French Open: Ten Stories to Look for in Paris

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By John Huston

1. RAFA’S REIGN VS. NOVAK’S SLAM CAMPAIGN: Before the draws were announced this morning, the big question was where nine-time Roland Garros champion Rafa Nadal would land. The dramatic answer: in Novak Djokovic‘s quarter. Stakes are high for both: Nadal is on the quest for an unprecedented 10th French Open title, while Djokovic is looking to complete a career Grand Slam and keep his hopes for a calendar Slam alive at a time when his dominance is arguably at an all-time high. Rafa heads into Paris staggering like a wounded general, with only one—count it, one—clay title to his name this year. (From Rio, no less.) Yet nothing brings his game to life quite like the red dirt and vast terrain of Court Philippe Chatrier. Djokovic has beaten Nadal before on clay in Monte Carlo and Italy, but he’s yet to solve the riddle of Rafa in France. Is 2015 his year?

2. CAN MARIA DEFEND HER CLAY QUEEN TITLE? Even a few weeks ago, Maria Sharapova seemed on shaky ground, but her game regained its sharpness in Italy, and now she enters the French with more momentum than Serena, who suffered a harsh loss to Petra Kvitova in Madrid, and withdrew early in Rome. Maria’s draw isn’t easy—Kaia Kanepi in the first round hits big and has reached week two in Paris, Sam Stosur looms as a potential third-round opponent, and Masha could meet her Stuttgart conqueror Angie Kerber in the quarters. But Sharapova’s tenacious ability to grind out come-from-behind three-set victories here makes her at least appear less vulnerable to upset than the other top women. It’s tempting to book a date for her in the final.

3. THE EVER-CHANGING ENIGMA THAT IS SERENA: On one level, Serena Williams has been in total command since last summer’s US hard court season, suffering only a pair of random losses. But as Matt Cronin has pointed out, as Serena strives to match Steffi Graf’s Slam count, her overall results are increasingly dotted with mid-tournament withdrawals. Last year, Garbine Muguruza knocked her off the court before she could gather herself and stage a comeback. This year, no such dangerous youngster beckons early on, but she could square off against Vika Azarenka—who had match points against her just a few weeks ago in Madrid—in the third round.

4. CAN KING ROGER TOPPLE A TOP-HEAVY DRAW AND RETURN TO RULE? It’s been almost three years since Roger Federer has won a Grand Slam, and he’s been erratic in Paris in recent years. Before this morning, his title chances din’t look so majestic. But then both newly clay-friendly Andy Murray and longtime nemesis Rafa wound up on Djokovic’s side of the draw, with Rafa and Djokovic’s possible quarterfinal date suggesting their road to the final will be punishing. It’s worth remembering that Federer is the last man not named Nadal to hoist the French Open trophy. The Parisian crowd’s crazed love for him should not be discounted either—it’ll be a factor as early as the third round, when he might face Gael Monfils, his opponent in the most dramatic match at last year’s US Open.

5. BONJOUR PARIS WITH ANDY AND AMELIE: He may have grown up training in Spain, but one could argue this is the first year that Andy Murray is a legitimate French Open contender. A shockingly clinical dismissal of Rafa in Madrid brought his first big clay title, and should he make the semis here, he could benefit from facing the battle-weary victor of a Djokovic-Nadal quarterfinal. (He’ll need that advantage: Djokovic in particular knows how to grind him down in best-of-five.) Don’t forget that Andy has a beloved French tennis icon as a coach, though one hopes for his sake that he doesn’t inherit her tendency to view the City of Light as a stage for nervy fright.

6. STEADY SIMONA, CRAFTY CARLA, AND UNPREDICTABLE PETRA: While it’s sometimes tempting to reduce the WTA to the Serena and Maria Show, the are some other top contenders on the women’s side. Simona Halep began her steady rankings ascent on clay in 2013, and last year she came close to surprising Sharapova in the most epic women’s Slam final in some time. Plus her draw looks easy on paper. But she’s shown some cracks as of late—Carla Suarez Navarro exposed her weaknesses in Italy, and potential third-round opponent Alize Cornet upset her in Stuttgart. What to say about Petra Kvitova? The reigning Wimbledon champ can pummel no less than Serena, but she’s also perfectly capable of losing to a random player ranked outside the top 100. Which Petra will show up in Paris? Your guess is as good as mine.

7. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS—WHO’LL BE THE LAST US HOPE? When Serena Williams won her second French Open title in 2013, she reversed—if only briefly—downtrending US fortunes at the clay Slam. With a proven record, not to mention “Le Coach” (to use the title of his much-discussed new book) Patrick Mouratoglou at her side, Serena is the undeniable top US hope in Paris. On the men’s side, big John Isner has performed best in recent years, but he has a tough first opponent in Federer’s Aussie Open conqueror Andreas Seppi. It’s never easy for an American in Paris: Jack Sock has drawn Grigor Dimitrov, Sam Querrey‘s faces off against teen phenom Borna Coric, Donald Young takes on clay vet Santiago Giraldo, and SoCal’s fighting Steve Johnson meets No. 26 seed Guillermo Garcia Lopez, whose game isn’t as dirt-focused as his name might suggest.

8. CLAY AND TENNIS FOR FRANCES: Perhaps it’s only fitting—a next-wave US hopeful named Frances, Frances Tiafoe, is making his main draw Grand Slam debut in France. In fact, Tiafoe favors hard courts, but he earned his place by winning the Har-Tru Wild Card Challenge, which helped launch Taylor Townsend to Roland Garros success last year.

9. NEW (AND OLD) NAMES MAKING THEIR MARK IN THE RED DIRT: Over the last decade, the clay game has produced a singular men’s champion—Rafa Nadal—and some random women’s winners. The uniqueness of the surface can set the stage for new faces: keep an eye out for young Russians Daria Gavrilova and Margarita Gasparyan. It can also spark some late-career magic (just ask 2010 champ Francesca Schiavone), and formidable clay talents such as 2010 finalist Sam Stosur and 2009 winner Svetlana Kuznetsova have shown recent signs of inspiration.

10. FIRST-ROUND DRAMA: For the men, first-round drama at Roland Garros usually means marathon battles in which grizzled tour regulars display heroics—in fact, there was already a match in qualifying that went to 27-25 in the final set. For the women, drama can arrive in the form of an upset—none more stunning than Virginie Razzano handing Serena her first-ever Slam first-round defeat in 2012—or a diva battle. Potential upset victims: Ana Ivanovic, up against Yaroslava Shvedova; and free-falling Eugenie Bouchard, whose opponent Kristina Mladenovic is currently in the finals in Strasbourg and beat Li Na in the first round here last year. As for the diva battle, this time it’s intergenerational, and first-name-only applies: Venus vs. Sloane.