French Open 2018: From Rafael Nadal's La Undecima quest to Serena Williams' return, storylines to watch out for

The second Grand Slam of the year is just around the corner. Starting 27 May, 128 men and 128 women will battle on the terre batteu of Roland Garros for two gruelling weeks. Ahead of the French Open, here's a look at the major talking points from the clay season so far and six burning questions that loom over Paris.

Can anyone stop Nadal's quest for La Undecima?

After Nadal's miserable start to the season – where he retired in his Australian Open quarter-final due to a hip injury, and then was forced to withdraw from Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami, it took him just two weeks to remind everyone of the destruction that he can wreck on clay.

Nadal clinched his 11th titles at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, besting his own previous record of most trophies won at a tournament. Such was his dominance that the Spaniard didn't even drop a single set over his 10 matches.

However, Nadal saw his streak of winning 50 successive sets come to an abrupt halt at Madrid at the hands of World No 8 Dominic Thiem. Nadal had overpowered Thiem 6-0, 6-2 just three weeks ago at Monte Carlo but fell 7-5, 6-3 in the Madrid Open quarter-finals.

 French Open 2018: From Rafael Nadals La Undecima quest to Serena Williams return, storylines to watch out for

Rafael Nadal will be aiming to win his 11th French Open title. Reuters

Nadal bounced back in Rome by lifting his eighth trophy but was stretched to three sets by Fabio Fognini and Alexander Zverev. In the final, Zverev had him on the ropes as the German led by a break in the deciding set before rain intervened. Nadal made the most of the break and triumphed once the players returned after the delay.

Now, the defending champion is targetting La Undeicma – his 11th victory – at French Open. The loss to Thiem and the dropped sets in Rome showed that there are some chinks in the King of Clay's armour but can anyone really challenge him over five sets?

Nadal has lost only two matches in his career on the hallowed courts of Stade Roland-Garros. He is near invincible on the red dirt and it will be a tall task for anyone to stop him from lifting the La Coupe des Mousquetaires come 10 June.

How will Serena Williams fare on her long-awaited Grand Slam return?

The biggest talking point ahead of the French Open has been Serena's much-anticipated return to a Grand Slam and the French Tennis Federation's decision to not grant her a seeding.

Serena, who was out of competition for more than a year due to her pregnancy and subsequent health problems, has played just four matches this season and is currently ranked 449 in the world.

The American is currently playing under a protected ranking, which allows players to retain for a transitional period, a former ranking upon return from a long absence — between six months and two years — due to injury, illness or pregnancy. Serena was ranked No 1 before her absence.

Serena Williams is set to make her long-awaited return to a Grand Slam at the French Open. Reuters

Serena Williams is set to make her long-awaited return to a Grand Slam at the French Open. Reuters

However, this rule does only allow her to enter tournaments based on her protected ranking but does not entail a seeding. While the debate rages over the sport's policy towards female players and parenthood, the biggest concern will be Serena's fitness.

The 23-time Grand Slam winner hasn't played a match on clay in two years and is struggling to return to full fitness. She has just two wins under her belt since giving birth to her baby daughter and suffered losses to Venus and Naomi Osaka at Indian Wells and Miami respectively.

When the women's draw is made on Thursday, all eyes will be on where Serena lands up. As she is unseeded, she could face even the World No 1 in her very first round. The American has reiterated that she is driven by the desire to win Grand Slam No 24 but her path to a record-equalling Major could turn out to be more complicated than she imagined.

Is Novak Djokovic "back"?

Two years ago, Novak Djokovic was at the zenith of his career after winning the French Open title to complete his career Grand Slam. This Monday, he dropped out of the top-20 for the first time since 2006.

Djokovic missed the second half of 2017 to rehabilitate his injured elbow and underwent surgery in January this year after losing in the last-16 at the Australian Open. He has had a difficult time on the tour since and was knocked out in his opening rounds at Indian Wells and Miami.

On clay at Monte Carlo, it looked like Djokovic was making the right strides as he recorded back-to-back wins before bowing out to Thiem. But early exits at Barcelona and Madrid turned out to further derail his comeback.

Djokovic will be boosted by his good week in Rome, where he showed shades of his former competitive self by reaching the semi-finals and forcing a tie-break against eventual champion Nadal. However, due to his seeding, he is likely to clash with a higher-ranked player as early as the third round. The next two weeks will be a tough test for Djokovic and will determine how far he has travelled on his road to recovery.

Has Sharapova hit form in time for Roland Garros?

In 2017, when Maria Sharapova returned to tennis after serving a reduced suspension for her illegal use of meldonium, the French Open organisers stirred a controversy by denying her wildcard to protect the “high standards of the game.”

The Russian ensured that she will need no favours this time around, as in the past 12 months she has notched enough wins to return to the top-32 in the WTA rankings. Currently placed at 29, Sharapova will be seeded for the French Open.

After the Australian Open, Sharapova was on a downward slide as she lost four matches in a row and dropped out of the top-50. However, the clay season has helped her return to form – she reached the quarters at Madrid and did one better in Rome.

Though she lost to Simona Halep in the semis, her impressive win over reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the last-eight suggests that she could be a big threat at Roland Garros.

Sharapova, who won the French Open twice in 2012 and 2014, enjoys grinding her way out on this surface and will be one to watch out for in the upcoming fortnight.

Will the Lost Boys and NextGen make a difference?

Can two-time semi-finalist Thiem make it one step further in 2018? Can second seed Zverev finally record a win over a top-50 player at a Grand Slam? Will young gun Denis Shapovalov make a mark in his maiden main draw appearance at the French Open? Will Juan Martin del Potro play at all?

These are some of the questions hovering over the rest of the men's field. While Nadal is the overwhelming favourite and seems certain to make the final, it will be interesting to see who else will be left standing after six rounds.

Zverev and Thiem are wrestling for the unofficial "Prince of Clay" moniker, and are the strongest contenders to emerge as the best from the rest. Zverev has two Masters 1000 titles on clay – Rome in 2017, Madrid in 2018 but he has never progressed beyond the fourth round at a Major.

Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, Del Potro, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka are the next favourites according to bookmakers but all of them are recovering from physical ailments and may not be able to perform at their best. With Roger Federer and Andy Murray skipping the French Open, it will be intriguing to see which player can make the most of the opportunity on hand.

Who is the real favourite for the women's title?

Top seed Halep has suffered heartbreak in the final at French Open twice before in her career. She was also narrowly edged by Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open final in January. This Roland Garros could have been a perfect chance for the Romanian to win her first Major, but her 6-0, 6-4 loss to Elina Svitolina in the Italian Open final must have been demoralizing.

Moreover, she implied that she was hampered by a back problem and may not be fully fit heading into the second Grand Slam of the year. In this year's clay swing, Karolina Pliskova won at Stuttgart, Petra Kvitova won at Prague and Madrid and Svitolina won at Rome. Ostapenko is the defending champion while Serena, Sharapova and Garbine Muguruza have all won the title before.

While the women's draw isn't as open as other recent Grand Slams, it is again difficult to pick a clear favourite from the packed field. With plenty of dark horses and contenders looming, the next two weeks promise a lot of exciting tennis action.

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Updated Date: May 24, 2018 16:38:20 IST