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10 storylines to follow at Roland Garros

Novak Djokovic and Petra Kvitova pose for their official champions' portrait
by Mark Hodgkinson
Friday 22 May 2015

A relentless Novak Djokovic appears to be the favourite with the second Grand Slam of the season up for grabs in Paris and can Maria Sharapova fend off the challengers to retain her title...? Wimbledon.com wonders...

- More partial to warm water and cups of liquorice tea, Novak Djokovic is clearly not a regular Champagne drinker. But after surviving the Champagne incident at Rome's Foro Italico - on opening a bottle during his victory celebrations, a cork narrowly missed his eye, instead striking him on the nose - who or what can now stop him winning a first title at Roland Garros? You might say that the only weakness Djokovic has revealed during this clay-court swing, and indeed during the entire season so far, has been his inability to open a Champagne bottle correctly (try not to aim it at your face). The Wimbledon champion has never looked so well-placed before the French Open, where victory would make him the eighth man in history to achieve the Career Grand Slam (after Britain's Fred Perry, Americans Don Budge and Andre Agassi, Australians Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, Switzerland's Roger Federer and Spain's Rafa Nadal). On the clay this year, Djokovic has won titles in Monte Carlo and Rome, having skipped Madrid, with those runs including a couple of victories over Big Four opponents, defeating Nadal in the semi-finals in Monaco and Federer in the Rome final. 

- So far, we are yet to see the best of Serena Williams during the spring tour of Europe's clay courts, but all that will be forgotten if she were to win the title at Roland Garros. That would take her to 20 Grand Slam titles, two short of Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 22. Williams was heavily beaten in the semi-finals of Madrid, winning just five games against Petra Kvitova, and then withdrew mid-tournament from Rome because of an elbow injury. But the indications are that Williams should be in good shape for Paris. 

- Who would have thought that Rafa Nadal would ever describe his forehand, the shot that has brought him nine French Open titles, as "vulgar"? Or that he would arrive at Roland Garros without a title during the European clay-court swing? Nadal has been very open about how he has struggled for confidence in recent weeks, with defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo semi-finals, to Fabio Fognini early in the Barcelona tournament, to Andy Murray in the Madrid final, and to Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals of last week's Rome tournament. "For the first time in many years, Nadal will not be the favourite going into Roland Garros," said Jim Courier, a former French Open champion who will be part of ITV's commentary team. "That role is now firmly occupied by Novak Djokovic. Nadal is less vulnerable in Paris, given the best-of-five-set format which allows him time to problem solve, than he has been elsewhere but there are now guys in the locker-room who see him as an opportunity rather than an immovable object." Still, there are a fair few observers, and Roger Federer is one of them, who consider Nadal to still be the favourite. After all, here is someone who has only ever lost once at the French Open. 

- Some would suggest that Andy Murray's clay-court surge - with titles in Munich and Madrid, where he achieved his first victory on the surface over Rafa Nadal - is down to his marriage to Kim Sears. Undefeated since his wedding, Murray did write "Marriage works" on a TV lens after beating Nadal. There is also an argument to say that Jonas Bjorkman, Murray's new assistant coach, has made a difference. That has been the other happy union for Murray this spring; he also hasn't lost since Bjorkman joined him. Or perhaps Murray's form on clay can be attributed to Amelie Mauresmo? Plenty to debate, there; what's not up for discussion, as this is beyond dispute, is that Murray has never played better on the surface. Yet to lose a match on clay this year, after withdrawing from Rome after one appearance because of "fatigue", Murray is poised to have a superb Roland Garros. A past semi-finalist, does Murray have it in him to become the first British men's champion since Fred Perry (him again) in 1935? 

- If Maria Sharapova can lift La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen for a third time, after previous victories in 2012 and 2014, she would establish herself as a clay-court great. Perhaps you could say she did that last year by becoming a multiple champion at Roland Garros, but a third victory would really seal it. 

 - If Simona Halep is to win a Grand Slam, there's a good chance it would happen for her at the French Open rather than at the other three majors. Last year, she came so close to victory, testing and tormenting Maria Sharapova during her first appearance in a Grand Slam final. 

- Such was the quality of Petra Kvitova's tennis in Madrid this year - where she crushed Serena Williams in the semi-finals, and then Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final - you have to regard the Wimbledon champion as a contender in Paris. Clearly, it was a sensible decision to skip hard-court events in Indian Wells and Miami, when she had felt drained and "empty". 

- Apart from Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer is the only former champion in the men's draw in Paris. With Nadal looking vulnerable, could there be opportunities for Federer? After losing his opening match in Madrid to Australia's Nick Kyrgios, Federer responded with a run to the final in Rome, where he was the runner-up to Novak Djokovic. 

- Kei Nishikori has never gone beyond the fourth round at Roland Garros. Surely this will be the year when the Japanese goes on a long run in Paris for the first time? He's had a decent clay-court season, winning the title in Barcelona title, reaching the semi-finals in Madrid, where he lost to Andy Murray, and making the quarter-finals, where he was stopped by Novak Djokovic. "Nishikori is my second favourite in Paris behind Djokovic - I firmly believe he is the second best clay-court player today," said Jim Courier. 

- Remember the tennis that Ernests Gulbis played at Roland Garros last year in reaching his first Grand Slam semi-final? Can the Lavtian, who has recently been on a run of first-round defeats, somehow rediscover his form when he returns to the Parisian dust? 


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