Looking beyond Rafa at Roland Garros

Rafael Nadal’s proficiency on clay has been so persuasive, so overwhelming, so inarguable, that asking if he has a shot at winning a mind-boggling eighth French Open (in nine attempts) can hardly be called a storyline heading into the tournament. So let’s take a different tack that covers the same ground and then look at four other narrative threads that will run through the upcoming Grand Slam event:

Can Novak Djokovic beat Nadal in Paris?

No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Djokovic has, by far, the most notable degree of success against Rafa on red clay. Nadal has a slim lead in their rivalry (19-15) but an enormous bulge on red clay (11-3). At Roland Garros, they ended up on the same side of the draw, negating any chance of another suspenseful final. They are 3-3 in their past six meetings on dirt. Djokovic was the first player to effectively play the role of hunter to Nadal’s hunted, reversing a cozy situation in which Nadal was the stalker and Roger Federer the prey. This messed up Rafa’s mind, and I’m not sure he’s recovered yet.

Djokovic has been up and down since winning the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia. He came off the clay-court road to Roland Garros with just one title in three tries, and that was at the weak sister Monte Carlo tournament. But the fact that he took that title from Nadal tells you something. Is Djokovic having trouble or keeping his powder dry for the main event? I’m not sure anyone can give a definite answer to that, but the thing I feel pretty sure about is that Djokovic isn’t at all intimidated by Nadal.

Can Serena Williams overcome her hard luck history at Roland Garros?

Serena Williams has 15 Grand Slam titles to her credit and more prize money than any woman in the history of the game, and she recently established a new record as the oldest woman to earn the No. 1 ranking. (She was already 31 when she reclaimed the top spot earlier this year.) Why should she get obsessive about winning another French Open title?

I can think of two good answers: pride, because she was beaten in the first round at a major for the first time in her career in Paris last year, and closure, because winning a second French Open more than a decade after she won her only title in Paris would cap off her remarkable comeback saga. Given that she’s 33-1 on clay since the start of 2012, it’s absurd to question whether Williams can win. The only real question is whether she can withstand the pressure she’s guaranteed to feel at a tournament that has been problematic for her.

Can a Frenchman win for the first time since Yannick Noah took the title in 1983?

It’s amazing how poorly the French play in their home event, on the surface they cut their teeth on. The French have sent a fleet of gifted, interesting players onto the tour in the wake of Noah, but only one (Henri LeConte) has even made a final in Paris.

It doesn’t bode well for the French this year either. No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 9 Richard Gasquet got off to a good start this year, but both have cooled off in recent weeks. Instead, ultratalented, unpredictable hothead Benoit Paire made the semis of a Masters 1000 event for the first time in his life last week in Rome. And Gael Monfils, out of the top 100 because of injury, has looked pretty good in Nice. Either of those two could surprise and do well.

How will No. 4 Andy Murray’s decision to withdraw from the tournament affect the event?

This is really interesting, given how Rafael Nadal displaced David Ferrer at No. 4 just a week ago. But now Ferrer will be one of the top four seeds, which opens a real window for him to win his first major, at age 31, after a long career spent in top-five territory. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Ferrer hasn’t made a major final in more than a dozen years as a pro; getting that far would be good enough.

Will this tournament give Maria Sharapova her best shot at beating Serena Williams for the first time in 14 matches, dating to 2004?

The short answer is “no.” The long answer is “no.” You saw what happened in the Rome final. Serena again humiliated Maria. You could see in that match that Serena loves to beat on Sharapova. And as much as Sharapova benefits from the slow clay -- giving her more time, as she’s not the greatest mover -- it helps Williams even more. She can just tee off on that Sharapova serve, which is shaky at the best of times.

The big thing, though, is that the last place you want to meet No. 1 Serena is in a final. Once she gets that far, she’s pretty much unstoppable. In that sense, Sharapova pays a heavy price for her general excellence against everyone else on the tour.