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French Open Preview: The Clay King, Serena’s Ongoing Quest, Roger’s Return, and More

Although it was less than eight months ago Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek Trophies were raised at Roland Garros, and the tours are already back in Paris for the French Open in 2021. After the 2020 event was held in the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s tournament has been postponed for a week to reflect local health protocols but returned to its traditional spring setting – with all the sunshine and optimism that follows.

So what are the biggest storylines to watch out for in the second major of the year? after the draw on Thursday? Which players do you need to see? (Spoiler alert: you rhyme with Nafael Radal.) Will one of the Cinderellas repeat their success in 2020? When the game starts on Sunday we’ll dive in.

The clay king or the goat?

What else is there to say about Nadal – the clay king – at the French Open? He has won 13 record titles at Roland Garros and was virtually unbeatable at the event.

Just ask the world # 1 Novak Djokovic What is it like to play Nadal on the Parisian sand? In the 2020 final, Nadal only needed two hours and 41 minutes to beat Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. So we could Waste our time wondering when Nadal’s dominance will end on the surface, but since this was only months ago against one of the best tennis players of all time, it seems clear that it is not now.

Sure, Nadal didn’t win every event he played at the French Open and had some notable problems, but he took home the title at the Italian Open and defeated Djokovic again in the final as well as the Barcelona Open. After his win in Rome, he said he played a “good tournament” and found his rhythm on the surface.

And if he earned his 14th title at Roland Garros it would of course give him his 21st big trophy overall and let him pass Roger Federer for most at all. For some, that would be enough to end the long-debated GOAT conversation.

“Remember that [Nadal] is five years younger than Federer, what he’s done is extraordinary. ” Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said at the Lyon Open earlier this month. “Today we cannot question that he was the one who won the most. If he were to overtake Roger in the number of Grand Slam titles, there would definitely be no more debate about the greatest player of all time.”

Speaking of goats …

When Serena Williams When she walked off the pitch after losing in the semi-finals at the Australian Open, there was speculation that her time in the sport was nearing the end. However, the 23-time major champ isn’t ready to hang her racket just yet, and fans are still wondering if these will be the event where she ties Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.

After missing the Miami Open due to a dental emergency, Williams returned to the Italian Open after a nearly three-month hiatus from competition. But her comeback didn’t go exactly as planned. She played in her 1,000th career match and lost to Nadia Podoroska in their Rome opener in even sentences. In search of more time on the field, she then decided on the Emilia-Romagna Open, but lost to in the second round Katerina Siniakova.

Although Williams didn’t look like a three-time French Open winner in her tuning games, her longtime trainer Patrick Mouratoglou isn’t concerned.

“I think it’s always interesting to play games because it gives you a clear idea of ​​where you are. That was good that way because we know what else you have to do to get ready for Roland Garros be.” he told Sky Sports. “I’m generally not worried because if she does the job she will be ready. It’s all about doing the job.

“To be completely honest, when I saw her preparing for the Australian Open, I thought, ‘Wow, a lot of work getting ready.’ But in a short amount of time she was in really great shape. “

Odds makers don’t seem quite as optimistic. Williams doesn’t appear as a favorite on any of the major betting websites. The 39-year-old opens the game against Irina-Camelia Begu and could possibly look in the face Danielle Collins or Angelique Kerber in the third round.

But if anyone is capable of a surprise, it’s Serena.

One and not done yet?

It’s been a tough 2021 for Ashleigh Barty, the French Open champion of 2019. After leaving the 2020 season after the restart, the number 1 in the world opened the new year with a title at the Yarra Valley Classic and then completed a quarter-finals at the Australian Open.

She hadn’t played a match outside of Australia in over a year when she was on the court at the Miami Open in March and nearly knocked out in the first round – but she fought off the match point and then fought to the end of the tournament title.

Since then she has won the singles and Double title in Stuttgart and final appearance in Madrid (loss to Red Hot) Aryna Sabalenka). Barty had to retire during her quarterfinal match in Rome – even though she had a set ahead of her Coco Gauff – because of pain in her right arm, although out of caution it seemed to be very approaching.

Currently 2,714 points ahead of second place Naomi OsakaBarty must defend 2,000 points as the 2019 champion. (Swiatek, the reigning champion, will not be in the same position – her points will remain until October due to the postponement of the 2020 event). With Osaka losing in the third round of the 2019 tournament, she could have the opportunity to overtake Barty for the top spot with a sizeable run at the event and an early retirement from Barty. It could mean a dramatic fortnight for fans of both players.

The roar of the small but growing crowd

There will be more fans in attendance than the 1,000 a day allowed in 2020, but it won’t be like the last few scenes at other sporting events, and certainly not like the crowd of fans that surround Phil Mickelson when he did on the PGA went to the 18th green championship last week. For the first 10 days, 5,388 spectators are allowed to enter the grounds every day, but no fans are allowed to observe the government-mandated curfew during the night sessions.

As of June 9, some restrictions will be lifted and 13,146 fans will be admitted per day – with a maximum of 5,000 people for each of the two largest show spaces. As the curfew will then be extended to 11 p.m., the last remaining night session will allow a crowd of 5,000 people.

Only spectators who have had a negative test or are fully vaccinated will be allowed out of the premises.

For the players, it will be more the same in terms of restrictions and strict guidelines. As during the 2020 tournament, they will have to stay in designated hotels and undergo frequent tests.

Roger returns

Federer is said to be playing in his first slam since the Australian Open 2020 after several operations on his right knee. The 39-year-old has only played two tournaments since returning, setting a 2-1 record and losing his only game on clay at the Geneva Open.

Even die-hard Federer fans should probably ease their expectations.

The 20-time major champion only won once in five finals at Roland Garros in 2009 and is not known for his skills on clay courts. In fact, he has only attended the event once in the past five years, skipping it multiple times in preparation for the turf season.

But despite his limited match play and upcoming 40th birthday, he still has lofty goals.

“I want to win more,” he said a recent interview with GQ. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone through the whole thing [last] Year of operations and the process of five weeks on crutches and rehab. I really think I can do it again. “

Who will doubt him?

Federer will play a qualifier in his opener, but a showdown with the 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic could expect him in the second round.

Guys outside the big three

Even new tennis fans understand why Nadal, Djokovic and Federer get the most attention from men. The trio has won 58 of the last 70 major titles and all but one of the previous 16 French Open trophies.

So yes, they are a dominant force in tennis.

Of course as Stan Wawrinka Proven at Roland Garros in 2015, they don’t always Victory. And since all three are in the same half of the draw, there is certainly an opportunity for one of the younger players to trigger a surprise and win the trophy.

Could it be Dominic Thiem, the reigning US Open champion? He is a two-time Roland Garros finalist and loves the sand. The number 4 struggled after his breakthrough in New York and was open about the weight of the newfound expectations but made a semi-final in Madrid.

Stefanos Tsitsipas has taken almost every chance to play on clay and has participated in five tournaments, won the title in Monte Carlo and Lyon and played in the final in Barcelona. The No. 5 seed has won 33 games this season, 16 of which have hit the clay, and he’s driving serious impulses.

Alexander Zverev, the number 6 of the tournament, won the title in Madrid – which annoyed Nadal and Thiem on the way to the final. He reached his first grand final in 2020 at the US Open and could be ready to take another monumental step in his career.

And of course there is Daniil Medvedev, the # 2 seed. He’s been a force for the past two years, but has admitted that his game isn’t sand-friendly and he has only won one match in the lead-in events. He’s never won a match at Roland Garros. No, that’s not a typo. Despite his seed and current ranking, it would be nearly impossible to get him anywhere near a favorite in Paris.

If the glass shoe fits

The 2020 French Open were filled with the unexpected. From the rain and cold temperatures of the newly planned fall dates to the absence of several stars, the event was unique. But it was the surprise runs of several under the radar and largely unoccupied players that really made the fortnight unforgettable.

Semi-finalist Nadia Podoroska, quarter-finals Martina Trevisan and quarter finalist Sebastian Korda Everyone stormed through qualifying for the best major appearances of their careers. Elina Svitolina even noticed that she knew “nothing” about Podoroska before the two met in the neighborhoods. But she sure knew a few things by the end of her 6-2, 6-4 game.

Diego Schwartzman made his first career semi-finals and 19 year old Jannik Sinner became the youngest male quarter-finals at the event since Djokovic in 2006.

And then of course no. 54-year-old Iga Swiatek had the ultimate Cinderella run as she absolutely dominated the field and won her first major title without dropping a set. She competes with Roland Garros, who won a title at the Italian Open and has just cracked the top 10. So it’s safe to say that no one will underestimate them this year.

How the rest of this group of star underdogs will fare at this year’s event remains to be seen, but they can expect more pressure, attention, and expectation.

And while we’re talking about Cinderella …

Coco-Mania is back!

Coco Gauff had one of the most unexpected and famous runs at Wimbledon in 2019. As a 15-year-old, she advanced to the fourth round and won over fans all over the world with her courageous game and joyful spirit. After a third round run at the US Open shortly thereafter and a round of 16 at the 2020 Australian Open, expectations were high, but Gauff has struggled a little since tennis restarted in August 2020.

However, the now 17-year-old seems to have found her rhythm on clay after recording impressive victories against world No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 18 Maria Sakkari in Rome and after winning the individual title in Parma – and then on the same day took home the double trophy with his long-time partner Caty McNally.

Gauff is now ranked at career level # 25 and is seeded for the first time with a major, the youngest seeded player in the event since then Nicole Vaidisova 2006. In her opener she will compete against a qualification and then against the winner of the Hsieh Su-wei vs. Qiang Wang Game before you possibly play the Australian Open finalist Jen Brady in the third round. It won’t be easy, but an older and smarter Gauff believes she has come a long way since her breakout performance at the All England Club.

“I definitely feel more confident on the pitch in my shots and decisions,” she said after beating Sabalenka. “I think it only comes with experience, to be honest. If you make a bunch of mistakes you know what to do, [and] what not to do.

“If you are still studying like me, sometimes you feel that you are not sure which decision you are making. I think now I try to be more confident in the decisions I make and also accept the mistakes, that I do. “”

Gauff and the #Mccoco doubles team (with the couple playing two big quarterfinal games together) are always a must-have at slams, but this could be the major where an up and coming Gauff in week two is a legitimate factor in one or both Draws.

And history could be on their side. Vaidisova, then 17, made it to the semifinals during her 2006 election campaign in Paris.

Kenin’s next chapter

It’s been a tough stretch for Sofia Kenin since she appeared in the final at Roland Garros in October. The reigning Australian Open champion was upset in the second round of the 2021 tournament in Melbourne and lost to an unranked qualifier at the Phillip Island Trophy the next week. Two days later, she underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis.

Since then, she has not made it through the second round of a tournament and even sacked her long-time coach – aka her father Alex – ahead of the Italian Open. So, yes, the 22 year old American is having a hard time.

“I think I just need some time for myself now to figure things out, grow as a person and then we’ll see what will happen in the future,” she told the media after announcing her change of coach.

She hasn’t won a match on clay in any of the three pre-French Open tournaments she has played in singles or doubles and will have her hands full in her first round match against the 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko. After taking control of her own career, she will try to prove that her 2020 season was no accident. Will she be successful?

Kenin has said that she hasn’t decided who will coach her dad, but that she expects this to be a valuable learning experience, if nothing else.

The feel-good story you’ve been waiting for

Diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma in August, Carla Suarez Navarro announced last month that she is cancer free and will return to the competition for the first time since February 2020.

Before the diagnosis, the 32-year-old had originally announced plans to retire from professional tennis at the end of the 2020 season. Now determined to end her career on her own terms, she will be playing in her 12th and final game, the French Open.

“I’ve worked a lot over the past few months to give myself the opportunity to play one last time in Paris,” she said in a statement on the Spanish association’s website. “I hope I can feel that special feeling on the pitch that I’ve always known during this tournament.”

Suarez Navarro is two-time quarterfinals of the tournament and a favorite among fans and their peers. There may not be anyone with more support at the French Open this year. She faces the former finalist and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round.

Games in the first round cannot be overlooked

Women:
No. 4 Sofia Kenin versus Jelena Ostapenko
No. 9 Karolina Pliskova vs. Donna Vekic
No. 10 Belinda Bencic Nadia Podoroska

Men:
No. 2 Daniil Medvedev vs. Alexander Bublik
No. 31 John Isner vs. Sam Querrey

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