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French Open tennis preview

tom jones' two cents

Get ready to see red. • This is a good kind of seeing red. The red clay of Roland Garros is the backdrop (and stage, of course) for the French Open, which begins today in Paris. • Here's a Two Cents preview of the 2013 French Open.

Who is the men's favorite?

Normally, you go with the No. 1 player in the world, right? That would be Novak Djokovic, who also happens to be the top seed at the French.

But, how can you not consider Rafael Nadal the favorite despite the fact that he is the third seed?

The Spaniard is going for his eighth French Open title and is a remarkable 52-1 all-time at Roland Garros over the past eight years. His only loss came in 2009 when he was upset by Robin Soderling. Not long after, it was discovered that Nadal was battling knee injuries and that his parents, at the time, were separating.

Because of his reckless style, Nadal's health, particularly his knees, are always going to be an issue. However, he has looked good in 2013, going 36-2 with six titles. He routed Roger Federer in the final in Rome. In addition, a potential roadblock was eliminated with Andy Murray had to withdraw because of a bad back.

Nadal, who will turn 27 during the tournament, remains the best claycourt player in the world and, just maybe, of all-time. How can you pick anyone else to win the French?

So, can Djokovic beat Nadal?

Of course he can. In fact, he's one of two players to beat Nadal this season. He snapped Nadal's eight-year winning streak on clay at Monte Carlo with a relatively easy 6-2, 7-6 victory. Since the start of 2011, the two have met 11 times with Djokovic, 26, winning eight. But one of those three losses? Last year's French Open final, denying Djokovic the one grand slam tournament he has yet to win. If the two play in Paris, it will be in the semis.

What about Roger Federer?

The 31-year-old is a solid 18-6 this season and while clay is not his best surface, he made the final in Rome last week. That's the good news. The bad: Federer was crushed by Nadal in the final — 6-1, 6-3. Federer desperately needs to avoid Nadal at the French. Nadal has beaten Federer 13 of the past 15 meetings on clay and has won the past five Grand Slam matches against Federer. The classy Federer still is capable of going deep, but you have to wonder if he'll ever win another major.

Can anyone else win besides Nadal, Djokovic or Federer?

Recent history suggests not. If you go back to the 2005 French Open, those three have won 30 of the past 32 majors. The two other players who managed to break through to win were Murray at last year's U.S. Open and Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open. And neither is playing in this year's French Open. Maybe keep an eye on Ernests Gulbis. He put a scare into Nadal at the Italian Open, losing in three sets 1-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Will an American make some noise on the men's side?

Don't bet on it. Sam Querrey is the highest-seeded American at No. 18. Clay is not his best surface. He's 1-6 at the French Open. Meantime, sometimes Tampa resident John Isner is seeded 19th, but clay is not his best surface either.

Who is the women's favorite?

The No. 1 seed is Serena Williams, but here are a couple of statistics that are going to surprise you. Williams hasn't won the French Open since 2002. This is even more stunning: She hasn't even made it past the quarterfinals at the French since 2003. She didn't play there in 2005, 2006 and 2011, but still.

Last year she suffered, perhaps, the most shocking loss of her career at Roland Garros. Virginie Razzano, ranked 111th at the time, handed Williams the only first-round loss of her grand slam career.

Williams, 31, is clearly more comfortable on faster surfaces — only one of her 15 majors have come on the clay of Paris. But in her on-again, off-again focus on tennis, Williams appears to be in "on'' mode. She has won 24 matches in a row, the longest of her career.

What about defending champ Maria Sharapova?

She would probably be the favorite if she didn't have to face Williams. At Madrid last month, Sharapova lost her 12th match in a row against Williams, and it wasn't even close. Sharapova, 26, withdrew from the quarters in Rome because of a viral illness, but a few joked that she might have had "Serena Fever." After all, in the past seven matches against Williams, Sharapova has managed to take only one set, and Williams owns a dominating 76-31 advantage in games. Sharapova's best hope, it seems, is that someone knocks out Serena before Sharapova has to play her.

How about Victoria Azarenka?

She's 22-2 this season, but the losses were troublesome. The 23-year-old blew a gasket, broke a racket, yelled at the chair umpire and got a point penalty in a second-round upset loss to Ekaterina Makarova. Azarenka then made the final in Rome but was run over by Serena to the tune of 6-1, 6-3. Then again, she did win the Australian Open (for the second consecutive year) and is ranked No. 3.

Any women's dark horse?

Svetlana Kuznetsova is ranked 39th in the world, but she did win the 2009 French Open. You never quite know what you're going to get with her. She hasn't been that good over the past two years, and she's an ordinary 22-10 this season. Simona Halep demolished Kuznetsova in Rome and made it all the way to the quarters before losing to Williams. Don't count out 2011 champ Li Na, though the 31-year-old couldn't get out of the third round in Rome.

What about Venus Williams?

Forget it. Venus is seeded 30th. She has never won the French. She reached the final once and that was in 2002. Williams, 32, was knocked out in the second round last season. Paris just isn't for her.

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French Open

Site/surface: Roland Garros; red clayOnline: rolandgarros.com

Schedule: Play is scheduled to begin today on all courts at 11 a.m. local time (5 a.m. Eastern); the women's singles final is June 8, and the men June 9.

2012 men's singles champion: Rafael Nadal of Spain. Nadal beat Novak Djokovic of Serbia 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 for his Open-era record seventh French Open championship and 11th Grand Slam title overall. The loss ended Djokovic's 27-match winning streak at major tournaments.

2012 women's singles champion: Maria Sharapova of Russia. Sharapova defeated Sara Errani of Italy 6-3, 6-2 to complete a career Grand Slam, adding to her titles at Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008.

Prize money: The tournament boosted its overall prize money by nearly 18 percent this year, to about $28.4 million, which includes $1.9 million each to the men's and women's singles champions.

Did you know? This is the 30th anniversary of the last time the French had a major champion, Yannick Noah at Roland Garros. Those under 30 might know his son better: former Gator and current Chicago Bulls All-Star Joakim Noah.

Today's featured matches: No. 1 Serena Williams vs. Anna Tatishvili, No. 5 Sara Errani vs. Arantxa Rus, No. 14 Ana Ivanovic vs. Petra Martic, No. 30 Venus Williams vs. Urszula Radwanska; No. 2 Roger Federer vs. Pablo Carreno Busta, No. 4 David Ferrer vs. Marinko Matosevic, No. 15 Gilles Simon vs. Lleyton Hewitt, No. 18 Sam Querrey vs. Lukas Lacko.

Today on TV: 5 a.m., ESPN2; 10 a.m., Tennis Channel; noon, Ch. 8

French Open tennis preview 05/25/13 [Last modified: Saturday, May 25, 2013 8:31pm]

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