Rafael Nadal will begin his quest to be the only seven-time winner at the French Open as the second Grand Slam of the year begins on the red clay of Roland Garros.
Rafael Nadal is the oddsmakers' choice to take the men's trophy as the French Open begins, while Serena Williams is the pick on the women's side of the draw.
Nadal has won two clay court tournaments in 2012 in the run up to the Grand Slam event, both in final matches over last year's player of the year, Novak Djokovic. Rafa triumphed in Monte Carlo for his eighth consecutive win at that tournament and last week in Rome where he won a record sixth Italian Open trophy.
Rafa is the reigning champ at the French Open, having beat Roger Federer in the 2011 final match. Read: Nadal wins in Rome, second over Novak in 2012.
The Monte Carlo trophy was the first win by Nadal since last year's French Open, he having been stymied in each Grand Slam event and other top tournaments by the seemingly unbeatable Djokovic. Nadal on clay becomes the player fans want to see, without as many serving woes and the many aches and pains he suffers when playing hours-long matches on hard courts.
He was a bit rusty after the time he took to rehab after the epic five-set finals loss to Novak at the 2012 Aussie Open but as the clay court season progressed, his game got sharper and smoother around all the edges --- just in time for his push to set a record for the number of career wins at the French Open.
On the opposite side of the net might very well be Novak Djokovic, who is seeking his fourth consecutive Grand Slam win. Novak missed the elusive four in a row during one calendar year in 2011 by losing his 2011 French semi-final match to Roger Federer. He went on to win the next two in 2011 and the first of 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.
The player to watch is John Isner of the U.S. who pushed his game to a new level this season, including being the stalwart for the U.S. Davis Cup team in wins over Switzerland and its premier player Roger Federer. He also topped Novak Djokovic at the 2012 Masters Series tournament in Indian Wells, CA.
Isner is now the highest ranking American man in the world at #9. Previously best known for the record-shattering three-day match at the 2010 Wimbledon over Nicolas Mahut, Isner is coming into form and showing the promise many believed he had but was unable to find.
Serena Williams was not in the French Open draw last year, still recovering from the effects of a pulmonary embolism and its aftermath.
The women's draw was wide open and the most unlikely of final matches was played between sixth-seed Li Na and seventh-seed Francesca Schiavone. Li triumphed and became an even bigger sports hero to her home country fans in China.
Williams has been healthier this year but there was concern in the run up to this year's French when she withdrew from her semi-final match against Li Na in Rome. Serena said it was merely a precaution as her back tightened up.
The world rankings show Victoria Azarenka at #1 and Maria Sharapova at #2. Azarenka won her first Grand Slam title at the 2012 Australian Open becoming the first woman from Belarus to attain that status and didn't lose until March. She has only three losses on her record this season.
Sharapova won again in Rome last week, defending her title as she continued her quest to return to the #1 ranking. She was coming off a win at Stuttgart for back-to-back clay court wins.
It was only three years ago that Maria returned to the tour after shoulder surgery. Her path to the top has been long and painful in all senses. Her service motion was changed to adapt to her shoulder rehab and then changed again when her serve, one of the best weapons she has, became a liability.
In the process she switched coaches, got engaged to former NBA star Sasha Vujacic and finally got back to her power game of serving and strong angled ground strokes.
Kim Clijsters will be missing in action this year as she once again rehabs another injury. Having announced that 2012 will be her final season on the pro circuit, Clijsters is resting up for Wimbledon after choosing to sit out the entire clay court season.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Stade Roland Garros
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