French Open stories and sub-plots: Roger Federer woes, Serena struggles, and more

Roger Federer in action

The French Open is without doubt the most unforgiving of all the tennis Grand Slams, and there are more questions than ever going into this year’s edition.

Federer’s fitness fight

The tennis world is slowly coming to terms with the reality of life without Roger Federer.

Federer will be 40-years-old this summer and will be taking part at both the French Open and Wimbledon.

However, all is not really as it seems. Federer is still a top-ten player and, barring injury to any of the favorites, will be the number eight seed in Paris. That will be good enough to see him avoid any of the other big names until the quarter-final stage.

The chances of us seeing anything even resembling the Federer that we know and love, though, are slim to say the least.

He has played just three matches in 16 months after requiring double knee-surgery last year, and he is yet to impress in any of them.

Federer has even all but written himself off for the French Open, saying: “I’m just realistic that I know I will not win the French Open, and whoever thought I would or could win it is wrong.

“Of course, crazier things might have happened, but I’m not so sure in the last 50 years at the French Open, somebody just rocked up at 40-years-old, being out for a year and a half and just go on to just win everything straight.”

The reality is that reaching the quarterfinals will be a huge success in Paris for Federer

That said, there are not many Roger Federer’s around, and there never have been, so his 2021 French Open odds of 66/1 to ‘rock up and win it’ will understandably tempt many.

Can anyone stop Rafael Nadal?

Rafael Nadal fixing his headband

Rafael Nadal has won 13 French Open titles. I know that we all know that, but it’s sometimes just worth saying out loud to fully appreciate the majesty of it.

Nadal hasn’t been his usual self on clay this season, but that just means he has lost two matches rather than one.

Those defeats came against top-ten players too in Andrey Rublev in Monte-Carlo and Alexander Zverev in Madrid, so there was certainly no shame attached to them.

Besides, beating Nadal on clay in a best-of-three match is one thing. Getting the best of him over five sets of clay court tennis in his favourite arena in the world is quite another.

This time, Nadal has the added incentive of achieving history should he win. He is currently tied with Roger Federer on 20 career Grand Slam titles, meaning one more and he takes the record outright.

In recent years, the real question hasn’t been whether Nadal will win Roland Garros, but if he will achieve it without dropping a set.

Last year he achieved it. This year he is 9/1 to do it again.

Never write off Novak Djokovic

Roland Garros is Rafael Nadal’s house, not Novak Djokovic’s, and we all know it. The Serbian himself is more aware of it than anyone.

Djokovic will be in the unusual position of not starting a tournament as the bookie’s favourite. Indeed, his odds of winning the tournament are 4/1 and, for Novak Djokovic to win anything, those odds are very long.

You can never rule him out, though, and though Nadal will hold the advantage due to the surface, it is likely that only the Spaniard’s best tennis will be good enough to overcome Djokovic should they meet.

Last year they did of course meet in the final, and Nadal bageled him en-route to a straight sets success. If that is going to do anything to Djokovic, though, it will probably motivate him further.

It is also worth pointing out that Djokovic is also chasing history at Roland Garros. Should he be able to win it, he will become the first man in history to win every major multiple times.

Don’t trust the seed system

Daniil Medvedev in action

You can usually get a decent idea of what will happen at a tournament by the seeding system, but Roland Garros is a graveyard for reputations.

Even taking out the Nadal factor, the French Open is probably the toughest tournament in tennis.

The matches, and rallies, are longer, the conditions are harsher, it’s often colder than the other Slams, even on a sunny day.

Then there is also the fact that clay is such a specialist surface that even the best hardcourt or grass court players in the world can be reduced to pure misery.

The best example of that is Daniil Medvedev, who will remarkably be the second seed despite never winning a single match at Roland Garros before, never mind a clay court title.

Of course, favourites and underdogs exist at Roland Garros, but the lines between the two are considerably more blurred than usual.

Serena struggling – and fading

You are always loath to dismiss Serena Williams, but the facts are that she is struggling right now and running out of time with regard Margarat Court’s record.

It can never be stressed enough that Serena already holds the record for most Open-Era major titles with 23. She doesn’t need to catch or surpass Court’s all-time record of 24, but it’s pretty clear she wants it.

Serena Williams

She has had her chances too, reaching four Grand Slam finals since her last success, but she has lost every one of them.

She heads to the French Open, which is her weakest Slam, on the back of first-match exists in both Madrid and Parma.

Since becoming a mother, Serena Williams has not played much tennis – and completely understandably so – but it is just now starting to show in her tennis and it’s a stretch to see her winning Roland Garros in her current condition.

Osaka with plenty to prove

If anyone has stepped up into Serena Williams shoes on the WTA Tour then it is Naomi Osaka. The Japanese ace has won four Grand Slam titles and taken the lead off the court too when a political or moral stand is there to be made.

It therefore may seem strange to say she has everything to prove, but the truth is that while she has proven herself to be a brilliant hardcourt player, she is not a good all-courts player yet.

Her record at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon is very poor, as is her general record on clay and grass, and in Europe for that matter.

The truth is that she can’t ever hope to join the likes of Serena Williams among the greats of the game if she doesn’t start showing she can win on all surfaces.

With Serena herself looking more vulnerable than ever, Simona Halep likely missing through injury, and Bianca Andreescu still struggling to prove her fitness, Osaka may not get a better chance to step up.