PARIS - Used to be the French Open was the scene for clay-court specialists and surprise champions.
Scan the list of past winners and runners-up. There's Gaston Gaudio and Albert Costa, Martin Verkerk and Guillermo Coria, Andres Gomez and Mariano Puerta. Not so much a "Who's Who." More like a "Who's He?"
The women's list features fewer out-of-nowhere names, yet does include those such as Iva Majoli, Anastasia Myskina and Francesca Schiavone, who all won while never making it past the quarterfinals at any other Grand Slam event.
With the second major set to begin Sunday at Roland Garros, there is little thought being given to that sort of stunning outcome, thanks to Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.
As seven-time major champion John McEnroe put it: "It's pretty obvious who the favorite is."
He meant, of course, Nadal, who won his record seventh French Open title last year and is 52-1 for his career. Consider, too, the nearly perfect way the he has played after seven months away because of a left knee injury: Since returning in February, the Spaniard is 36-2, reaching the finals at all eight tournaments he's entered, winning six.
"I am enjoying every moment, and eight finals in a row is wonderful," Nadal said. "Four, five months ago, it was impossible to think about this."
He wore a wrap of white tape below that troublesome knee while practicing Thursday afternoon on Court Philippe Chatrier with the temperature in the 40s (less than 10 degrees Celsius) for about an hour before heavy rain fell; the forecast calls for more wet weather in the coming days.
Nadal has cut down on the amount of time he spends training on court, one concession to the recurring knee problems, which also forced him to pull out of Wimbledon in 2009, when he would have been the defending champion.
"I'm really happy for him, and impressed that he's come back," said McEnroe, an analyst for Tennis Channel, among other TV outlets. "It seems like he's barely lost anything, if at all. Right now, he seems to be finally, he says, playing the best he's been playing the whole year, which is sort of frightening for the other players."
And yet Nadal will not be seeded No. 1 when the draw is held today.
That's because the French Open decided to strictly follow the rankings, and Nadal's time away deducted enough points that he is currently No. 4 (he'll move up one spot to No. 3 in the seedings, because No. 2 Andy Murray, the reigning U.S. Open champion, withdrew because of a bad back).