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2014 French Open storylines to watch

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Rafael Nadal only has a single clay title to his name this season. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal only has a single clay title to his name this season. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

With the 2014 French Open starting Sunday, May 25, here are some of the biggest storylines to follow.

Rafael Nadal is not a lock for his ninth French Open title.

We have to be careful when we use the phrase “wide open” to describe this year’s French Open. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Nadal is 59-1 over the last nine years in Paris, with his sole loss coming to the big-hitting Robin Soderling on a cold, wet day in 2009. But this is the first time he’ll start the French Open with three clay losses and just one European clay title for the season (he won the Madrid Open after Kei Nishikori retired in the third set). In the final major tune-up event, last week in Rome, Nadal slogged through three straight three-set matches before eventually getting upended by Novak Djokovic in the final. The world No. 1 has shown signs of slippage, but winning three sets against him on clay still remains the toughest task in tennis.

Rafael Nadal on his recent struggles: “Get used to it”

Novak Djokovic looks (again) to complete his career Grand Slam.

Djokovic has been knocking on the door in Paris for the last three years, but could this finally be the year it all comes together for him? In 2011, Djokovic came into the tournament undefeated, having dispatched Nadal in straight sets in Madrid and Rome, but he fell to Roger Federer in the semifinals. In 2012, he made his first French Open final but lost to Nadal in a rain-interrupted, two-day match. Last year, he had a break lead on Nadal in the fifth set of the semifinals but was beaten 9-7.

Djokovic is 2-0 against Nadal this season and 4-0 since losing last year’s U.S. Open final. And as if he needed additional motivation, he’ll be playing for more than himself in Paris, as his homeland is facing historic flooding. He dedicated his Rome title to Serbia and donated his prize money to relief efforts. It will be weighing on his mind again at Roland Garros.

Serena Williams is defending her first Grand Slam title of the season.

It hasn’t been a bad season for Williams by any standard other than her own. She lost a combined two sets en route to titles in Brisbane, Miami and Rome. But losses to Ana Ivanovic (Australian Open), Alize Cornet (Dubai) and Jana Cepelova (Charleston), along with an injury withdrawal in Madrid, kept interrupting her momentum. Williams, 32, is all about the Grand Slams at this stage of her career, and winning the French Open for the third time is exactly what she needs to feed her motivation for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. If Williams wins at Roland Garros, she would tie Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for second place in the Open era with 18 major titles.

NGUYEN: Who would Serena Williams take a selfie with?

Maria Sharapova goes for her second title in Paris.

Sharapova, who completed her career Grand Slam at Roland Garros two years ago, is the favorite behind Williams and would be poised to capitalize if Serena loses early. The Russian has lost to only two players on clay in the last three years — Serena in the 2013 French Open final and Ana Ivanovic last week in the Italian Open. That loss to Ivanovic wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it gave her more time to rest for Paris after winning back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Madrid.

Simona Halep has climbed to a career-high No. 4 WTA ranking. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Simona Halep has climbed to a career-high No. 4 WTA ranking. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Will there be a Parisian surprise?

A handful of players are poised to challenge the favorites. For the men, that includes Federer, No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka and last year’s finalist, David Ferrer. Wawrinka showed his mettle in winning the Monte Carlo Masters last month, while Ferrer beat Nadal in Monte Carlo and came close to doing the same against Djokovic in Rome.

On the women’s side, Ivanovic and new No. 4 Simona Halep are clay-court stalwarts who are ready to deliver in Paris. Halep took Sharapova to three sets in the Madrid final. Ivanovic, who lost to Sharapova in the Stuttgart final, got revenge at the Italian Open before pushing Williams to three sets in the semifinals. Also, keep an eye on Australian Open champion and 2011 French Open winner Li Na, who has played solid tennis in her two lead-up events.

Keep tabs on the youth revolt.

One of the biggest storylines coming out of the Australian Open was the progress of youth on tour, whether it was Eugenie Bouchard’s run to her first Slam semifinal or Grigor Dimitrov testing Nadal in his first major quarterfinal. The men, in particular, have kept rolling, with Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori pushing into the top 10 and Dimitrov not far behind them. All three have played well on clay this season, though the biggest question mark is Nishikori, who retired from the Madrid final with a back injury and skipped the Italian Open.

For the women, Bouchard has been up and down since Melbourne, but she made the semifinals in Charleston and is into the semifinals this week in Strasbourg. Clay isn’t her favorite surface, but it rewards her battler’s instincts. The other young name to track is Caroline Garcia. The 20-year-old Frenchwoman showed in her terrific Fed Cup performance against the United States that she won’t shy away from being asked to fly the flag, and she’s playing well above her ranking of No. 46.

  • Published On May 22, 2014
  • 5 comments
    bryon999
    bryon999

    Nadal on clay reminds me of Tiger Woods back in the early 2000s, particularly when he got into contention in a major.  People used to love to analyze what might happen and all the scenarios, but everyone knew deep down Tiger would win.

    The only question with Nadal is whether he might be slipping with age.  Until I see otherwise, deep down I know he will win.

    cdns211
    cdns211

    was just a week or so ago, Courtney was pronouncing Stan Wawrinka as the favorite for the French, which I questioned here in the blog at that time. Now, it is Rafa and Novak again, or is it Stan, or who? I did not see Stan mentioned much above. So, f Courtney's view changes weekly, based on the latest Masters result, well, any idiot can look up those results, and change their views. These guys, Courtney, Wertheim and all, get paid nicely and pose around as some kinda pundits, but in the end, their views and prognostications are worth exactly nothing. 

    aandybarclay
    aandybarclay

    Nole will prevail over the Spanish Moonballer this time!!!!!!!!! Nole future GOAT

    saveserves2371
    saveserves2371

    @bryon999 I don't think it's a matter of "age" with Nadal - certainly not yet. It may be more a matter of nursing an injury here and there. Like Serena, Rafa played lights-out, consistently great tennis last year - winning an astounding number of tournaments. That would take a bit of a toll on anyone's body. Serena's back and thigh. Nadal's hand and knee. I sure hope they're completely healed. And that they play their best tennis during the French Open.

    saveserves2371
    saveserves2371

    @cdns211 Well no one can really predict the future. Tennis players are human beings playing a Sport at the highest level. They may sustain injuries -serious or minor- that may impact performance to varying degree. I wish sports wriiters would recognize that some people may take to heart what those writers emphasize, though. Wertheim recently chose to write an article on Na Li, instead of writing on great American Serena Williams ahead of the French Open. For all we know, that may have signaled grossly unfair organizers to continue the disgusting practice of glaringly, transparently, Brazenly giving Na Li cupcake draws at majors! 


    And TIME magazine was even more disgusting and obvious. After justifiably naming Serena to its 100 Most Influential People list, it then, mere days later, slaps Na Li on the cover - again. As if Na Li's 2 measly Major victories trump Serena's SEVENTEEN major victories.If Serena had the draw Na Li received at the Australian Open, Serena would have even more deservedly notched another Major victory. It is the #1 player who has TRADITIONALLY received the smoothest path to the final as a reward for having worked hard to achieve that status. Strange, that it has been going to the #2 player now that a black woman is #1. Shaking my head.