The 2014 French Open represents a second opportunity at Grand Slam glory after unexpected winners on the men's and women's side at the Australian Open. Defending champions Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are the favorites this fortnight, but both face significant questions for different reasons.
With a more open field than we've seen in recent years, the red clay promises to deliver plenty of upsets and drama. For those wanting to catch all the action from Paris, here's the vital TV and streaming info:
Where: Roland Garros, Paris, France
When: Sunday, May 25, through Sunday, June 8, 2014
Television: ESPN, Tennis Channel
Live Stream: ESPN3.com
Besides Nadal and Serena, which names should fans keep in mind as potential champions? Here are a few players who have shown the recent form capable of propelling themselves to a French title.
With Nadal's recent injuries, Djokovic may actually be the best clay-court player in the field. If there's one significant worry for the Serb, it's that he will need to navigate a treacherous lower half of the bracket that could include consecutive matches against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Kei Nishikori and Roger Federer:
Bottom half men's projected R16s: Berdych-Isner, Youzhny-Federer, Raonic-Nishikori, Tsonga-Djokovic. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 23, 2014
However, Djokovic is 24-3 in singles matches this year, and his three titles include last week's Italian Open, in which he defeated Nadal in the finals. Djokovic has loosened Nadal's stranglehold at Roland Garros, having taken him to five sets in last year's semifinal matchup.
In fact, Djokovic has won four consecutive head-to-head matchups between the two, with his last loss coming at lat year's U.S. Open. Nadal has held the edge in recent grand slams, having won the last three between the two.
Still, if there were ever a time to strike, now would be Djokovic's best opportunity, while Nadal is still considered a strong favorite. With Nadal in suboptimal form, Djokovic's best should be enough to complete the career Grand Slam for the second-ranked player in the world.
The contenders to thwart Serena appear few and far between. The younger Williams sister is still at peak form at age 32, as she remains the clear favorite in any event she enters.
However, the third-seeded Radwanska looms as a player who could potentially upset Williams. Though she has yet to win a title this year, she reached the quarterfinals and semifinals in her two clay warmup events, and cruised in the opening round:
Radwanska has never beaten Williams, but the pair have met just once on clay, Serena's weakest surface. Radwanska has shown steady improvement at Roland Garros, having reached a new high-water mark last year by reaching the quarters.
The 25-year-old Pole has demonstrated considerable improvement over the past few years, and the Grand Slam results are just now beginning to match her talent. The French Open would represent an excellent opportunity to break through with her first Slam and announce herself as Serena's biggest challenger on tour.
The Aussie Open champion is again flying under the radar, though not for good reason. The Big Four have held an impenetrable grasp over men's tennis for years now, and even one major title from an outsider is not enough to warrant much mainstream consideration.
But two titles would surely grab everyone's attention, and Wawrinka has a tremendous opportunity at the French Open. Clay is traditionally dominated by a few specialists in each era, and the Swiss star has been in the select company to experience consistent success in recent years:
Since 2008, only five players have played in the Rome Final- Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Ferrer, Wawrinka— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) May 18, 2014
Though Wawrinka lost in the second round of the Italian Open, he did take home the Monte Carlo Masters title in April, beating David Ferrer and Federer in the last two rounds. With three singles titles and a 21-5 record in 2014, Wawrinka has emerged as a legitimate threat to crash the Big Four domination once again.
Wawrinka is currently slated to face Nadal in the semifinals, though he would have to navigate through a difficult quarterfinal matchup against Ferrer first. But as he showed at Melbourne, Wawrinka belongs in the conversation for the best player in today's game.