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Although it’s been less than eight months since Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek hoisted trophies at Roland Garros, the tours are already back in Paris for the 2021 French Open. After the 2020 event was held in the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s tournament was postponed by one week to accommodate local health protocols but returns to its traditional spring setting — with all the sunshine and optimism that follows.

So what are the biggest storylines to keep an eye on at the year’s second major after Thursday’s draw? Which players do you need to watch? (Spoiler alert: One rhymes with Nafael Radal.) Will any of the 2020 Cinderellas be able to replicate their success? With play beginning Sunday, let’s dive in.

The King of Clay or the GOAT?

They don’t call Rafael Nadal the King of Clay for no reason. AP Photo/Michel Euler, File

What is there left to say about Nadal — the King of Clay — at the French Open? He has won a record-setting 13 titles at Roland Garros and has been nearly unbeatable at the event.

Heck, just ask world No. 1 Novak Djokovic what it’s like to play Nadal on the Parisian clay. In the 2020 final, Nadal needed just two hours and 41 minutes to defeat Djokovic, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. So we could waste our time wondering when Nadal’s dominance on the surface will end, but since that was merely months ago, against one of the best tennis players of all time, it seems clear, it’s not now.

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Sure, Nadal didn’t win every event he played leading into the French Open and did have some notable struggles, but he did take home the title at the Italian Open, beating Djokovic again in the final, as well as the Barcelona Open. After his win in Rome, he said he played a “good tournament” and was finding his rhythm on the surface.

And if he does earn his 14th title at Roland Garros, it would of course give him his 21st major trophy overall and move him past Roger Federer for the most ever. For some, that would be enough to end the long-debated GOAT conversation.

“Considering that [Nadal] is five years younger than Federer, what he has done is exceptional,” 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 with 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 walked off the court after a loss in the semifinals at the Australian Open, there was speculation that her time in the sport was nearing its close. However, the 23-time major champion isn’t quite ready to hang up her racket just yet and still has fans wondering whether this will be the event in which 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 court at the Italian Open following a nearly three-month break from competition. But her comeback didn’t exactly go as planned. Playing in her 1,000th career match, she lost to Nadia Podoroska in her Rome opener in straight sets. Looking for more time on court, she then opted to play the Emilia-Romagna Open but lost in the second round to Katerina Siniakova.

Although Williams didn’t look like a three-time French Open winner in her tuneup matches, her longtime coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, isn’t concerned.

“I think it’s always interesting to play matches because it gives you a clear vision of where you are, so that was good in that way because we know what she still needs to accomplish in order to be ready for Roland Garros,” he told Sky Sports. “I’m not worried in general because if she does the job, she will be ready. It’s just about doing the job.

“To be completely honest with you, when I saw her before the Australian Open for preparation, I thought, ‘Wow, a lot of work to get ready.’ But in a short period of time, she was able to really hit great form.”

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

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

Serena Williams is still aiming to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam wins. MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

One and not done?

It’s been a strong 2021 for Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 French Open champion. After opting out of the 2020 season following the restart, the world No. 1 opened the new year with a title at the Yarra Valley Classic, then made a quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

She hadn’t played a match outside of Australia in over a year when she took the court at the Miami Open in March and was nearly knocked out in the first round — but she staved off match point, then battled all the way to the tournament’s title.

Since then, she won the singles and doubles title in Stuttgart and made a final appearance in Madrid (losing to red-hot Aryna Sabalenka). Barty had to retire during her quarterfinal match in Rome — despite being up a set over Coco Gauff — due to pain in her right arm, though it seemed to be out of an abundance of caution with a major nearing.

Currently 2,714 points ahead of No. 2 Naomi Osaka, Barty needs to defend 2,000 points as the 2019 champion. (Swiatek, the reigning champion, will not be in the same position — her points will remain through October due to the rescheduling of the 2020 event). Since Osaka lost in the third round of the 2019 tournament, she could have an opportunity to overtake Barty for the top spot with a substantial run at the event and an early exit by Barty. It could make for a dramatic fortnight for fans of either player.

The roar of the small-but-increasing crowd

More fans will be in attendance than the 1,000 per day permitted in 2020, but it’s not going to be like the recent scenes at other sporting events and certainly nothing like the mobs of fans surrounding Phil Mickelson as he walked to the 18th green at the PGA Championship last week. For the first 10 days, 5,388 spectators will be allowed onto the grounds daily but no fans will be allowed at the night sessions to comply with the government-mandated curfew.

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Starting June 9, some restrictions will be lifted and 13,146 fans will be allowed per day — with a 5,000-person maximum for each of the two biggest show courts. As the curfew is then extended to 11 p.m., the last remaining night session will allow a crowd of 5,000.

Only spectators who have produced a negative test or are fully vaccinated will be allowed on the grounds.

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

Roger returns

Federer is slated to play in his first Slam since the 2020 Australian Open after multiple surgeries on his right knee. The 39-year-old has played just two tournaments since coming back, recording a 1-2 record, and lost his only match on clay, at the Geneva Open.

So, even the most die-hard Federer fans should probably temper their expectations.

The 20-time major champion has won just once in five finals at Roland Garros, in 2009, and isn’t known for his clay-court prowess. In fact, he has played at the event only once in the past five years and has skipped it several times to prepare for the grass-court season.

Roger Federer has struggled in his return from multiple knee surgeries, including a loss in Geneva to Pablo Andujar this month. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

But despite his limited match play coming into the event and his 40th birthday nearing, he still has lofty goals.

“I want to win more,” he said in a recent interview with GQ. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone through the whole [last] year of surgeries and the process of doing five weeks on crutches and rehab. I truly believe I can do it again.”

Who’s going to doubt him?

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

Dudes outside the Big Three

Even new tennis fans understand why Nadal, Djokovic and Federer receive most of the attention on the men’s side. The trio have combined to win 58 of the past 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 proved at Roland Garros in 2015, they don’t always win. And as all three are in the same half of the draw, there is certainly a possibility for one of the younger players to pull off an upset and hoist the trophy.

Could it be Dominic Thiem, the reigning US Open champion? He’s a two-time Roland Garros finalist and loves the clay. The No. 4 seed has struggled after his breakthrough title in New York and has been open about the weight of the newfound expectations but did make a semifinal run in Madrid.

Stefanos Tsitsipas has capitalized on nearly every chance to play on clay leading into the event and has participated in five tournaments, winning the title in Monte Carlo and Lyon and appearing in the final in Barcelona. The No. 5 seed has won a tour-leading 33 matches this season, 16 of which have come on clay, and he is riding serious momentum.

Alexander Zverev, the tournament’s No. 6 seed, won the title in Madrid — upsetting Nadal and Thiem en route to the final. He reached his first major final in 2020 at the US Open and might just be poised to take another monumental step forward in his career.

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

If the glass slipper fits

The 2020 French Open was filled with the unexpected. From the rain and cold temperatures of the rescheduled autumn dates to the absence of several stars, the event was unlike any other. But it was the surprise runs of several under-the-radar and largely unseeded players that really made the fortnight memorable.

Semifinalist Nadia Podoroska, quarterfinalist Martina Trevisan and fourth-rounder Sebastian Korda all stormed through qualifying for the best major appearances of their careers. Elina Svitolina even remarked that she knew “nothing” about Podoroska before the two met in the quarters. But she sure knew a few things by the end of their 6-2, 6-4 match.

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

And of course, then-No. 54-ranked Iga Swiatek had the ultimate Cinderella run as she absolutely dominated the field, winning her first major title without dropping a set. She enters Roland Garros coming off a title at the Italian Open and having just cracked the top 10 so it’s safe to say no one will be underestimating her this year.

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

And while we’re talking about Cinderellas…

Coco-mania is back!

Coco Gauff had one of the most unexpected and storied runs at Wimbledon in 2019. As a 15-year-old, she advanced all the way to the fourth round and won over fans around the world with her gutsy play and joyful spirit. After a third-round run at the US Open soon after and a round-of-16 appearance at the 2020 Australian Open, the expectations were sky-high, but Gauff has struggled somewhat since tennis’ restart in August 2020.

However, the now-17-year-old looks to have found her rhythm on clay, having recorded impressive wins over world No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 18 Maria Sakkari in Rome and having won the singles title in Parma — and then taking home the doubles trophy the same day with longtime partner Caty McNally.

Coco Gauff has found her rhythm on clay recently. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Gauff is now ranked a career-high No. 25 and is seeded for the first time at a major, the youngest seeded player at the event since Nicole Vaidisova in 2006. She’ll face a qualifier in her opener, and would then take on the winner of the Hsieh Su-wei vs. Qiang Wang match before potentially playing Australian Open finalist Jen Brady in the third round. It won’t be easy, but an older and wiser Gauff believes she has come a long way since her breakout performance at the All England Club.

“I definitely feel I’m more confident on the court in my shots and my decisions,” she said after her win over Sabalenka. “I think it just comes with experience, to be honest. When you make a bunch of mistakes, you know what to do, [and] what not to do.

“When you’re still learning like me, sometimes you feel you’re not confident in the decision you make. I think now I’m trying to be more confident in the decisions I make and accept the mistakes that I make, too.”

Gauff and the #McCoco doubles team (with the pair having made two major quarterfinal appearances together) are always must-see tennis during Slams, but this very well might be the major in which a surging Gauff is a legitimate factor during the second week in one or both draws.

And history just might be on her side. Then-17-year-old Vaidisova made it all the way to the semifinals during her 2006 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 in Melbourne during the 2021 edition of the tournament, then lost to an unranked qualifier the next week at the Phillip Island Trophy. Two days later, she underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis.

She has failed to advance past the second round at a tournament since and even fired her longtime coach — aka her father, Alex — ahead of the Italian Open. So, yeah, the 22-year-old American has had a rough go.

“I think for now I just need some time for myself, figure things, grow as a person and then, we’ll just see what’s gonna happen down the road,” she told the media after she announced her coaching change.

She didn’t win a match on clay in any of the three pre-French Open tournaments she played in singles or doubles and will have her hands full in her first-round match against 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko. Still, having taken control of her own career, she will be looking to prove her 2020 season wasn’t a fluke. Will she be successful?

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

The feel-good story you’ve been waiting for

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

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

“I have worked a lot in recent months to give myself this opportunity to play one last time in Paris,” she said in a statement on the Spanish federation’s website. “I hope I can feel this special feeling on the court that I always have known during this tournament.”

Suarez Navarro is a two-time quarterfinalist at the tournament and a favorite among fans and her peers, and there might be no one with more support at the French Open this year. She faces former finalist and 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round.

Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, shown in 2015, is cancer-free and will return to competition for the first time since February 2020. Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Can’t-miss first-round matches

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

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


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