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Beyond the Baseline

2014 French Open storylines to watch

Rafael Nadal only has a single clay title to his name this season. (Julian Finney/Getty Images) Rafael Nadal only has a single clay title to his name this season. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

With the 2014 French Open starting Sunday, May 25, here are some of the biggest storylines to follow.

Rafael Nadal is not a lock for his ninth French Open title.

We have to be careful when we use the phrase "wide open" to describe this year's French Open. It's hard to ignore the fact that Nadal is 59-1 over the last nine years in Paris, with his sole loss coming to the big-hitting Robin Soderling on a cold, wet day in 2009. But this is the first time he'll start the French Open with three clay losses and just one European clay title for the season (he won the Madrid Open after Kei Nishikori retired in the third set). In the final major tune-up event, last week in Rome, Nadal slogged through three straight three-set matches before eventually getting upended by Novak Djokovic in the final. The world No. 1 has shown signs of slippage, but winning three sets against him on clay still remains the toughest task in tennis.

Rafael Nadal on his recent struggles: "Get used to it"

Novak Djokovic looks (again) to complete his career Grand Slam.

Djokovic has been knocking on the door in Paris for the last three years, but could this finally be the year it all comes together for him? In 2011, Djokovic came into the tournament undefeated, having dispatched Nadal in straight sets in Madrid and Rome, but he fell to Roger Federer in the semifinals. In 2012, he made his first French Open final but lost to Nadal in a rain-interrupted, two-day match. Last year, he had a break lead on Nadal in the fifth set of the semifinals but was beaten 9-7.

Djokovic is 2-0 against Nadal this season and 4-0 since losing last year's U.S. Open final. And as if he needed additional motivation, he'll be playing for more than himself in Paris, as his homeland is facing historic flooding. He dedicated his Rome title to Serbia and donated his prize money to relief efforts. It will be weighing on his mind again at Roland Garros.

Serena Williams is defending her first Grand Slam title of the season.

It hasn't been a bad season for Williams by any standard other than her own. She lost a combined two sets en route to titles in Brisbane, Miami and Rome. But losses to Ana Ivanovic (Australian Open), Alize Cornet (Dubai) and Jana Cepelova (Charleston), along with an injury withdrawal in Madrid, kept interrupting her momentum. Williams, 32, is all about the Grand Slams at this stage of her career, and winning the French Open for the third time is exactly what she needs to feed her motivation for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. If Williams wins at Roland Garros, she would tie Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for second place in the Open era with 18 major titles.

NGUYEN: Who would Serena Williams take a selfie with?

Maria Sharapova goes for her second title in Paris.

Sharapova, who completed her career Grand Slam at Roland Garros two years ago, is the favorite behind Williams and would be poised to capitalize if Serena loses early. The Russian has lost to only two players on clay in the last three years -- Serena in the 2013 French Open final and Ana Ivanovic last week in the Italian Open. That loss to Ivanovic wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as it gave her more time to rest for Paris after winning back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Madrid.

Simona Halep has climbed to a career-high No. 4 WTA ranking. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) Simona Halep has climbed to a career-high No. 4 WTA ranking. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Will there be a Parisian surprise?

A handful of players are poised to challenge the favorites. For the men, that includes Federer, No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka and last year's finalist, David Ferrer. Wawrinka showed his mettle in winning the Monte Carlo Masters last month, while Ferrer beat Nadal in Monte Carlo and came close to doing the same against Djokovic in Rome.

On the women's side, Ivanovic and new No. 4 Simona Halep are clay-court stalwarts who are ready to deliver in Paris. Halep took Sharapova to three sets in the Madrid final. Ivanovic, who lost to Sharapova in the Stuttgart final, got revenge at the Italian Open before pushing Williams to three sets in the semifinals. Also, keep an eye on Australian Open champion and 2011 French Open winner Li Na, who has played solid tennis in her two lead-up events.

Keep tabs on the youth revolt.

One of the biggest storylines coming out of the Australian Open was the progress of youth on tour, whether it was Eugenie Bouchard's run to her first Slam semifinal or Grigor Dimitrov testing Nadal in his first major quarterfinal. The men, in particular, have kept rolling, with Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori pushing into the top 10 and Dimitrov not far behind them. All three have played well on clay this season, though the biggest question mark is Nishikori, who retired from the Madrid final with a back injury and skipped the Italian Open.

For the women, Bouchard has been up and down since Melbourne, but she made the semifinals in Charleston and is into the semifinals this week in Strasbourg. Clay isn't her favorite surface, but it rewards her battler's instincts. The other young name to track is Caroline Garcia. The 20-year-old Frenchwoman showed in her terrific Fed Cup performance against the United States that she won't shy away from being asked to fly the flag, and she's playing well above her ranking of No. 46.

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