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French Open: Who can stop King of Clay Nadal, and what shape is Serena in?

French Open: Who can stop King of Clay Nadal, and what shape is Serena in?
The French Open gets underway on the hallowed clay of Roland-Garros on Sunday, and here we take a look at the most intriguing tennis talking points in Paris.

WILL KING OF CLAY NADAL REIGN AGAIN?  

Span’s Rafael Nadal is the undisputed all-time greatest on clay, having won an incredible 11 French Open titles out of his total of 17 Grand Slams.

Nadal, 32, has claimed the last two titles in Paris and will be favorite against this year, despite being seeded second behind world number one and great rival Novak Djokovic.

Nadal’s clay court season this year got off to an uncharacteristically shaky start as he suffered semi-final defeats in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid.

But he put that behind him with victory against Djokovic in the Italian Open final in Rome one week ago, meaning the raging Spanish bull goes into Roland-Garros with some sort of momentum.

Nadal gets his campaign underway against Germany qualifier Yannick Hanfmann on Monday, and is the heavy favorite to make it a record-extending 12 titles in Paris. 

CAN DJOKOVIC OR FEDERER THREATEN?   

The recent Italian Open final was merely the latest installment of Nadal’s epic history with Djokovic, and served as a small measure of revenge for the humiliation the Serb world number one handed his rival in the final of the Australian Open earlier this year.

READ MORE: 'Stop, he's already dead!': Internet reacts to 'superhuman' Djokovic's Aus Open destruction of Nadal

Djokovic is on a run of three Grand Slam wins heading to Paris, and is aiming to become the first man ever in the Open era to win four straight major titles on two separate occasions (first doing so in 2015-16).

But just one of the Serb’s 15 Grand Slam titles have come on the clay of Roland-Garros, back in 2016 when he beat Andy Murray in the final.

Djokovic lost to Nadal in the final in Paris in 2012, 2014, and also to Stan Wawrinka in 2015.

Nadal will be in his element in Paris, and while Djokovic won the Madrid Open earlier in May, it will surely take something special up Djoker's sleeve to finally dethrone the King of Clay. 

READ MORE: 'He called me a d**k': Nick Kyrgios inflames fiery on-court spat with fan

Swiss legend Roger Federer is returning to Roland-Garros for the first time in four years, as the 37-year-old seeks to add to his record haul of 20 Grand Slams.

Federer is famously less at ease on clay as he is elsewhere, and his sole French Open title came exactly a decade ago.

He’s seeded number three and starts his campaign against Italian world number 73 Lorenzo Sonego, but faces a tough section of the draw that could see him meet either Greek sensation Stefanos Tsitsipas or countryman and former French Open champ Wawrinka at the quarterfinal stage – before the prospect of Nadal in the semis.

Federer reached the Madrid Open quarter-finals earlier in May in what was his first clay-court event in three years, but was forced out of the Italian Open quarterfinals with a leg injury.

He says he has since shaken that off, but in reality even if fully-fit it would be a huge upset if Federer saw his name etched onto the famous La Coupe des Mousquetaires at the end of the tournament.

DARK HORSES

What appeared to be a rising tide of young talent in the men’s game has recently been held back by the brilliance of Nadal and Djokovic in Grand Slams, but a number of faces could spring a shock in Paris.

Greek wonderkid Tsitsipas, 20, has had some solid runs on clay this season, winning the Estoril Open in Portugal at the beginning of May, before falling to Djokovic in the final in Madrid and Nadal in the semi-final of the Italian Open.

The number six seed may well be a challenger in Paris, as might Austrian Dominic Thiem, last year’s beaten finalist at the event.

Thiem, 25, beat Nadal on his way to winning the Barcelona Open this season, lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals in Madrid, but has shown mixed form elsewhere.

Russia’s hopes in the men’s draw will rest with Daniil Medvedev, another man who has shown flashes of brilliance on clay – not least in his run to the final in Barcelona, where he lost to Thiem – but will need to find peak form for the whole two weeks in France to stand any chance.       

WOMEN’S EVENT WIDE OPEN

In contrast to the firm favorites of Nadal and Djokovic in the men’s draw, the women’s tournament looks intriguingly wide open this year.    

World number one Naomi Osaka has claimed the last two Grand Slams – in the US and Australia – but has stuttered since and also struggled with injury, while splitting with coach Sascha Bajin. 

The 21-year-old Japanese star is also not known as a clay court specialist, and has described her season on the surface so far as "rocky," reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome (before withdrawing injured) and the semifinals in Stuttgart, Germany.

READ MORE: Fighting for form: Naomi Osaka's struggles continue with Madrid Open defeat

Despite her billing as number one seed, Osaka is far from the standout favorite in Paris and will face a big challenge from Romanian number three seed Simona Halep, the reigning champion and beaten finalist in 2017.

Halep is not heading to Roland-Garros in the best of form, but knows as much as anyone what it takes to win there.

Number two seed Karolina Pliskova won the Italian Open last week, and will be a solid bet to improve on her previous best of a semifinal in Paris in 2017.

Fellow Czech Petra Kvitova – who lost a Melbourne epic in the final against Osaka in January – claimed glory in Stuttgart in the run-up to France and will also be tough to beat.

WHAT SHAPE IS SERENA IN?

Given her stature as one of the greatest ever to play the game, attention will inevitably be directed towards Serena Williams despite her status – on paper at least – as among the outsiders in Paris this time round, where she is seeded 10th.

That has been ramped up recently amid speculation over the kind of shape the 23-time Grand Slam champion is in, especially given she has seen very limited action since January due to injury.

Williams, 37, was even pictured in a wheelchair in Paris ahead of the tournament, setting off a wave of concern among fans on social media.

However, she merely appears to have been gaining as much rest as possible ahead of a tilt at a fourth French Open title, and has been seen hitting groundstrokes on the clay of Roland-Garros.

It will become evident fairly soon exactly what kind of shape Williams is in when she starts her campaign against Russian underdog Vitalia Diatchenko on Monday – but one thing is for sure, the US star’s quality and grit means she will not be dismissed as a contender.  

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