Rarely in the history of tennis has there been so much anticipation leading into a Grand Slam event. But with several of the game’s biggest stars on the verge of creating their own slice of remarkable history at Roland Garros, it’s little wonder that the eyes of the tennis world are keenly fixed on the looming tournament on Parisian red clay.
Possibly the biggest story coming in is Novak Djokovic’s Grand Slam streak. Having already pocketed the 2011 Wimbledon and US Open titles as well as the Australian Open in 2012, the world No.1 has the chance to claim his first ever victory at Roland Garros, achieve a career Grand Slam, and become the first person since Rod Laver in 1969 to simultaneously hold all four major titles.
But unlike in 2011, when the Serbian was undefeated heading into Paris, Djokovic has looked less convincing this year. Despite scooping two of the year’s biggest titles in Melbourne and Miami, Djokovic failed to defend his Indian Wells crown, and endured his first loss to Rafael Nadal since 2010 in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters. Just last week, he slipped, slid and grumbled his way out of the Madrid Masters in a rare loss to compatriot Janko Tipsarevic, and expressed his delight at returning to the comparative “paradise” of red clay in Rome this week.
Djokovic is the defending champion in Rome, and we are likely to get a better feel for exactly how he is performing in conditions that more closely resemble those at Roland Garros. Should he rediscover the form that carried him to the title last year – coupled with the motivation of avenging his 2011 semifinal loss in Paris to Roger Federer – we could be seeing Djokovic completing a prized box set of major titles.
Hoping to stop that will be the world No.1’s chief rival, Nadal. The Spaniard enters the French Open with the potential to cement his own record – a seventh title at Roland Garros would mark the most wins at the tournament by a male player in history, and separate him from tennis legend Bjorn Borg, who won six.
Nadal has already shown a propensity for setting records this year in what has arguably been a more convincing claycourt build-up than Djokovic. The world No.2 claimed a record eighth straight title at Monte Carlo, before heading to Barcelona to win his seventh career title there (another record). Yet like the Serb, Nadal was displeased with the playing surface in Madrid and uncharacteristically blew a 5-2 final set lead against Fernando Verdasco in the third round, his increasingly wayward forehand contributing to his first loss against his compatriot in 14 matches.
Whether or not that loss affects the Spaniard’s psyche will become clear this week in Rome, a tournament Nadal has won five times previously. Down to world No.3 following his Madrid result but still seeded No.2 in Italy, a projected finals meeting with No.1 seed Djokovic should give us an idea about where his game is at.
The man who displaced Nadal at No.2 – and who will be hoping to prevent another Djokovic-Nadal final in Rome – is Roger Federer, who was at his imperious best in sweeping to the Madrid title. There were no complaints from the Swiss about the new surface, as he set about dissecting three of the world’s top 10 – David Ferrer, Tipsarevic and Tomas Berdych – on his path to victory.
Federer is in the midst of a brilliant stretch, having won seven of the last 10 tournaments he has entered and a tour-high four titles in 2012. He signalled to the tennis world last year that he was not a fading force, his resounding elimination of Djokovic in the Roland Garros semifinals last year confirmation of that fact. Showing absolutely no signs of slowing down 12 months later and with his body rested and refreshed after a five-week break following Miami, the 2009 Roland Garros champion cannot be discounted from the discussion of French Open title contenders.
The possibility of tennis record books being rewritten is not only restricted to the men’s game. Like Djokovic, Maria Sharapova remains in the hunt to achieve her career Grand Slam, a French Open title the only major missing from a set that includes Wimbledon 2004, US Open 2006 and Australian Open 2008.
Sharapova continues to improve her resume on dirt. Clay is widely regarded as her worst surface, yet the Russian has twice reached the semifinals in Paris and the quarterfinals three other times. As the defending champion in Rome and having recently won the Stuttgart title – a draw which featured the world’s top eight women – it’s becoming harder to justify criticism of Sharapova’s claycourt game.
That is, unless she faces Serena Williams. The world No.2 looked completely at sea as Williams out-served, out-hit and out-ran her in Madrid, eliminating Sharapova 6-1 6-3 in the quarterfinals. Williams then followed this up with a similar destruction of new world No.1 Victoria Azarenka, the highly-anticipated Madrid final showdown between past and present No.1’s falling flat as Serena smacked 14 aces and 26 winners to six, winning by the same scoreline in just over an hour.
Williams and Federer are both veterans of the game, and at 30 years of age, have proven to be as competitive as ever. Williams, perhaps even more so than the Swiss, is nearly impossible to counter on the tennis court when she feels she has such a point to prove. That point in Madrid was showing the tennis world that the official No.1 and 2 players – Azarenka and Sharapova – are simply no match for a fully fit and motivated Serena, the “people’s” No.1. Her exemplary results on clay in 2012 have also shown she’s as comfortable on the dirt as anywhere else, despite not having won a European claycourt event since the French Open exactly a decade ago.
“It's a big myth (that I don’t like clay) because I actually love the clay, I grew up on clay (in South Florida) … My results haven't been stellar, but I have won the French Open, the ultimate clay court tournament. Actually I like it more than the grass, which is weird,” she said following her Madrid victory.
Whatever the outcome of the next few weeks in Europe, rest assured the storylines will be as exciting as ever once the action begins at Roland Garros on 27 May.
With history to potentially be made in so many ways and with the game’s biggest names all firmly within the conversation when discussing title favourites, the stage is set for one of the most scintillating fortnights ever in Grand Slam tennis.
Andy Murray: Injury ruled him out of Madrid, and his claycourt results so far in 2012 have been middling. With semifinal points to defend in both Rome and Paris, the Scot is running out of time to find his feet on the European dirt.
David Ferrer: Although his effort can never be denied, world No.6 Ferrer continues to fall short against the Big Four. Pushing Nadal in the Barcelona final and Federer in the Madrid quarters should keep his confidence fairly high, possibly helping him into a position in Paris where he may finally be able to turn the tables.
Tomas Berdych: Two wins on clay in Davis Cup, a run to the semis in Monte Carlo and a finals appearance in Madrid show that the big Czech is returning to the claycourt form that saw him reach the last four at Roland Garros in 2009. His is a name that no-one will want to see next to theirs in the draw, and is one of the few players who can hit through the big guns on a good day.
Juan Martin Del Potro: Steadily improving throughout 2012, Delpo’s claycourt results have included a title in Estoril and a run to the semis in Madrid. Back in the top ten and a former French Open semifinalist, the Argentine will be increasingly confident he can cause some damage in Paris.
Victoria Azarenka: Her blazing start to the 2012 season appears to be fading, with Sharapova and Williams dishing her hefty defeats in the Stuttgart and Madrid finals respectively. Yet the confidence of a 26-0, four-title start to the season cannot simply evaporate overnight, and the Belarusian remains one of the strongest title contenders heading into Paris.
Agnieszka Radwanska: The Pole is undefeated against all WTA opposition in 2012, yet has lost all six of her encounters with Azarenka this year. Although she’s won two big titles (Dubai and Miami) and is ranked at a career-high mark of No.3, Radwanska is most comfortable on hardcourts and may lack the firepower and strength to make an impact on clay.
Sam Stosur: It’s been an impressive but not outstanding claycourt season for the Australian, compiling a 10-3 winning record on dirt this year and her best result being a semifinal in Charleston. A semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2009 and a finalist the following year, history shows that if Stosur’s claycourt game clicks, she’s hard to stop.
Caroline Wozniacki: The Dane is becoming increasingly irrelevant in title favouritism discussions these days, having slipped from No.1 to No.8 in the space of just five months. But with the focus on other players and the pressure of justifying her ranking well-and-truly gone, this is when Wozniacki could swoop in and surprise us all.
Li Na: Enjoying a solid yet not scintillating season so far, the Chinese has reached the quarters in both Stuttgart and Madrid. Yet with almost half her ranking points coming from her French Open victory last year, the pressure will be on when she arrives at Roland Garros.
Francesca Schiavone: A Roland Garros winner in 2010 and finalist in 2011, Schiavone has struggled to replicate that stellar form in 2012, her meagre claycourt record of 2-5 this year also including a disappointing first round exit in her home tournament at the Rome Masters. Can she rediscover the magic in Paris?