1) I don't like the word "favourite", but the fact is Serena goes into RG several leagues above even her two closest 'rivals' - a term that's beginning to make increasingly less sense even notionally.
I had a sense both Vika and Masha were making modest advancements in their recent encounters with her (and Vika did, of course, earlier this year, score her second win on the hard courts of Doha), but Madrid and Rome (and it would seem clay in general) clearly show otherwise.
Failing an early letdown - she's typically slow off the mark which can prove serious even in cases far less severe than last year's Razzano meltdown - it's difficult, as of now, to see her losing to anyone.
Or, to put it another way, a "disrespectful" top 50 upstart (not necessarily even a "sensation") would appear to have a greater chance of springing an upset in week one than either one of Vika and Masha would of maybe even keeping things competitive in week two.
2) However much Rafa may be the "favourite" (he'll doubtless suggest otherwise), he remains, unlike Serena, vulnerable to his closest rival on clay.
Novak's early losses and the confidence Rafa's sure to accrue in a comeback that now includes 6 wins in 8 consecutive finals (has shot him to the top of the Race, and only really "lacks" a win over Novak), may render even that concern into something less worrying.
His surreal proficiency on his preferred surface was perhaps more evident in the latter stages of Rome than at any other time during his comeback and particularly in that eye-watering first set he played against Berdych. But the fact remains that Novak is the one player with a M1000 win over him on clay this season and the only player I can see staying with him over five sets.
3) I don't know what peculiar metaphysical alchemy takes place when Federer plays Nadal but, on clay at least, it now feels like we're well beyond talk of lefty forehands being viciously spun high into single handed backhands, or of analysis itself.
There's nothing wrong with this 'post-analysis' analysis. It can be immensely liberating. But it means one has to stop floating 7 year old theories like Federer stubbornly refusing to change the size of his racquet as the meaning of life; or the very unique pressure Rafa puts him under to hit big as the primary cause of more and more rash errors which, though somewhat true, mostly feels like a way to avoid confronting reality.
The closest Fed ever got to solving this problem was also in Rome 7 years ago in the final, my personal favourite of their many encounters (even Wimbledon 08). You could describe the two match points he blew then (11:50 in the above clip) as "pressure to hit big/end the point" - that certainly wasn't what I saw this weekend.
Instead, I saw him adrift, spiritually disconnected from proceedings, in a way which transcends talk of shanks, focus and match-ups. Rafa doesn't just possess obvious tactical advantages over him, he seems to embezzle the core of his very soul on a clay court, leaving him a facsimile of the player he only thinks, rather than believes, he should be.
Glass half full: reaches a final and back at #6 in the ATP Race in his second event back. Half empty: not much in the way of serious match practice (Gilles Simon at #17 was his highest ranked opponent prior to the final) and his last pre-RG memory of competition on a clay court will be of another annihilation at the hands of one Rafael Nadal.
He's Roger Federer. He'll make the second week - if for no other reason than that the GS format of 5 sets with a day off in between works to his advantage by allowing him to drop a set now and again whilst continuing to play himself into form (Serena has no such luxury).
Beyond that, I'm just not buying into the pessimism I'm already seeing because, quite simply, none of the problems described above vs. Rafa apply to Djokovic. If Djokovic, or for that matter anyone, beats him, age will certainly factor into it, but it will essentially be about their having played a better match rather than any specific technical incompatibility or uniquely spiritual angst.
There may well be a universe in which Federer defeats Rafa on clay, but it's probably also one in which Ricardo Sanchez runs a Swiss finishing school, and Federer perhaps only possesses a couple of Slams.
4) Somewhat like Federer, Vika lost early in Madrid following an eight week spell away from the game. And somewhat like Federer she then made the final of Rome. And somewhat like him, she appears to remain further than ever from working out the problem posed by her opponent in that final.
Clay clearly isn't her strongest suit, but she hadn't, in all honesty, moved well all week to begin with. Making the final in that suspect form, therefore, has to be construed a positive. And if she can draw on the lessons learnt in her victory over Serena at Doha (many of which are mental and, therefore, surface-independent) we can, at the very least, hope for a more balanced encounter if and when they meet.
5) I'm sure she's improved but it was difficult to gauge just how much better Masha's performance on clay was this year in relation to this time last year.
Her not running into Serena last year (except on blue clay) undoubtedly helped her and thereby set in motion a wave of adulatory reporting that quite rightly made a big deal of her reinvention on the surface.
Running into Serena at this year's Madrid final refocused things, instead, on the great gulf that exists (for whatever reason) between the two in the starkest possible terms.
It's a very different build-up, narratively speaking, to RG and probably derailed any serious appraisal of her game, which may, in some ways, have improved (losing horribly to Serena again doesn't change that).
Take out: Remains, as of now, the second best clay courter out there. May have repeated last year's run during the RG build-ups in Serena's absence (and had she not gotten stricken in Rome with no one quite knows what). The same is probably true of RG itself.
6) I expect some will disagree but I don't find either of Novak's two losses during this clay court spell earth shattering: Berdych crushing the ball that accurately will beat anyone on any day, and a defeat to a rising star like Dimitrov playing the match of his life isn't, if we're honest, something that Fed or Rafa are unfamiliar with (Ernie almost did it again this event) - so it's a mistake in my mind to get too bogged down with questions about form, fitness or the presence of hostile vibrations in the ether.
On the other hand, something definitely happened to Novak in the second half of that Berdych match. And I'm guessing a 2011 Novak (the most optimal version for now) would *probably* have found his way past Dimitrov too. That second point alone means that from Novak's perspective at least, he fell short. And it shouldn't surprise us in the least to find him describing himself as "a different player" in the latter half of the Berdych match, or thinking he has work to do in general - even if we believe (as I think most everyone does) that both Grigor and Tomas earnt those wins.
7) Difficult to understand where Murray is until we learn more about the injury. As of now, all we know is that it's a problem that's been troubling him for around 18 months, and that it seemed to flair up this time last year too. That suggests a certain seriousness, although remember he won everything he did last year, and also made the finals in Aus plus another title in Miami this year with, presumably, a careful regime of managing that same complaint.
It may, of course, be the case that the physical challenges of clay pose a unique risk and, in any case, I prefer to err on the side of caution with complaints like this, but only he and his medical team really know what's going on. I certainly don't believe he should miss RG purely because "that's what Lendl did", even though that would appear to be the sensible choice this year.