As the tennis world arrives in Paris for the second grand slam tournament of the season, here are four talking points dominating the build-up
Nadal bids for 11th crown, Sharapova times it right: French Open talking points
Nadal’s bid for more history
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are in agreement: beating Rafael Nadal on a clay court is the biggest challenge in tennis. It wouldn’t be amiss to take it further and suggest it might well be the toughest task in all of sport, particularly when it comes to the best-of-five sets format of the French Open.
Nadal’s stats in Paris are simply ridiculous. A 79-2 win-loss record has resulted in an unprecedented 10 titles won at the same grand slam tournament.
The lead-up events to Roland Garros – Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome – are where we gauge if Nadal will once again be an all-conquering force in the French capital. Based on the evidence of the past six weeks, it’s resounding. The Spanish world No 1 claimed three of the four titles on offer, winning two of them without dropping a set.
There shouldn’t be too much read into the blip in Madrid, where a strangely subdued Nadal lost to Austrian Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals. In fact, it might work out to be a blessing, allowing Nadal the opportunity to analyse what went wrong and formulate a more effective gameplan should the pair meet in the French Open final.
It may feel a little predictable to plump for Nadal, 31, to sweep all before him in Paris, but the fact remains he is on a different level to the rest of the field.
Zverev to make a move
Alexander Zverev has deservedly placed himself as the leading light of tennis’ next generation. The 21-year-old German is the only active player outside the “Big Four” of Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to win at least three Masters 1000 titles.
His form in Madrid was stunning: Zverev did not drop a set, a service game, or even face break point en route to winning the title. The following week, he had Nadal on the ropes in the Rome final, leading 3-1 in the final set before the Spaniard rallied.
As the second seed, and given his red-hot form, Zverev is second only to Nadal as the pre-tournament favourite to win the French Open.
However, the German’s form at the four grand slams has been underwhelming so far. In 11 appearances, his record reads: one fourth round, four third rounds and three second and first round exits. Zverev is yet to beat a player ranked inside the top 50 in that run.
It’s a poor return for a player of such pedigree, but expect all of that to change very soon, starting at Roland Garros. He is simply too good for that record to be extended any longer.
Sharapova’s time to shine?
This past year has not exactly gone to plan for Maria Sharapova since her return from a 15-month doping suspension. A persistent arm injury meant the Russian struggled to build any momentum and four successive defeats this season saw her slip out of the top 50.
However, Sharapova, 31, looks to have struck form at the ideal time. A march to the Madrid quarter-finals, where she lost to eventual finalist Kiki Bertens, was followed by a semi-final appearance in Rome before going down to world No 1 Simona Halep.
A two-time French Open champion, Sharapova has plenty of pedigree in Paris and will fancy her chances of making a deep run, particularly if she gets past sixth seed Karolina Pliskova, who she could meet in the third round.
Going all the way and winning a third title might be a stretch at this point – there are still many higher-ranked, better equipped players – but given Sharapova’s indomitability and her timely run of good form, she deserves to be in the discussion.
Third time lucky for Halep?
The world No 1 and a two-time finalist, unsurprisingly there is plenty of focus on Halep in the build-up to the French Open.
The Romanian has come so close to winning her first grand slam title in Paris, none more so than last year when she led Jelena Ostapenko by a set and 3-0 before the Latvian kicked into gear and blasted Halep off the court. In 2014, Halep was edged out by Sharapova in a three-hour epic, while her other grand slam final appearance, at the Australian Open in January, also saw Halep fall agonisingly short.
Could this finally be her year? Halep enters the French Open in good form having reached the Rome final last time out, although her drubbing at the hands of Elina Svitolina was far from ideal.
Halep’s draw should not pose any problems in the early rounds so she should have the opportunity to build some momentum. However, it’s at the business end of major tournaments where she has been unable to convert and potential quarter-final opponents include world No 7 Caroline Garcia, the in-form Bertens and world No 12 Angelique Kerber.
Get through that and into the last four, and Halep has as good a chance as any to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.