We are barely in two days at the second Grand Slam of the year and the unpredictable French Open has already thrown up some exciting matches with defending champion Stan Wawrinka almost getting knocked out.
The red dust of the Roland Garros always makes for interesting tennis, but the slam assumes an even greater importance this year as the points at the end of it will determine the qualification for 2016 Rio Olympics.
In fact, India's Olympic participation in Men's and Mixed Doubles depends entirely upon the players' performance at Roland Garros, as there will be no tennis wild cards for the 2016 Olympics.
Ever since the International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced in April that no National Association can apply for wild cards, the Indian tennis contingent's plans has been severely impacted. Essentially, this means that individual players will have to qualify for the Olympics based solely on their rankings and cannot be nominated by their respective national associations.
The qualification criteria stands, any doubles player ranked 10th or better on 6 June, will gain direct entry and can choose their partner. Alternatively, places will be allocated based on the combined world rankings of each team (using the players’ singles or doubles rankings, whichever is better).
With more than a title at stake, the two Indian men in the draw - Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes - have their task cut out. Sania Mirza, the sole woman player, on the other hand will be aiming straight for the trophy, the one Slam she doesn't hold right now.
Here's a breakdown of the Indian challenge at French Open 2016. All three Indians in draw start their campaign on Wednesday.
Sania Mirza is the only Indian tennis player to have qualified for the 2016 Olympics so far owing to her superlative performance in the past year with Swiss partner Martina Hingis. The Women's Doubles World No 1 pair are the top seeds at Roland Garros, and are on the verge of a historic 'Santina Slam' - holding all four Grand Slams at the same time or a Non-Calendar Year Grand Slam. The Williams Sisters were the last pair to achieve this in 2010.
The pair have been in phenomenal form through a major part of the last season, and their resurgence at Rome after a three-month slump which saw their 41-match unbeaten streak end, saw them clinch their first trophy on red clay. Sania and Martina reached the finals at Stuttgart and Madrid as well, but lost to Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic both times.
Thanks to their top billing, Santina wouldn't have to play the French team that beat them twice or the Williams sisters until the final. Their half of the draw features No 3 seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Chan Yung-Jan, No 6 seeds and Australian Open finalists Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, and No 7 seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, who they beat at Rome. If all goes according to plan, there is very little to stop the Santina chemistry from capturing their fourth Slam.
In Mixed Doubles, Sania has partner Ivan Dodig from Croatia and the pair are seeded second. They were the top seeds at this year's Australian Open but were knocked out in the semi-finals after a 5-7, 6-7(4) loss to fifth seeds Elena Vesnina and Bruno Soares
Rohan Bopanna is India's best chance of making it to the Olympics. He is India's top-ranked men's doubles player at number 11, is in sniffing range of the qualification mark. He currently has 4,980 ranking points, after the 5,510 of Number 10 Bruno Soares from Brazil. Bopanna will partner Romania's Florin Mergea, whom he called the 'right partner' in an earlier interview with Firstpost, and the pair are seeded sixth in the draw.
The Indo-Romanion pair have been in good run reaching the finals in Madrid and finishing in the last four in Rome. They will start their campaign against the all-French pair of Stephane Robert and Alexandre Sidorenko. If they make it to third round without any hiccups, they could face 11th seeded team of Henri Kontinen and John Peers.
Last year, Bopanna was out in the third round which gives him 90 points to defend. This year, he will need to reach quarter-finals which is worth 430 points or the semis which will give him 780 points to get his tally high enough for a possible entry into the top 10 and a direct qualification. If not, the challenge will be on Paes to acquire enough points for their combined ranking to be high enough.
In the Mixed Doubles, Bopaanna will partner Russia's Alla Kudryavtseva. The unseeded duo are on collision course with top seeds Jamie Murray and Hao-Ching Chan, if they beat Tatjana Maria and Nicolas Mahut in their first round match.
Leander Paes is a celebrated veteran of both Grand Slams and Olympic. He is currently the second highest ranked Indian at 51 but former Doubles and Mixed Doubles Champion will not have it very easy this year.
In 2015, Paes was on a golden Grand Slam run in Mixed Doubles with Martina Hingis. However, the French Open was the only Slam they couldn't clinch, losing in the second round. While they bounced back with titles at Wimbledon and US Open, the 42-year-old has been struggling to recreate this run and his form has dipped as has his world ranking.
This year, in the Men's Doubles, he has partnered with Poland's Marcin Matkowski and are seeded sixteenth in the draw. They play their first round against unseeded Aliaksandr Bury and Denis Istomin and they could meet all-American pair of Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson. Fourth seeds Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares are also in their half of the draw. In 2015, Paes partnered with Daniel Nestor and they made it only till the third round giving him about 90 points to defend.
In Mixed Doubles, Paes will partner with Hingis once again. The pair are unseeded at Roland Garros but knowing their record, one can't count them out. However, they will have to face fourth seeds Florin Mergea and Yaroslava Shvedova in their second round itself.
While Paes' might not be able to advance very high, his best bet would be to get enough points under his belt to elevate his ranking which will improve India's overall combined ranking. Right now, Bopanna and Paes have a combined ranking of 62 and their performance at the French Open will be crucial to India's Olympic chances.
A word about the other Indians at the Slam - the youngsters who played in the Roland Garros qualifiers.
Saketh Myneni lost 6(5)-7, 5-7 in the second round to Frances Tiafoe of the USA while Ramkumar Ramanathan went out 3-6, 3-6 against Matthew Barton of Australia.
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Updated Date: May 25, 2016 16:04:11 IST