The French Open always presents a unique test. The second major of the season is the only one contested on clay, which requires a different skill set. It also starts a very busy stretch that continues through Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Players are focused on setting a positive tone they can build from in the months ahead. Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams were the stars who accomplished that goal last year with triumphs at Roland Garros. It was Nadal's eighth French championship and Williams' second.
Both the Spaniard and the American return with hope of defending their titles. There are 127 other players on each side looking to end those dreams. So let's check out the key coverage information for the tournament. It's followed by a French Open preview.
French Open Viewing Information
Where: Stade Roland Garros in Paris, France
When: Sunday, May 25 - Sunday, June 8
Watch: ESPN, NBC and Tennis Channel (Full Breakdown via SI.com)
Nadal is the unquestioned "King of Clay." He's won the French Open eight times in the past nine years, including the last four. The 13-time Grand Slam champion has defeated fellow top stars Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer in the last three finals.
Yet, he enters the tournament with far more question marks than usual. He played in four warm-up events leading up to Roland Garros and emerged with just one title. Twice during that span he was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Although he's obviously capable of finding another gear in the weeks ahead, his lack of top form opens the door for other contenders to make a serious bid for the championship.
Interestingly, Sean Gregory of Time magazine passed along comments from Nadal in the days leading up to the tournament, and he was honest about the state of his troublesome knee:
I'm still having pain a lot of days. The only thing I wish is that the pain is only minding me when I'm competing. Because I really like to enjoy the rest of the time of my life.
Considering both of those factors, Djokovic should see this year's French Open as a golden opportunity to complete his career Grand Slam. He's won the Australian Open four times along with one title apiece at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
The other positive for Djokovic is the confidence boost he should have received from knocking off Nadal in the championship match of the Rome Masters last week.
It would seem Djokovic and Nadal are on a collision course. There are some other players to keep in mind, though.
It starts with Stanislas Wawrinka, who finally broke through to win his first major at the Australian Open earlier in the year. He reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year, a career-best finish, and won the Monte-Carlo Masters on clay last month.
Then there's the group of usual contenders: Federer, Ferrer and Andy Murray. They are all a step behind Nadal and Djokovic heading into the event, but if they can catch a few breaks and play well it's impossible to count them out. Federer in particular has a favorable draw.
On the women's side, the same outlook that's held true frequently for more than a decade is in place once again. If Williams is playing at her absolute best, there isn't a player on tour capable of beating her. They all have to hope she endures an off day.
That said, she's only won the French title once over the past 10 years. So if there's a major tournament where one of those poor performances is going to pop up, this one is a strong bet.
Williams will also have to navigate a pretty tricky draw. It's highlighted by a potential quarterfinal against Maria Sharapova, as noted by Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
The tournament is wide open outside of Williams. Yes, there are some stars like Li Na, Sara Errani and Sharapova who would be strong bets to step up if the favorite was surprisingly eliminated early, but the field of true title contenders is far larger than the men's side.
Simona Halep, who recently reached a career-high ranking of No. 4, is one player to watch. She's never advanced beyond the second round in Paris, but the 22-year-old rising star's performance has been on a steady incline over the past year.
Another name to keep in mind is Ana Ivanovic. The 2008 French Open winner has been wildly inconsistent since that point but reached the quarterfinals in Australia to match her best major result in the past five years and has enjoyed success in the clay warm-up events.
All told, on the men's side a rematch from the Rome Masters between Nadal and Djokovic is the most likely outcome. At that point, it's nothing more than a toss-up, and fans would be in for quite a treat in the form of a potential five-set masterpiece.
In the women's draw, it's hard to make a strong case for anybody other than Williams. That's not to say she will roll through the tournament without being seriously challenged a few times. But she's the best women's player in the world right now, and it's not close.
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