but Roland Garros in Spain is like everything. So, for sure it's great. It's like a second home here."

As for Halep, she is the clear winner of the draw sweepstakes. The 2014 finalist can't complain about a draw that lands her in No.2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska's quarter. A quick review of our pre-tournament Clay Court Power Rankings puts Halep at No.2 and Radwanska at No.20 for good reason.

Simona Halep

Halep opens against Japan's Nao Hibino and her first two matches should be fairly straightforward - playing either Zarina Diyas or Carina Witthoeft in the second round. The first seed she could face is No.32 Jelena Ostapenko, with a potentially injured Samantha Stosur (Stosur withdrew from Strasbourg with a left wrist injury) or last year's finalist Lucie Safarova, who is still chasing her 2015 form. Make it that far and her quarterfinal opponent is a difficult one to project, as Radwanska, Barbora Strycova, Sloane Stephens, and Sara Errani will all duke it out in that section.

This is as good a draw as a sixth-seed could hope for. Now to see if Halep can seize the opportunity.

"Today when I practiced I felt very heavy the ball," Halep said, when asked about adjusting to the cold, heavy conditions in Paris. "I was practicing with Carla and the coach, he said it's different than Madrid. I said, I want to go back to Madrid, because there I felt very well the game. Here I feel it well, but I still need couple of days just to feel it like 100%.

"But I always liked these courts. They are a little bit faster and I can play my game, to be more aggressive, and also to open the court better."

Agnieszka Radwanska

Who will emerge as this year's surprise?

Last year it was Bacsinszky and Ivanovic making surprising runs to the semifinals, with Safarova doing them one better by making the final. Who will be this year's spoilers?

We've already highlighted No.22 seed Cibulkova as a potential spoiler. Keys could also make a run out of that tough second quarter, where a potential fourth round against Kerber could happen. With their contrasting styles, those two have always played tough matches.

Gavrilova is another name to keep an eye out, as she could be the one that ends Keys' tournament early. If she comes through that potential second round match she could barrel into her second Round of 16 appearance of the season at the Slams; if the draw breaks open, she could well go two steps further.

Then there's No.25 seed Begu, who is arguably having the best clay season of anyone. She made the quarterfinals in Charleston and Madrid before reaching her best career result in Rome, where she lost to Serena in the semifinals. She's floating in the bottom half of the draw in Muguruza's quarter.

Finally: Yes, it feels odd to call the No.2 seed a potential surprise, but will this be the year that Radwanska makes a move in Paris? Granted, her lead-up results make it hard to believe. Radwanska has been more open this year in talking about her struggles on clay and her decision to skip Rome was almost a concession on the surface. But she's made two quarterfinals here in 2009 and 2010 and her draw isn't a bad one, though No.30 seed Strycova may have something to say about that.

Radwanska isn't just below the radar in Paris. She's subterranean. But she comes into Paris rested and without expectation or pressure. To be frank, no one expects her to do much here. Even a quarterfinal run would be a big step forward for the Pole. And that boost of confidence could have repercussions when the tour moves onto her beloved grass.

Listen to more thoughts on the French Open draw in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast:

Photos courtesy of Getty Images.