2015 French Open Preview: Deja vu or Breakthrough?

Once again the French Open draw provided tennis watchers with a clear favorite on the men’s side and a plethora of potential winners for the women. Yet, for the first time in a decade, Rafael Nadal is not the man most everyone is picking to hold the trophy again.

Nadal’s struggles during the European clay court swing this season have been fascinating and hard to watch depending on one’s own personal feelings about the nine-time Roland Garros winner. The Spaniard has looked like his old self and then out of sorts, often in the same match. Observers have tried to figure out the reason for Nadal’s malaise. Is it nerves? Is it his body finally giving out? Or both? Nadal’s performances on court at times feel like an watching an electric power line lying on the road after being ripped out during a storm. Sparks fly, and it still can pack a powerful jolt through it’s frayed wires, but for how long?

Seeded this year in Paris at No. 6, Nadal finds himself, perhaps ironically and in some ways appropriately, currently scheduled if all goes to plan to meet in the quarterfinals the man expected to win the title – World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has lost only two matches this year and is fresh off winning his fourth title in Rome. Djokovic again looks unbeatable and could well be. Yet the title in Paris has eluded the 28-year-old Djokovic and it’s clearly one he wants.

Djokovic has been in seemingly impervious form before entering Paris only to find himself exiting one step short of the final stage. Even if Djokovic answers the ultimate question of “Can you beat Rafael Nadal in best out of five sets in Paris?” his work will not be done. Andy Murray could await in the semifinals. Murray who remains unbeaten on clay including his somewhat easier than expected win over Nadal in the Madrid final, is perhaps the most dangerous man in the draw simply because he has nothing to lose or prove unlike Djokovic or Nadal.

The other side of the draw may produce a familiar face or a new one in the final. Roger Federer struggled early on the clay in Istanbul but still won that title, lost early in Madrid, and then improved in Rome before being swept aside by Djokovic in that final. Though Federer certainly got a kinder draw than Djokovic, Nadal, or Murray, it doesn’t make him a certain for the final.

No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych is also here. Though the Czech is enjoying one of his best seasons ever, doubt continues if he can take the next step and reach another major final. Something that can also be said of Kei Nishikori. After reaching the U.S. Open final last summer, Japan’s No. 1 has not yet truly proven himself to be perhaps a permanent member of the coveted “Big Four”. Perhaps this is his opportunity.

On the women’s side, World No. 1 Serena Williams is again the favorite for many. Only perhaps because it’s so easy to pick her to win. Even when Williams plays at 50% of her level, she still can basically beat anyone, anywhere.

Yet Williams herself has not looked her best in Europe. She admitted early on she wasn’t as prepared for clay as she wanted. Then a right elbow injury forced her to withdraw from Rome. Williams says she’s getting better, but like Nadal, the draw handed her won’t be easy.

Williams could face Victoria Azarenka who almost, and really should have, beat Williams in Madrid. Azarenka continues her comeback from injury last year and continues to show signs of her former self and also that her game still needs time to gel together. Serena then might face older sister Venus Williams or Sloane Stephens, whoever wins that first round encounter. Serena certainly could will herself to a third trophy in Paris, but her record 20th Grand Slam singles title feels more likely to happen another time.

Petra Kvitova, who won Madrid, is definitely a 50/50 prospect. While she has the game to beat anyone, including Serena who she defeated for the first time in Madrid, can she really put it all together on clay for two weeks? One thing is for sure, Kvitova is looking fitter than ever and that certainly helps her.

Maria Sharapova, last year’s winner, could face Simona Halep, last year’s finalist, in what could be another blockbuster encounter. In fact it’s likely the winner of that semi will be the new champion given how clay suits and enhances both of their games. Sharapova may not have history on her side though as no womaan has defended their French Open title since Justine Henin in 2007.

Plenty of darkhorses exist on the women’s side as well. Svetlana Kuznetsova, a former champion, was given a gift of an early draw, if she can handle it. Angelique Kerber, who won two titles, certainly is a threat if she can stay healthy. Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro is having her best season and could go deep (it also helps she is very far away from Serena in the draw). And Sam Stosur, who may not win the title, but again is playing some good ball just in time on the clay, could knock out a favorite seed early.

With everything happening in Paris, the focus remains mostly on Djokovic and Nadal and an impending match that has the potential to be a pivotal one for both in their careers. Each may end up feeling a sense of deja vu. Nadal may yet surprise and somehow end up being the last man standing in Paris once again. Djokovic, despite entering as the man to beat, could come up short when least expected. Yet unlike 2011, Djokovic appears better prepared and finally ready to have his breakthrough and take that long awaited next step into the winner’s circle.

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