As many of the top tennis players in the world made their way to Australia for the year’s first major, there were many questions. Both men’s and women’s fields were wide open and the list of potential champions was a long one.Things have certainly changed on the eve of the year’s second major.When the French Open kicks off its two-week run Sunday on the red clay at Roland Garros in Paris, two players have separated themselves from the rest.Rafael Nadal, sidelined for seven months with a knee injury, didn’t even make the trip to Australia, and there were whispers that his career might be over. Serena Williams, her greatness already defined by 15 major championships, faced questions as well. At 31, fitness, focus and health concerns always seemed to cloud the discussion.Perceptions have changed. Nadal and Williams have answered almost every question lobbed their way. Nadal’s knee seems better than ever. His game, too. Serena is playing like a woman who has history in a headlock and isn’t letting go until she wrests the words “greatest woman to ever play the game” out of it.But the French Open is a two-week test of endurance and strategy like none of the other majors. The clay is the great equalizer, turning less heralded players into giant killers. Nadal and Williams appear to be giants.What to do?The opposition for Serena and Rafa are some of the best tennis players in the world. Losing doesn’t come easily. You have to develop a game plan to beat these seemingly invincible players. ESPN commentators Chris Evert and Cliff Drysdale took time during a conference call this week to do a little coaching.Riding high Rafael Nadal: The 26-year-old Spaniard, who turns 27 on Monday, has been almost unbeatable, especially on the surface where he is called the “King of Clay,” having won seven of the last eight titles at Roland Garros for a 52-1 record. He’s again proving that despite the seven-month layoff, he remains one of the greatest players in history on clay. He proved it again last Sunday with a 6-1, 6-3 rout of 17-time major champion Roger Federer to win his seventh Italian Open. Since returning in February, Nadal has made the finals in all eight of the tournaments he’s played, winning six. He is ranked No. 4 and is 36-2 this year, including 31 victories on clay and 10 victories in 12 days in Madrid and Rome. He has defeated No. 2 Federer twice, No. 5 David Ferrer three times, Tomas Berdych twice and Juan Martin Del Potro. Only No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who could meet Nadal in the French semifinals, has defeated him (in the finals in Monte Carlo) since his loss in the finals to Horacio Zeballo of Argentina in his first tournament of the year in Chile.How to beat RafaChris Evert said many of the same things hold true for beating Nadal, who likes playing deep behind the court.1 Bring him in. Evert: “I’ve seen him eight feet behind the baseline. I have seen players drop-shot him. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like running up. You’ve got to take them out of their power game.”2 Use angles, slice it: Evert: “Again the idea is to bring him in off the baseline. I think you have to bring them in, hit shorter. I think Roger Federer’s backhand, I could be wrong on that, but I think on the clay he has a good slice. He can hit that high backhand slice at short angles. He has that drop shot.”3 Have a big serve. Keep him as far behind the baseline as possible and win a few free points here and there. Evert: “I think you have to have a big first serve.”4 Take advantage of his weakness. What weakness? Drysdale sees one. Nadal hits with a lot of top spin, which causes the ball to sometimes land short in the court. “By definition with his strokes, they’ve go so much topspin on them, they’ll jump. But by definition, they end up short. In 2011 the way that Djokovic took him down was by standing on the baseline waiting for the short ball and then making Rafa run every which way from east to west on his side of the court. That is still the formula for beating him.”5 Be in great shape. Drysdale: “Stalk the baseline, wait for the short ball, then bang it. The problem is you have to do it for five sets, four hours, and be in great shape.”On a mission Serena Williams: The 15-time Grand Slam singles champion has been just as dominant this season. She’s 32-2, and even more impressive, she’s unbeaten on clay, her weakest surface. She hasn’t lost since the finals in Doha in February. She’s a former French Open champion, but that victory came in 2002. She’s playing like it’s time to add a second Suzanne Lenglen Trophy to her collection. She is three majors behind Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and seven back of Steffi Graf’s record 22. During her 22-match winning streak, Serena has beaten her toughest competition — defending French Open champion and No. 2-ranked Maria Sharapova (twice), No. 3 Victoria Azarenka, No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 5 Sara Errani and No. 6 Li Na. Serena has lost only four sets during her run. In Rome last week, she not only won all five matches in straight sets but lost only 14 games, never more than three in a set.How to beat Serena“When I’m commentating, I’m screaming. I’m like under my breath, ‘Drop shot, hit a short angle, come in, show her something different,’” said Evert, who won seven French Open singles titles. “You can’t be banging balls from the baseline with her. You’re not going to win.”1 Bring her in. Drop shots. Get her off the baseline.2 Use sharp angles. Make her move. Make her uncomfortable. Drysdale: “Take comfort in the fact this is her least effective surface, do whatever you can.”3 Take advantage of her weakness. Evert: “She’s got a good volley; she doesn’t have a great volley, but she has a great everything else. Expose her weaknesses a little more.”4 Do something different. Be creative. Change things up. Evert: “I don’t think Maria Sharapova has that in her repertoire. I think Vika [Victoria Azarenka] does. I think Li Na does. You’ve really got to try to use the right shot against her.”5 Hope that she’s off her game. Only Serena can beat Serena. Catch her early in the tournament if possible. Drysdale: “There’s always the hope for someone playing against her.… It’s not a foregone conclusion. You wouldn’t bet against her, but there’s two sides to the mental equation.”
Roland Garros, Paris
Sunday through June 9
TV coverage: ESPN2 (weekdays), Tennis Channel (daily), KXAS/Ch.5 (weekends, Monday, semifinals, finals). Online: ESPN3.
Today’s TV: ESPN2, 4 a.m.-9 a.m.; Tennis Channel, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; KXAS/5, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.