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By Chris Oddo | Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rafa Nole, 2014 Roland Garros

Five days before the French Open begins, we look at five story lines that are currently moving the needle.

Photo Source: AP

The road to Roland Garros has made its final turn and the exit for Paris looms on the horizon. In five days’ time the second Grand Slam of the year will be underway. We try to make sense of what we’ve learned along the way by breaking down what the top 5 pre-Roland Garros storylines.

1. The men’s singles draw! On Friday morning one of the most anticipated draws in the history of the world will go down in Paris. We live in an insular, tennis-centric world where many of us get excited about the draw for the Kokomo Challenger, but this French Open draw is the draw to die for.

With Rafael Nadal seeded seventh, all eyes will be on which quarter he ends up in. Will we see a Djokovic-Nadal quarterfinal, and if so, who does that favor? And what about red-hot Andy Murray? Which half will he be drawn into? But Nadal and Murray aren’t the only ones outside of the Top 4 that could cause nightmares for Novak Djokovic. What about Kei Nishikori? The world No. 5 is more dangerous than ever on red clay. Outside of the Top 16 there are more potential draw crashers in the form of Fabio Fognini and Nick Kyrgios.

2. The Djokovic-Nadal Rivalry: What are the odds that a man other than Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal wins Roland Garros? Maybe one in twenty? It could happen, for sure, but for us the intrigue about the men’s singles draw at Roland Garros centers around Novak Djokovic’s quest for the career Grand Slam and Rafael Nadal’s desire to mount a charge to claim his tenth title on the terre battue in eleven years. It is the biggest, baddest clay-court storyline and the excitement has increased with each passing week. As Djokovic has demonstrated invincible form—22 straight wins and titles in Monte-Carlo and Rome—Nadal has suffered through his worst clay-court season in over a decade. It seems as if a Djokovic title is a no-brainer at this point. He’s favored unanimously by oddsmakers and pundits, but it’s not as simple as many are being led to believe. Haven’t we been here before and seen what can happen? Yes, indeed. In 2011, Novak Djokovic waltzed into Roland Garros in his most dominant form, and he was stunned by Roger Federer in the semifinals.

Djokovic’s mission is to keep playing his best tennis under increasing scrutiny and pressure and against a cast of foes who will all be aiming for the type of earth-shattering victory that Federer managed on that fateful Friday in 2011. Meanwhile, Nadal’s mission will be to keep doing what he has been doing: Working tirelessly and with the “right attitude” to find that missing form.

It has been a recurring theme at Roland Garros in the last few years: Djokovic, seemingly ready, willing and able to finally claim his missing major title, and Nadal, losing bits and pieces of his clay empire pretty much every week, seeking to stave off all comers to retain the only crown that truly matters. How he has done it in the last few years, it’s hard to say. Last year he was a shell of his former, dominant self heading into Roland Garros, with losses against Nicolas Almagro, David Ferrer and Novak Djokovic in three of the four springtime clay events. The only title Nadal did win, in Madrid, he was getting shellacked in the final before Kei Nishikori was forced to retire.

And yet still, despite all the end of the empire talk, Nadal laced up his clay-court shoes in Paris and mustered win after win until he found himself across the net from Novak Djokovic in the final and took him out with ease.

People talk about the end of Rafa this year almost as if they had forgotten last year. He followed virtually the same sketchy path, fraught with missteps and shock losses, until Roland Garros came along and made it all right again.

This year, there’s no doubt that Nadal’s mission will be more difficult to achieve. For one, Djokovic is playing as good as he’s ever played in his career, and it truly appears that despite his 22 consecutive wins, he’s been saving a little something extra for a run at Roland Garros. Meanwhile, Nadal has managed to sink a little lower than he was in 2014 after his head-scratching losses to Almagro and Ferrer in clay quarterfinals (two losses to Fabio Fognini on clay in the same season? Whoah!).

Still, while many see an easy march for Nole to the crown, we see a toss-up. A lot will depend on how the draw breaks. Will it be better for Djokovic to meet Nadal in the quarterfinals or semis, rather than the final? We think so. Will Nadal have an easy run through the first four rounds or will he face stern tests before he manages to play himself into form? So much intrigue, so little time…

3. Serena, Maria, or Someone Else? It’s always the same a few days before a Grand Slam on the women’s side. We proclaim that Serena Williams is the favorite and the only woman who can beat her is herself. But if there is any Grand Slam that the 19-time major champion has proven to be vulnerable at in the past, it’s Roland Garros. Only two of her major titles have come at the French, and last year she suffered her worst ever Grand Slam defeat when she got clobbered by Spain’s Garbine Muguruza.

So it’s not a definite. But what is definite is the fact that Maria Sharapova has done herself a great favor by earning herself the second seed. Now the Russian won’t have to worry about the woman that absolutely owns her until the final—if ever. Of course, she will have to worry about a cast of rising challengers like Simona Halep. The men’s draw is a far more top-heavy draw, due to the dominance of its top players and its best-of-five format, while the women’s draw should be a lot more bottom heavy, with upsets possible in any round to any player.

So, yes, on paper we are looking at a Williams-Sharapova final in Paris next Saturday. But in reality we could get something startlingly different. Just ask Francesca Schiavone fans about that possibility.

4. Dark Horse Candidates, front and center: Which largely unheralded players are poised to shake the foundations of Chatrier or Lenglen next week? Is Gael Monfils’ knee in good enough shape to make a prolonged run at his favorite major? Is something big about to happen for sparkplug Daria Gavrilova? Can Nick Kyrgios keep coming up with big-time upside surprises at the majors? Angelique Kerber had a great run on clay earlier this spring with titles in Charleston and Stuttgart. Can she follow through? How about Italy’s Fabio Fognini and Sara Errani? France’s Caroline Garcia? Spain’s Tommy Robredo or Garbine Muguruza? The list goes on and on… good luck predicting which dark horse will actually break through to see the light of the second week in Paris (We like Kyrgios and Gavrilova for week two, in case you’re wondering, but the draw will make things tricky for unseeded Gavrilova).

5. Is Andy Murray for real on clay?

One thing we certainly didn’t expect in 2015 is the sudden rise of dirtballer extraordinaire Andy Murray. Historically, Murray has won two of every three matches he has played on clay, but this year the Muzz is undefeated on the dirt at 10-0 with his first two career titles on the surface.

Some say it is marital bliss for the Scot, who was married in early April to Kim Sears and now totes his wedding ring onto the court tied to the shoelaces of his tennis shoes. Some say he’s always been destined to be a winner on clay, and just needed to find the right mix of patience and aggression to start delivering the world-class results. Whatever the case, Murray’s always been pretty good on clay, as his two previous Roland Garros semis attest. Now he’s actually believing he’s good on clay, and playing as if he expects to win no matter who he’s facing. We suspect Murray would be smarting for the chance to take a shot at Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. He’d be afforded the luxury of having no expectations going into the match, but he’d have to reach at least the semis to make it happen.


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