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French Open preview: Rafael Nadal seeks to extend clay legacy; Olympic spots up for grabs in Paris

Roland-Garros is set for 30 May to 13 June in the French capital and also marks the final event before the rankings lists are released for the Tokyo 2020 tennis event.
By Nick McCarvel

From Rafael Nadal looking to win an unprecedented 14th French Open title to the rank-and-file tennis pros attempting to book their tickets for Tokyo 2020, there is plenty on the line for each player at the sport’s clay major, set to start on Sunday (30 May).

On the eve of his 35th birthday, Nadal continues to be the favourite at Roland-Garros, having won warm-up events in Barcelona and Rome in recent weeks, the latter where he took out world No.1 and rival Novak Djokovic in their 57th career meeting.

They’ll be joined by familiar names like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Osaka Naomi and two women who won their most recent outings at the French Open: Defending champion Iga Swiatek and 2019 winner Ashleigh Barty, who skipped last year’s event.

While Nadal is the clear “man to beat,” Barty has had arguably the best clay season on the women’s side, with Swiatek and Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka in that conversation, too.

With the tournament pushed back one week due to Covid-19 regulations in France, the 30 May-13 June staging will be the final chance for players to earn ranking points for the 14 June cutoff set by the International Tennis Federation for the Olympics in Tokyo.

Pending national association approval, the official entry list for the Games will be released by the ITF in late June.

Here, seven things to watch for on the beautiful and beastly terre battue, which many consider the most physically demanding surface in all of tennis.

Nadal goes for an unprecedented 14th title

Can anyone stop Rafa? The Spaniard owns a record-equalling 20 major titles (along with Federer), and could move into sole possession of the No.1 spot in that race for the first time in his career with a 14th win in the City of Light.

A two-time Olympic gold medallist, Nadal hasn’t been perfect in the 2021 clay season, but he’s showed in years prior he doesn’t need to be. He captured wins in Barcelona (saving match points in the final vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas) and Rome, where he beat Djokovic over three sets. Nadal had also triumphed against the Serbian in last year’s French Open final.

His CV at RG is astounding: 13 titles (the most of any player at a major); a 100-2 match record (losses only in 2009 [Robin Soderling] and 2015 [Djokovic]); and in his 13 final wins he’s never been pushed to a deciding fifth set by his opponent.

Swiatek and Barty: Both defending champs?

Two of the most dynamic young talents in women’s tennis can come in feeling confident for the French Open, as Barty won her maiden major here in 2019 and Swiatek did the same 16 months later, an event the Australian opted out of due to travel concerns.

They’ve both backed up that success with strong clay seasons in 2021: Barty winning in Stuttgart and finishing as runner-up in Madrid (to Sabalenka), while Swiatek stormed to the Rome title, drubbing former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 in the final.

They’re both a delight to watch, offering a new brand of dynamic, all-court tennis that – when it’s on – is lethal and (for opponents) confounding. While Osaka, Serena and Sabalenka lead the power hitters of the tour, Swiatek and Barty play with spin, angles and craft... perfect for the clay.

Djokovic leads Rafa challengers

While Djokovic, the world No.1, won a record ninth Australian Open in February, beating Daniil Medvedev in the final, the Serbian superstar, a bronze medallist at Beijing 2008, has his work cut out for him on the dirt, where Nadal leads 19-7 in their head to head, including five in a row dating back to 2016.

“I think I have a good chance to go all the way in Paris,” Djokovic said after a loss this month to Nadal in Rome. “[There] doesn't get bigger of a challenge on clay than playing Rafa in finals.”

Who else to consider for the men’s title? It’s hard to say, with 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem – a strong bet on clay – still trying to find confidence after a brief personal break from tour earlier in the season, and Medvedev, the world No.2, still not comfortable on the surface.

Alexander Zverev won the title in Madrid, while Tsitsipas was three times a point from beating Nadal on clay. Tsitsipas could be a contender should he find himself in the latter part of the event; he beat Nadal at the Australian Open earlier this year. Another darkhorse to watch: Norway's Casper Ruud, who trains at Nadal's academy in Spain.

Osaka, Serena, Sabalenka: Who else to watch

And what about the women? Disappointingly, the 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep, always a danger on clay, is out with a calf injury, while former champions Serena Williams, Garbiñe Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko can both get hot.

Four-time Olympic gold medallist Serena, who played her 1,000th career match recently, is just 1-2 on the surface this year.

Osaka, like Serena, has also lost two of three matches on clay, and will need the help of warm conditions in Paris (never a given). The same could be said for big-hitting Sabalenka.

Also dangerous: 2020 AO winner Sofia Kenin, 2019 U.S. champ Bianca Andreescu, baseliner Elina Svitolina and Coco Gauff, the American teen who just made won her first career title on clay this month.

Olympics on the line: Rankings push

As mentioned above, the Monday after the French Open, 14 June, will be the date in which the ITF uses the ATP and WTA rankings for Olympic entries. Those official entries will not be announced until later in the month, however, as national associations and the ITF confirm each player in accordance with Olympic eligibility criteria.

The men’s and women’s singles draws for Tokyo 2020 are both 64 players, while the doubles draws are 32 teams each and the mixed doubles event – added at London 2012 – has 16 teams.

The maximum number of athletes per country is 12: Six men and six women – should they qualify – including four in each of the singles and two for doubles. Mixed doubles players are drawn from those two groups.

You can find more detail about the qualification process here.

Federer tempers expectations

No, we haven’t forgotten about Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam champ. He, however, has only played three matches in the last 16 months, and lost his lone lead-in on clay in Geneva to world No.75 Pablo Andujar pre-French Open.

The focus? Federer says it’s on Wimbledon and forward, with grass being his best surface. His only win in Paris came in 2009.

“Roland-Garros is not the goal. The goal is the grass, so I still have time,” an honest Federer said. “I think when you played so little and you know where your level is at... how can I think of winning the French Open?”

A busy summer of tennis

After professional tennis was off from March through to late July in 2020, the 2021 summer is as busy as they come:

  • French Open, Paris, 30 May—13 June
  • Wimbledon, London, 28 June—11 July
  • Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, tennis, 24 July—1 August
  • U.S. Open, New York, 30 Aug.—13 Sept.