PARIS — The French Open used to be the scene for clay-court specialists and surprise champions.
Scan the list of past winners and runners-up: There’s Gaston Gaudio and Albert Costa, Guillermo Coria and Martin Verkerk, Andres Gomez and Mariano Puerta. Not so much a “Who’s Who.” More like a “Who’s He?”
The women’s list features fewer out-of-nowhere names, yet does include those such as Iva Majoli, Anastasia Myskina and Francesca Schiavone, who all won the French Open while never making it past the quarterfinals at any other major championship.
With the year’s second Grand Slam tournament set to begin today at Roland Garros, there is little thought being given to that sort of stunning outcome, thanks to Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.
As seven-time major champion John McEnroe put it: “It’s pretty obvious who the favorite is.”
He meant, of course, Nadal, who won his record seventh French Open title last year and is 52-1 for his career at Roland Garros. Consider, too, the nearly perfect way the Spaniard has played after seven months off the tour because of a left knee injury: Since returning in February, Nadal is 36-2, reaching the finals at all eight tournaments he’s entered, winning six.
And yet Nadal is not seeded No. 1.
That’s because the French Open decided to strictly follow the rankings, and Nadal’s time away deducted enough points that he is currently No. 4. He moved up one spot to No. 3 in the seedings, because No. 2 Andy Murraywithdrew because of a bad back.
So last year’s French Open runner-up to Nadal, Novak Djokovic, will be seeded No. 1, and 17-time major champion Roger Federer will be seeded No. 2.
No. 1-ranked Williams, has been unbeatable lately. She arrives in Paris having won a career-high 24 consecutive matches and is 36-2 with a tour-leading five titles this season. That’s part of a stretch in which she’s gone 67-3, including titles last year at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the London Olympics.
That 70-match stretch of excellence dates, probably not coincidentally, to her last match at Roland Garros, a shocking loss to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France in the first round in 2012. It is her only opening loss in 50 career Grand Slam tournaments – precisely the sort of thing that seems to happen around these parts.
While there certainly are other women who realistically can harbor hopes of lifting the trophy in a little more than two weeks — defending champion Maria Sharapova is the best example — Williams appears to be playing as well as ever at the moment.
She already owns 15 Grand Slam singles titles, but the French Open is the only major tournament she’s won fewer than four times. Her lone championship in Paris came in 2002.
“Nothing is ever perfect and I learned that last year when I felt perfect,” Williams said. “So I am still in a danger zone.”