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5 storylines to watch at the French Open

Defending champion Rafael Nadal of Spain may be trying to count the number of French Open titles at a training session in Paris. Nadal has won nine, but his run may be coming to an end. The French Open starts early Sunday.
Defending champion Rafael Nadal of Spain may be trying to count the number of French Open titles at a training session in Paris. Nadal has won nine, but his run may be coming to an end. The French Open starts early Sunday. AP

There are five questions that will be answered over the next two weeks at Roland Garros, site of the French Open, the year’s second major championship, which starts Sunday in Paris.

But this year, one question has been dominating the conversation. Can Rafael Nadal — the “King of Clay” — shake off an uncharacteristic funk to win his 10th career French Open title?

The question has been such a hot topic that it prompted Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian newspaper to write: “Nadal, some critics reckon, is about as steady on his throne as was Louis XVI more than 200 years ago. And only another victory will save him from the wrath of the mob, if you pay heed to those clicking their knitting needles in the shadows of the guillotine.”

Extreme? Sure, but we are talking about the King of Clay.

1. Is Rafa vulnerable? Nadal arrives in Paris having slipped to No. 7 in the rankings and having failed to win any of his five clay-court tuneup events. He is the No. 6 seed and could face top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, Andy Murray in the semifinals and Roger Federer in the finals. But before writing Nadal off, consider this: He’s won 66 of 67 matches at Roland Garros and he’s apparently healthy, a rare occurrence for a player who has had his share of maladies in past years. And to beat Nadal, a player will need to win three sets, never easy against the Spaniard, especially when he’s healthy.

“I think we’re all talking about a guy who has won the French Open nine times,” Chris Evert said. “The thing is, he doesn’t look as sharp going into it this year, no doubt about it. But ... you have to be stupid to count him out, especially if he starts to gain that confidence in the first week. He’s more vulnerable in two-out-of-three-set matches than he is in three-out-of-five-set matches. That’s his strength.”

But Patrick McEnroe says a Nadal loss could have a lasting impact on his career: “I think this could be a real crossroads tournament for Nadal. I don’t see him sticking around if he drops out of the top 10, if he loses relatively early, which is actually possible. … I think it would be a huge psychological blow to him. ... Obviously his heart and his commitment will be there. I think it’s his body. If his body and his mind start to break down, and I think they sort of go hand-in-hand, I think that would be his downfall.”

2. Can Djokovic finally break through? Seems odd to talk of breakthroughs when the subject is the top-ranked player in the world, one who has won 53 career titles, including his eighth career Grand Slam earlier this year in Australia. But the French Open is the one Grand Slam that has eluded him in 10 attempts. If the demise of Nadal is true, then this could be Djokovic’s best chance. Coincidentally, it took both Roger Federer and Andre Agassi 11 tries to win their first French Open title. Djokovic has reached the final two of the past three years and semifinals four other times. He has lost six times to Nadal at Roland Garros.

3. Can the “cow on ice” do it again? In 2007, Maria Sharapova described herself as feeling like “a cow on ice” after a second-round exit at Roland Garros. But things have changed. She is now the defending champion, and a repeat of last year’s run at Paris would give her a third French Open title in four years. And, she’s coming off a victory at the Italian Open in Rome last week. “She’s coming in on a high,” ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez said. “I think winning in Rome is going to give her a huge confidence boost, going back to the place where she won last year. A surface that was so tough for her in the beginning, she’s really become so much more comfortable. ... She’s becoming more of a complete player. It’s doing great things for her on the clay.”

4. Can Serena win her 20th Grand Slam title? Of Serena Williams’ 19 career Grand Slam singles titles, only two have come at Roland Garros (2002, 2013), but she’s ranked No. 1 and the drive to catch Steffi Graf (22 majors) could be just the motivation she needs. That motivation could come in handy in the early rounds. She has lost in the third round or earlier on four occasions at Roland Garros, including last year when she was upset by Spain’s Garbine Muguruza 6-2, 6-2 in the second round. If Serena makes it to the second week, her odds improve. If she finds herself opposite Sharapova in the finals, well ... Serena has won 16 consecutive matches against the Russian dating to 2005, including all four meetings on clay.

5. If not the favorites, then whom? On the men’s side, No. 2-ranked Roger Federer is a good place to start looking for a winner, considering the 17-time Grand Slam champion is the only player to win a French Open title other than Nadal in the past 10 years. No. 3 Andy Murray defeated Nadal in the final at Madrid and won the clay-court event in Munich. At 25, No. 5 Kei Nishikori is the youngest of the top contenders and won at Barcelona. Others who could threaten are No. 9 Stan Wawrinka, No. 4 Tomas Berdych, No. 8 David Ferrer and No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov. The women’s side is a bit more wide open after the two favorites, but 2014 finalist and third-ranked Simona Halep, former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic, and former finalist Sara Errani, as well as Petra Kvitova, Carla Suarez Navarro and Muguruza can’t be ruled out. And keep an eye on American Madison Keys.

Rusty Hall, 817-390-7816

Twitter: @RustyHall10s

French Open

Sunday through June 7, Roland Garros, Paris

TV: ESPN2, Tennis Channel and KXAS/5.

Note: Live early-round coverage starts daily at 4 a.m. on ESPN2 and 9 a.m. on Tennis Channel. NBC (KXAS/5 locally) picks up coverage at 11 a.m. on the weekends and will provide coverage during the semifinals and finals.

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