French Open 2014: Biggest Storylines on Tap for Roland Garros 2014

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French Open 2014: Biggest Storylines on Tap for Roland Garros 2014
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Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams will each look to successfully defend their French Open titles at Roland Garros this week.

The King of Clay eliminates all the fun in speculating the final outcome with his iron grip on the French Open. He can extend his winning streak to five years with another first-place finish, but Novak Djokovic will certainly have something to say about that.

Williams doesn't carry such a superlative record at Roland Garros, but she won her second French Open crown last year and now has 17 career Grand Slam titles.

With the tournament set to start early Friday morning, here's a look at watch to watch in Paris.

 

Can Novak Djokovic Beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros?

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We can beat around the bush and discuss the deep field of talented competitors, but most men's tournaments are ultimately decided by a head-to-head bout between Nadal and Djokovic.

Nadal holds the swift upper hand at the French Open, winning eight of the last nine years while Djokovic has yet to emerge victorious at Roland Garros. That's the only major the Serbian star has yet to conquer over his decorated career.

While the King of Clay dominates at the French Open, Djokovic has the overall advantage lately, winning their last four matchups. The results at Roland Garros point to Nadal steamrolling his rival on clay, but ESPN Stats & Info confirms a more even reality:

Most recently, Djokovic defeated Nadal in the Italian Open finals, which marked Nadal's third loss on clay this year. Djokovic is eager to translate that over to the major event, per Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen.

“Winning against Rafa in the finals of a big tournament on clay, his preferred surface, is definitely a confidence booster,” Djokovic said. “It’s the ultimate challenge and I’m very happy with my game so far and hopefully I can carry that into Roland Garros.”

The reigning champion has struggled this season, by his standards at least, opening the door for Djokovic to end his French Open drought. Nadal should never be doubted at Roland Garros, but if there's anyone who can bring his stranglehold to a screeching halt, it's Djokovic.

 

Who Will Challenge Serena Williams?

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Williams stands in a class of her own, and she can prove it by replicating her championship performance at Roland Garros. Another victory would also tie her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for major Grand Slam titles by an American in the Open Era.

Clearing her path to immortality, one of her top challengers, Victoria Azarenka, announced that she will not compete due to a persisting foot injury:

While Williams sports the clear upper hand over Azarenka with a 14-3 record, the 24-year-old notched two of those victories last year. She's one of the biggest threats to Williams' dynasty, but she can't block those title aspirations in France.

Maria Sharapova is still considered one of her toughest opponents, yet Williams has won their last 15 matchups, a streak dating back to 2005. Sharapova has also never bested Williams on clay.

If anyone could derail Williams, it's Li Na, the world's No. 2-ranked player, and even she is a long shot. She was on top of her game at the 2014 Australian Open, but she ran the table without having to beat a top-20 opponent.

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Aside from her 2011 French Open title, she has not fared well at Roland Garros, failing to advance past the fourth round during any other year. 

Williams' biggest adversary is herself. A lapse of effort or mental mistakes are the top threats to upending her French Open run. Tennis coach Darren Cahill told ESPN's Greg Garber that a locked-in Williams rarely fails.

"I think with Serena, it's up to her. That's the great thing about it: She gets to choose," Cahill said. "When she wants to play, she's tough to beat. She treated Miami like a major and she won it. You could see from the first ball, she was serious. In Charleston ... well, not so much."

 

Can Anyone Else Crash the Party?

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When it comes to tennis, the usual suspects typically occupy the final stages of major tournaments. A few surprises may pop up during the event, only to end with two of the big stars jousting for the trophy.

Is there any reason to expect something different at Roland Garros? Probably not, but there are no absolutes in sports. 

Which defending French Open champion is more likely to lose at Roland Garros?

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Stanislas Wawrinka cut a knife into the big four by winning the 2014 Australian Open. The 29-year-old bested Roger Federer in the semifinals and Rafael Nadal in the finals to win his first major title, joining Marat Safin and Juan Martin Del Potro as the only men other than Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray to earn a Grand Slam crown during the past decade.

Outside of Nadal and Djokovic, he's the biggest threat, as he has held his own against both titans while boasting a 6-2 record on clay this year.

Grigor Dimitrov lost handily to Nadal in Rome, but the 23-year-old made a name for himself by advancing to the Australian Open quarterfinals. The promising youngster should vault his way into the top tier soon enough.

Simona Halep is another up-and-comer to watch at Roland Garros. After rising to a No. 4 WTA rank, the 22-year-old Romanian could make a major splash with a deep Grand Slam run.

 

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