With the French Open less than a week away, I find myself getting unusually excited about this year's event.
I'm not a big fan of clay-court tennis, but I've probably watched more of it this season than ever. Part of the reason for that is my favorite player, Maria Sharapova, had a great clay-court season, and another part is because of how interesting the season has been.
There are four big tournaments on both the men's and women's sides that lead up to next week's French Open. The big buzz during this year's tournaments came in Madrid, a combined men's and women's event. The tours, without asking the players, decided to change the clay from red to blue.
Many of the players were very upset by this and claimed that the courts were extra slippery.
Two of the top three men, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, were two of the biggest names to complain and they both lost early in the tournament. Nadal, the six-time French Open champion, went on to win the other three big tournaments, showing that he's still the one to beat on clay.
As usual, the men's French Open looks pretty cut-and-dry.
Nadal is the heavy favorite, and Djokovic and Roger Federer (who won in Madrid) are probably the only others that have a real shot at winning the title.
It's hard to imagine anyone beating Nadal, the way he's playing. Last year, he lost several times to Djokovic in the clay-court season, but still managed to win the French. He has lost only one match in Paris, with 45 match wins. In sports, we like to think that nothing is a sure thing. That anyone or any team can be beaten on a given day, but Nadal at the French Open is about as close as there is to a sure-thing in sports.
Djokovic has not been as dominant this season as he was last year. However, he is still No. 1 in the world and always has a shot to win every match he plays. He pretty much owned Nadal all of last year, and at the start of this year. Things changed when they went to clay this year, and Nadal has now won two straight encounters.
Federer is still around with a chance.
The tournament win in Madrid will certainly help his chances, and so will moving to No. 2 in the world. Federer may have to face only Djokovic or Nadal on the way to a possible title, rather than having to go through both of them like he has in the past.
Two other dark horses could be No. 4 Andy Murray or No. 7 Tomas Berdych.
Murray was injured to start the clay-court season, and hasn't played many matches. Murray hasn't won a major, and the chances of it happening on his least favorite surface aren't likely.
Berdych is someone who could go far. He is the only player ever to beat Nadal in Paris, and he has been playing well lately. He lost a close match to Federer in the Madrid final. He's got the firepower to knock off anybody when he's on top of his game, if he can hold up mentally.
Things are much more up in the air on the women's side.
The top seed will be Victoria Azarenka, who started off the year looking unbeatable. She lost only one match until she started the clay-court season. Things haven't gone quite as well since. She made the final in both Stuttgart, Germany and in Madrid. However, she was beaten badly by Sharapova and Serena Williams. Azarenka then withdrew in Rome last week with an injury, throwing even more doubts as to how far she can go in Paris.
The two favorites are Sharapova and Williams. The pair each won two of the main clay-court events leading up to the French Open.
Sharapova, No. 2 in the world, could take the top ranking spot from Azarenka by the time the tournament is over, adding even more to a heated rivalry brewing between the two. Sharapova had lost twice in the finals to Azarenka earlier this year, including the Australian Open, but finally got her revenge in Stuttgart. Sharapova also won last week in Rome, rallying from 6-4, 4-0 down to beat defending French Open champion Li Na in three sets.
Sharapova has the momentum. She has advanced to at least the quarterfinals of every tournament she has played this year, and made it to the finals in five of the seven tournaments. However, her biggest problem will be Williams.
Williams crushed Sharapova in the quarterfinals in Madrid and has won seven straight matches between the two. Williams won on clay in Charleston and then won again in Madrid. She advanced to the semifinals in Rome, but withdrew with a back injury.
As long as her back is OK, the rest of the field is in trouble. Williams had won 17 consecutive matches before withdrawing last week, and she had won most of them in dominating fashion. At 30, Williams is showing her serve is as strong as ever and she's still at the top of the game.
For all her accomplishments, Williams has only claimed one French Open title, and may be hungry to change that. There are a few other players who could be factors on the women's side: Na, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova.
It should be an exciting tournament, and it's the beginning of an interesting four months of tennis. The players go straight from Paris to Wimbledon, then have a few weeks before going back to Wimbledon for the Olympics. Then of course they will play in the U.S. Open three weeks after the Olympics.
It's going to be a very exciting time for the players and the fans.
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