Can Serena survive the first week in Paris? - NBC Sports

Can Serena survive the first week in Paris?
Whether Williams can beat top foes on clay is one of the main French Open storylines
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Serena Williams is coming off two significant wins on clay - over Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka in Madrid.
May 26, 2012, 3:05 pm

Well, the French Open draws are out and the bracketology is already in full swing. I can already hear citizen X screaming about Rafael Nadal getting another "cupcake" draw, with nary a scary player in sight until a projected fourth-meeting with Milos Raonic. I'm also aware that citizen Y is bemoaning the fact that Novak Djokovic has five qualifiers in his quarter of the draw, and nobody better than No. 14 seed Fernando Verdasco blocking his path to the quarterfinals.

Then you have your Serena Williams fans, already fingering the worry beads over her potential third-round battle with dangerous basher Julia Goerges, while Vania King and Venus Williams' competition to make the U.S. Olympic team has saddled them both with tough starts: King must play Galina Voskoboeva and then probably face the tough No. 15 seed, Dominka Cibulkova, while Venus will meet third-seeded Agniezska Radwanska - if V suvives a first-rounder with Argentina's Paula Ormaechea.

But all I really know is that the draw gods have been extremely cruel to Italian players. They hurled Potito Starace into Djokovic's cage in the first round, while the festivities in Paris will begin with Bologna's own Simone Bolelli being fed to Nadal.

Main Men's Theme: Will we get the much-anticipated showdown between No. 1 Djokovic and No. 2 Nadal? This is the storyline deferred from last year by one Roger Federer, who halted Djokovic's astonishing 43-match winning streak with an upset in the semifinals. At the time, Djokovic was on a roll, coming off two consecutive wins over Nadal on red clay - losses that seemed to shake Rafa to the core. It was the best chance anyone has had in seven years to beat a healthy Nadal at Roland Garros.

It's different this year, and not just because Djokovic has played Nadal twice on red clay and come up short each time. The way the Djokovic apologists have it, their man is not quite the player he was through most of 2011, and at the Australian Open earlier this year, because he's pacing himself-not really focusing on anything but those two big-ticket items: the French Open and the Olympics (which will take place in August at Wimbledon).

That may or not be true, but this is undeniable: Two epic achievements are on the offer at this French Open, but only one of them can come to pass. The first: Should Djokovic win the tournament, he will become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. The last player of either gender to accomplish that was Serena Williams, who completed her "Serena Slam" when she bagged the Australian Open title in 2003.

Where it gets really intriguing is that this is also Nadal's chance to win his seventh singles title at Roland Garros, which would break his deadlock with Bjorn Borg. This also would be an epic achievement, if not quite as sweeping and historic as the mission Djokovic is hoping to accomplish. The fact that for either man, the main obstacle will probably be the other guy, and that only one of these momentus achievements can come to pass, is what makes this one of this truly rare, irresistible force meets immovable object events.

Main Women's Theme: Can Maria Sharapova reclaim her long-lost No. 1 ranking and complete her career Grand Slam? That's the key question, now that current No. 1 Victora Azarenka's drive to emulate Djokovic's domination of tennis has stalled. Azarenka has not won a tournament since Indian Wells in early March, lending credence to the theory that clay is her weakness. But it isn't like Azarenka has been playing poorly, either. Since Indian Wells, she lost in the quarterfinals of Miami, the finals Stuttgart and Madrid, and pulled out of Rome after her first-round win (bad shoulder).

This could be Sharpova's big moment. She's been a solid No. 2, and while her history on clay hasn't been great, she's made dramatic improvements on the surface since last year, when she lost to eventual champ Li Na in the French Open semis. Sharapova goes into Roland Garros with the Rome title tucked away, just like last year, but this time she won that tournament over Li. That's for those of you who believe in omens.

Men's Subplot No. 1: Can Federer, who briefly snatched the No. 2 ranking from Nadal a few weeks ago, still bring it at the majors? He's won nine of the 12 tournaments he's played since the 2011 U.S. Open (where he had two match points in the semis but still lost), but some doubt his ability to beat two out of his three main rivals (Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Muray) in back-to-back matches at a two-week, best-of-five-set Grand Slam event. In Paris, he's penciled in to meet Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals and Djokovic in the semis.

However, it seems we're looking at rejuvenated Serena these days; she's coming off two significant wins on clay - she clobbered Maria Sharapova in Madrid, 6-1, 6-3, and then did exactly the same thing to Azarenka in the final, by the same score. The big question for Serena is, can she survive the first week?

Men's Subplot No. 2: Can anyone step up and loosen the stranglehold the "Big Four" have on major tournaments? People have been waiting for a pretty long time to see if anyone else can crash the party. So forget about winning the event, how about one of you boys-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, David Ferrer-insert yourself into the conversation at the top of the game? One of you needs to count coup on one or more of the anointed four before they all reach their cozy confines in the semis. Do it for the reputation of the tour.

Women's Subplot No. 2: Where have all the champions gone? At the start of 2012, everyone expected an intense and exciting battle for top honors among a full half-dozen players, including then-No. 2 Petra Kvitova, U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, year-end No. 1 (in 2010 and 2011) Caroline Wozniacki, French Open champ Li, and even Kim Clijsters. Not one of them has been much of a factor so far this year. We'll see if any of them can begin to rehabilitate her reputation in Paris.


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