It's kind of a good news, bad news situation: Serena Williams, the Open era Grand Slam singles champions, is sitting on the sidelines, patiently biding her time before jumping back into the tournament fray. Victoria Azarenka, another former No. 1, is still sorting out her custody issues. And career Grand-Slammer Maria Sharapova is just returning from another injury.
It has to be disconcerting for the WTA as the Euroclay season picks up steam without these megastars, but for opportunists, this isn't the worst situation. That group includes a U.S. contingent of 15 women presently ranked in the top 100. Do any of them have a shot at breaking through? Let's look at the top U.S. contenders:
No. 8 Venus Williams
Career on clay: 169-57 (9 titles)
Record last 52 weeks on clay: 6-2
At age 37, Williams is in a bit of a bind. She's ranked No. 8 in the world and has been a French Open finalist (albeit way back in 2002). But she's cut back her schedule drastically, and clay is a surface that rewards players who take the time to get in a groove over the course of weeks. Last year, Williams played just one clay event before Roland Garros, winning three matches in Rome. She still made the fourth round of the French Open. It's hard to imagine her doing better than that; easy to see her doing worse.
No. 9 Sloane Stephens
Career on clay: 68-40 (1 title)
Record last 52 weeks on clay: 2-1
Stephens had the misfortune to run into very hot fellow countrywoman CoCo Vandeweghe in the first round of Stuttgart last week. The result was a terrible 6-1, 6-0 beating. But Stephens likes playing on clay. She has cat-like quickness, a versatile, many-hued game, and a low-stress way of moving that's easy on the body. She is rarin' to go in Europe, having missed it last year because of injury. A perennial fourth-round player in Paris, Stephens may be ready for the next step or two -- or three.
No. 13 CoCo Vandeweghe
Career on clay: 32-37 (0 titles)
Record last 52 weeks on clay: 7-4
The most telling detail in Vandeweghe's resume might be that, thanks to her recent win over Simona Halep in Stuttgart, is that she's now 3-1 over top-ranked players. That's how dangerous -- and overpowering -- she can be. But consistency has always been her shortcoming, and that's merely the ante at the high-stakes clay table. A mercurial 26-year-old, Vandeweghe is a terrific, bold shot-maker. She has great power, strong legs and good stamina. Her movement is solid given her large 6-foot-1 frame. But she needs to learn to keep two things under control: her temper and the ball. It's not like they're not related.
No. 14 Madison Keys
Career on clay: 47-29 (0 titles)
Record last 52 weeks on clay: 5-5
Keys has made a specialty of losing very close matches on red dirt to solid clay-court players. If she gets over that hump, she could do real damage. Like Vandeweghe, she's a ferocious ball-striker with excellent movement for a big person. But she's always had trouble staying dialed in, set to set, match-to-match. That's a critical flaw on clay, where consistency rules. But clay works to the advantage of big hitters in one subtle way: The slow pace of the court gives them more time to reach a ball, set up, and give it a ride. From there, it becomes a matter of consistency and accuracy.
No. 44 Catherine Bellis
Career on clay: 18-15 (0 titles)
Record last 52 weeks on clay: 8-4
Bellis has some of the earmarks of a great clay-court competitor, even though her best results have been on hard courts. She's just 5-foot-7, and while she lacks pre-emptive firepower, she has compact strokes. She's also mobile, consistent and mentally ever-present, much like seven-time French Open champ Chris Evert. Sure, it's a different game these days, but there's always room in the clay game for the quick, steady counterpuncher. Bellis could become that if she takes it upon herself to master the nuances of this part of the season.
No. 45 Danielle Collins
Career on clay: 0-0
Record last 52 weeks on clay: 0-0
This two-time NCAA singles champ -- and recent surprise semifinalist at the Miami Open -- has shot up in the rankings. Collins is an intelligent, resourceful late-bloomer of 24 who has a great deal of poise. She moves well and plays a probing, aggressive baseline game. She's 53-22 over the past year in pro tournaments that award WTA rankings points. Will her impressive game translate on clay?
After Collins, there's a 30-place drop-off for the Americans to No. 75 Varvara Lepchenko. Filling out the top 100 for the U.S. women are: Sachia Vickery (No. 78), Jennifer Brady (No. 81) Taylor Townsend (No. 85), Christina McHale (No. 90), Sofia Kenin (No. 92), Alison Riske (No. 94), Madison Brengle (No. 97) and Bernarda Pera (No. 98).
Shelby Rogers isn't even in the top 100. At No. 107, she's on the bubble for qualifying for the French Open, where she was a surprise quarterfinalist in 2016. It's a reminder that anything can happen, and the more players you have in the mix, the more unpredictable the results will be.
For the American women, the sheer number of contenders suggests unpredictable to evolve into Cinderella story by the time Roland Garros concludes.