7 key storylines to follow at 2020 French Open

Rafael Nadal of Spain returns the ball. (Manu Fernandez/AP Photo)

It’s time for the 124th edition of the French Open, the premier clay tournament in the world.

For the first time in 73 years, it will not be held in the spring.

With the COVID-19 pandemic gutting the tennis calendar, the French Tennis Federation boldly and unilaterally moved its major event inside the final week of September and first week of October without consultation.

Despite complaints at the time from the tennis world at large, cooler heads have prevailed, and we’ll be treated to a third (and final) grand slam event in 2020.

Here are seven key storylines to watch as the French Open begins.

Rafa’s quest for history

There’s no secret who the best clay court player in tennis history is. Rafael Nadal writes, then rewrites, then tacks on extra chapters into the record books every time he sets foot on the red dirt. His dominance on the surface is astounding. He’s 93-2 at Roland Garros all time, with 12 French Open titles. He is 438-40 in his career on clay.

This fortnight, he’ll seek his 13th French Open and 20th total grand slam, which would tie Roger Federer for most all time.

Canadians dig the clay

Clay is not traditionally viewed as a top surface for North American players. Andre Agassi was the last North American man to win Roland Garros back in 1999. Serena Williams is one of just two North American singles champions in the women’s field in the past 20 years.

There are six Canadians competing in the singles, and this crop of players has often proven not only to be proficient on this surface, but to excel.

Twenty-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime has reached two ATP clay court finals in Rio and Lyon, and won four challenger events on the surface in 2017 and 2018.

Eighteen-year-old Leylah Fernandez captured the junior French Open title last year.

Genie Bouchard made a semifinals run at Roland Garros in 2014, and her maiden WTA title came on clay in Nuremberg that same season.

Even Denis Shapovalov, while struggling at first to adapt to the surface as an ATP pro, still made the semifinals of the Madrid Masters in 2018. He is also coming off a quarter-final run in Rome, a result that catapulted him to the top 10 of the rankings for the first time in his career.

Veteran Canadian Vasek Pospisil will be seeking a first career win at Roland Garros when he meets Matteo Berrettini of Italy.

Toronto’s Steven Diez also qualified for the event, reaching the main draw of a major for the first time in his career.

Can experience make the difference?

Five different French Open winners are scattered in the women’s field, with the most prominent name holding a No.1 seed at the top of the draw.

Simona Halep is considered the favourite to capture the 2020 Roland Garros title and with good reason. Halep has won nine career titles on clay and reached three French Open finals, winning the event once in 2018. She’s also in brilliant form; she won the Prague Open in August and captured the WTA Premier 5 event in Rome just one week ago.

Other former champions look to stake their claim at another title. 2016 winner Garbine Muguruza reached the semifinals in Rome with impressive wins over Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens, and Victoria Azarenka.

Serena Williams, who just turned 39, has won this major three times and is still knocking at the door of the women’s all-time grand slam record of 24, set by Margaret Court. A win in Paris would tie that mark.

Thirty-five-year-old veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova last won Roland Garros in 2009 but remains a dangerous presence inside the top 40.

2017 winner Jelena Ostapenko, while sometimes self-destructive on court in singles, is paired with Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski in doubles, and the team is a threat to contend.

Blockbusters fill the first round

Who doesn’t love a first-round match ripe with intrigue and suspense?

There are several heavyweight, blockbuster tilts on the schedule within the first few days of the Roland Garros schedule so get your popcorn ready.

Two three-time major champions will oppose each other when Stan Wawrinka meets Andy Murray for the 21st time. Murray leads the head-to-head 12-8.

Sixteen-year-old American phenom Coco Gauff is slated to face Britain’s top-ranked women’s player in Johanna Konta, who is seeded ninth at the event.

The 2020 U.S. Open champion and two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem has drawn grand slam winner Marin Cilic in his first match.

Eyes will also be on 19 year-old Italian star Jannik Sinner, who has begun a rapid ascent up the ATP rankings over the last two seasons. He’ll pose a major challenge for Belgian David Goffin, whose best result at the French Open came in 2016, when he reached the quarter-finals.

Can Novak complete a double career slam?

Novak Djokovic has done well to wash away the massive disappointment from his U.S. Open event in Flushing Meadows, where he was disqualified after inadvertently striking a lineswoman with a tennis ball.

He quickly returned to Europe and won the Masters 1000 title in Rome. Save for his Flushing Meadows mishap, he is a near flawless 31-1 in 2020.

In Paris, he’ll seek a ‘double career slam’, and try to become the first man to win all four majors multiple times in the Open Era.

Navigating tough conditions

Playing an outdoor major championship in the fall will bring its own set of challenges. The climate is much colder in Paris at this time of year, with temperatures generally peaking between 16-19 degrees Celsius. That’s a far cry from the high 20s players are accustomed to when this tournament is played in late spring.

It’s also the first year the French Open is making use of a retractable roof, available on Court Phillippe Chatrier, and lights on 12 separate courts are also making night tennis possible at Roland Garros, a welcome change for the tournament.

With a spread of COVID-19 cases in France, there will also be limited attendance. A 1,000-spectator capacity was placed by organizers on the eve of the tournament.

Key women’s faces opt out

Four of the top 10 women’s players are missing Roland Garros for a variety of reasons.

Canadian fans will again be sorely missing the presence of Bianca Andreescu, who officially shut down her 2020 season to focus on her health and training. Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, has not played since last October.

World number one and reigning French Open champion Ashleigh Barty is skipping the event due to travel concerns.

Naomi Osaka, who is coming off a remarkable title run at the US Open, is taking time off to rest a sore hamstring, and Swiss star and world number 10 Belinda Bencic was also a late withdrawal.

Could these absences pave the way for a first-time major winner?

We’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

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