Can Rafa and Serena win again in Paris? Talking points ahead of the French Open

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Can anyone stop Rafael Nadal at the French Open. And how about Serena Williams being unseeded?

There is plenty to talk about before the second Grand Slam of 2018.

Nadal is bidding for his 11th title in Paris and the world number one will be hard to stop on his favourite red clay.

The women’s looks tougher to call with Elina Svitolina a strong contender after her victory in Rome last Sunday.

But could Williams stage a challenge in her first major for 16 months?

Unseeded Serena

After attending the British royal wedding, Serena Williams is heading across the English Channel to Roland Garros.

This will be her first major since winning her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in January 2017.

Williams gave birth to her first child last September.

WTA rules allow her to use a ‘protected’ ranking, meaning she will take her place in the main draw despite being ranked 453 in the world.

She was number one when she started her maternity leave.

But the three-time champion will not be seeded in Paris with French Open organisers opting to stick with current rankings.

The WTA is reportedly considering changing the rules to extend ranking protection to seedings, but this would happen next year at the earliest.

Too late for Williams who was beaten in the final by Garbine Muguruza on her last appearance in 2016.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04: Garbine Muguruza of Spain shakes hands Serena Williams of the United States following her victory during the Ladies Singles final match on day fourteen of the 2016 French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Williams was drawn against Kristyna Pliskova with Australia’s 17th seed Ashleigh Barty a potential round two adversary.

Julia Goerges, seeded 11, is her most likely third round opponent with Pliskova’s twin sister, sixth seed Karolina, or possibly Maria Sharapova awaiting in round four.

The American has not played competitively since Miami in March where she fell at the first hurdle to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in straight sets.

She has certainly been active off court, but the state of her game is very much unknown.

Williams will also play doubles with sister Venus, the pair teaming up at a Slam for the first time since their 2016 Wimbledon triumph.

Rafa to reign again?

Rafael Nadal confirmed his status as ‘King of Clay’ with his 10th title at Roland Garros last year.

The Spaniard won his 50th consecutive set on clay in Madrid this month, breaking John McEnroe’s record of 49 on carpet in 1984, before going down to Dominic Thiem in straight sets in the quarter-finals.

He then bounced back to triumph in the Rome Masters, losing two sets in the process.

Nadal was similarly dominant last year and won the French Open without dropping a set.

With Roger Federer again absent and Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic on the comeback trail, there are seemingly few challengers to Nadal’s throne.

Thiem and Madrid victor Alexander Zverev would appear to be his biggest rivals, but few would bet against Nadal completing ‘The Undecima’.

Elina’s history bid

Ukraine’s only Grand Slam success came in 2008 when sisters Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko took the Australian Open doubles.

Now Elina Svitolina is hoping to break the nation’s singles duck.

The 23-year-old made the world sit up and take notice when she knocked Serena Williams out of the first round at Rio 2016.

And she could not have had a better preparation, brushing aside world number one Simona Halep 6-0, 6-4 to retain her Rome title.

Svitolina Rome

Svitolina will be keen not to dwell too much on Roland Garros 2017.

She was a set and 5-1 up on Halep in the quarter-finals, but the Romanian fought back to take a second-set tiebreak before racing through the decider 6-0.

The nature of that defeat and her failure thus far to reach the semi-finals of a Slam has led some to question her ability to go the distance.

Time for Zverev?

Like Svitolina, Alexander Zverev is seeking to improve on previous disappointment in Slams.

The 20-year-old German claimed his third career Masters title earlier this month in Madrid, beating Dominic Thiem in the final.

Zverev Madrid

Puzzlingly, Zverev has yet to go beyond the fourth round of a major.

Alarmingly, he has lost all seven encounters against top-50 opposition in Slams.

After his third-round exit to Hyeon Chung in January’s the Australian Open, Zverev was asked whether his issue with five-set matches was mental or physical.

“Definitely not physical. I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slam. It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here.”

That said, he goes into Roland Garros brimming with confidence.

In Rome last week, he led Rafa Nadal 3-1 in the deciding set before a rain delay killed his momentum and the Spaniard roared back to clinch victory.

On current form, he is one of fewer than a handful of threats to Nadal’s dominance in Paris.

Is Novak back?

Novak Djokovic looks to have finally turned the corner.

After injury and a torrid start to 2018, the 12-time Grand Slam winner beat Kei Nishikori to reach the semi-finals in Rome.

He went down 7-6, 6-3 to old rival Rafa Nadal, but showed plenty to suggest he might be a force at the French.

Djokovic Nadal Rome

Djokovic said afterwards: “I don’t think that there was too much of a difference between me and Rafa, which is great for me. I can only take positives from this week.”

“I’d never faced this kind of situation before, I thought it wouldn’t take long to get back to winning ways. Looking back two or three months, this is the best I’ve felt on court, by far.”

Just two years ago, Court Philippe Chatrier played host to Djokovic’s greatest triumph.

The Serb beat Andy Murray to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time.

Seeded 20, Djokovic will be hoping his trademark durability earns him an extended run.

Maria making progress

Recent weeks have seen Maria Sharapova show signs of returning to form.

Four consecutive defeats saw the Russian drop out of the top 50 in April.

Sharapova then ditched Sven Groeneveld for former coach Thomas Hogstedt, and results have improved markedly.

Sharapova Hogstedt

A run to the quarter-finals in Madrid was followed by a semi-final appearance in Rome.

She went out 6-4 in the third to Simona Halep, having come through a three-hour epic against defending French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Her resurgence has come at the right time with Sharapova now seeded 28th for Roland Garros.

The five-time Grand Slam winner remains the grittiest of competitors, and is not an opponent to take lightly.

Ostapenko and Wawrinka return

Jelena Ostapenko stunned the world to claim her first career title at Roland Garros 12 months ago.

The Latvian beat Simona Halep to become the first unseeded French Open women’s champion since 1933.

Ostapenko Paris

Seeded five this time, the Latvian reached this year’s Miami Open final but went down to US Open champion Sloane Stephens.

Ostapenko has shown patchy form on clay so far this season, going out to Maria Sharapova in the Rome quarter-finals.

And she faces a stiff test as early as round two against either former world number one Victoria Azarenka or Katerina Siniakova.

Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova spearhead a strong Czech challenge in the women’s.

While the pair are more suited to faster surfaces, both have titles on clay this season.

Pliskova won in Stuttgart in April before falling to her compatriot in the Madrid semi-finals two weeks later.

Kvitova Pliskova

Kvitova then beat Kiki Bertens to claim her second consecutive title after victory in Prague.

In the men’s, Dominic Thiem is hoping to reach his first French Open final after semi-final defeats in 2016 and 2017.

The Austrian ended Rafa Nadal’s unbeaten run in Madrid before going down in the final to Alexander Zverev.

Thiem Madrid

But his preparations were dealt a blow with a surprise defeat to Fabio Fognini in the last 32 of the Rome Masters.

While most of his main rivals have taken this week off, Thiem is playing in Lyon to get some more match practice in close to Roland Garros.

2015 champion Stan Wawrinka will do well to make the second week following his recent return to action.

After taking three months out to recover from knee surgery, last year’s runner-up fell at the first hurdle in Rome to Steve Johnson.

Wawrinka Rome

The Swiss then beat Jared Donaldson in Geneva before a crushing 6-4, 6-0 defeat to Marton Fucsovics on Thursday.

If Wawrinka makes it past the first three rounds, he is likely to face second seed Alexander Zverev.

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Author: ZK Goh
Olympic Channel news producer/reporter. All-round sports nerd.