French Open preview: Six storylines to follow at Roland Garros

Defending champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic speaks next to the cup during the draw of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2022. (AP)

What better way to enjoy the Victoria Day weekend in Canada than with some Grand Slam tennis?

The second major of the calendar year is set to begin from France as the players have descended upon the grounds of Roland Garros.

It’s time to embrace the 34-acre complex and its 20 Parisian courts that are soon to be subjected to thunderous roars of its fans, and the fiery grunts, slides, dives and red-stained socks of its determined competitors.

Here are six storylines to follow as the 2022 French Open gets underway:

Iga’s streak on the line

It’s the most dominant stretch of tennis we’ve seen on the women’s tour since Serena Williams’ near-unbeatable run of 34 straight wins back in 2013.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek has been an untouchable force on the WTA, racking up 28 consecutive match victories and five singles titles, dating back to Feb. 23 in Qatar.

Now, she arrives at Roland Garros as a massive favourite, competing with sublime confidence on her preferred surface.

Watch as she leaves crafty opponent Ons Jabeur simply helpless in this exchange in the Rome final:

It’s fair to say Swiatek is doing everything at an elite level on the court.

She has heavy power from both groundstroke wings, can open up seemingly impossible angles with her heavy topspin forehand, her movement and athleticism are remarkable, and her return game is punishing.

It’s Iga vs. The Field the next two weeks in France as she guns for a second Roland Garros crown.

Top-half chaos in the men’s field

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz, who have combined to win eight titles this season, have all been loaded into the top half of a heavily tilted French Open men’s singles draw.

The draw boasts a particularly outrageous first quarter that could see great champions Djokovic and Nadal clash for a spot in the semifinals.

Just below is Alcaraz, the human highlight reel who has lit the tennis world on fire with four titles this season in Rio, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid.

At just 19, Alcaraz is already one of the most exciting players to hit the tour in years with his powerful ball-striking, Olympic sprinter-like foot speed, prowess at the net, and immense competitive spirit and charisma.

He cemented his status as a tennis rockstar and tour de force defeating Nadal and Djokovic in succession in Madrid, becoming the first player to beat both back-to-back since Argentina’s David Nalbandian in 2006.

Make no mistake, the Spanish stalwart believes he’s ready for a major:

Alcaraz could potentially encounter world No. 3 Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals before meeting Nadal or Djokovic.

The bottom half remains much wider open and creates a potentially straightforward path for world No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The 23-year-old was runner-up at Roland Garros last year and held a two-sets-to-love lead against Djokovic in the final.

Rafael Nadal vs. … The Foot?

He’s the undisputed King of Clay and the greatest champion Roland Garros has ever laid eyes on. Nadal’s name is almost synonymous with the French Open, and since debuting at the event in 2005, he’s hoisted the singles trophy a record-shattering 13 times.

Although Nadal stormed out of the gates this season in outstanding form, capturing his 21st major at the Australian Open, and adding additional hardware in Acapulco, it’s been far from an ideal clay swing.

He sat out Barcelona and Monte Carlo due to a rib injury, fell in the quarterfinals of Madrid and was stopped in Rome in the round of 16 by Canadian Denis Shapovalov. Nadal was noticeably hampered by his chronic foot injury in the final set of their match, bracing between points and struggling to run.

With questions lingering about his health, it’s fair to wonder if Nadal has any magic left for Roland Garros.

For what it’s worth, he was in good spirits in the pre-tournament press conference, and for once, acknowledged his greatness at the event, albeit in tongue-and-cheek fashion:

Djokovic defeated Nadal in a four-set epic before going on to capture his second French Open crown, but Rafa is still 105-3 lifetime at Roland Garros; bet against him at your own peril.

Bianca has returned, Leylah is lurking

A welcome sight for Canadian tennis fans everywhere is a smiling Bianca Andreescu, who has returned from a six-month mental break from the sport, looking refreshed, rejuvenated, and strong and powerful on court.

Andreescu is a former U.S. Open champion, so it’s safe to say she is capable of a deep run at a major, and, fortunately, it’s been a seamless transition back on tour and on clay for Bibi.

She’s gone 6-3 on the surface with notable wins over Danielle Collins, Alison Riske and Petra Martic, and has been moving dynamically across the surface, while utilizing her aggressive brand of tennis with the right blend of variety.

She is also making all the time for her fans at events and looks to be in a downright cheery mood.

She opens her tournament against qualifier Ysaline Bonaventure of Germany.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s Leylah Annie Fernandez has landed in the same quarter as Andreescu and faces Kristina Mladenovic of France in the first round. A possible third-round showdown could take place between the fellow Canadians.

Rebecca Marino, 31, also qualified for Roland Garros, advancing to the main draw for the first time since 2011. She faces 18th-seeded American star Coco Gauff in her opening match.

Ottawa’s Gaby Dabrowski will have major aspirations as she partners with Giuliana Olmos of Mexico in the women’s doubles field. The pair won the title in Madrid and finished runner-up in Rome.

Felix and Denis look to make French Open strides

Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov have both proven themselves highly capable on the Grand Slam stage.

Auger-Aliassime’s best result at a major came at the U.S. Open last season, reaching the semifinals, while he’s also been to the quarters of Australia and Wimbledon.

Shapovalov broke through at the All England Club last year, reaching the last four before falling to Djokovic. He’s also posted quarterfinals runs in Australia and New York to his resume.

For whatever reason, success at Roland Garros has eluded them both, with Auger-Aliassime never having advanced past the first round, and Shapovalov never getting beyond the second.

Fortunately for Auger-Aliassime, he has found his form on clay as of late, reaching a pair of Masters 1000 quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome. Shapovalov scored a memorable upset win over Nadal on the surface.

Auger-Aliassime opens his event against a qualifier, while Shapovalov will be in tough against 19-year-old rising Danish talent Holger Rune.

Other Names to Eye in the Women’s Draw

While Swiatek looks poised to win a second French Open crown, plenty of strong women’s players are vying to stop her.

World No. 4 Greece’s Maria Sakkari is a consistent presence on the WTA and has reached the finals in Indian Wells and St. Petersburg this season. As one of the fittest athletes in the game, Sakkari can grind down opponents with her shot tolerance. She reached the semifinals here last season.

Two-time Slam winner Simona Halep arrives in France with the most notable coaching hire on the circuit, adding Patrick Mouratoglou to her team. Mouratoglou, who boasts one of the world’s top academies, has famously coached Serena Williams since 2012, and has also worked with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Grigor Dimitrov and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur is up to a career-high ranking of sixth after a clay title in Madrid and a finals appearance in Rome. Her backhand slice and heavy forehand can work wonders on the clay, and her temperament and demeanor are that of a champion.

Last year’s U.S. Open winner, Emma Raducanu, will compete at Roland Garros for the first time in her career. She’s gone 4-3 on the surface in seven matches in her lead-up. Raducanu is also a reminder that if you can catch fire and find your best tennis at the right time, a Grand Slam title is not out of the realm of possibility.

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