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Clay season preview: 7 questions ahead of French Open, lead-up events

Courtney Nguyen poses seven questions facing the ATP and WTA tours as the clay season kicks off, leading up to the French Open in May.

As the players head into the clay court season of 2015, what lingering questions remain for the ATP and WTA tours? Here are seven burning questions leading up to the French Open in May.

Will Rafael Nadal maintain his clay dominance? 


Since winning his ninth French Open title last May it's been a string of bad luck for Nadal. He ran into the unexpected buzzsaw that was Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, injured his wrist in practice and missed the entire summer hard court season (including the U.S. Open), and then came down with appendicitis during his fall comeback.  

So expectations were justifiably tempered as Nadal began 2015. His last three months have not been great but he's shown steady improvement in his fitness, focus and level of play. After all, most of his matches have been on hard courts, his worst surface.

But the grace period is over. It's Roland Garros or bust for Nadal. Win his 10th French Open and he'll quiet the concerns over his form, his season, and for the Chicken Little pundits, his career. 

Nadal sits at No. 5 in the rankings. He had a sub-optimal pre-Roland Garros clay season last—Madrid champion, Rome finalist, Monte Carlo quarterfinals, Barcelona quarterfinals—meaning he actually has an opportunity to gain points in the French Open lead-ups.  

Where will Nadal be seeded at the French Open?


Nadal will be going for an incredible 10th French Open title and 15th major title in May. Players will tell you there's no difference between being seeded No. 1 or No. 2 (the draw is the same for both), but there is a difference being seeded in the top 4 versus outside the top 4. The question is whether Nadal can get his ranking inside the top 4 for the French Open so he avoids a possible quarterfinal against his chief rival on clay, Novak Djokovic. 

Is this Novak Djokovic's year in Paris?


He dominated the hard courts to start the season and he's made it clear his goal this year is to win his first French Open title to complete his career Grand Slam. He's lost to Nadal the last three years, twice in finals. In those three matches he was able to split the first two sets before giving Nadal the advantage following a nervous patch of play. 

Since winning Wimbledon last year with a five-set win over Federer, Djokovic has repeatedly found a way to weather those poor mid-match streaks. We saw it repeatedly in Melbourne in back-to-back five-set wins over Stan Wawrinka in the semifinal and Murray in the final. Both matches ended with 6-0 final sets. He doesn't just will himself to win, he breaks your spirit while doing it. 

All that is to say this feels like it will be a different Djokovic on clay. It feels like he's the flat out best player on all surfaces right now. It feels like it could be his year. 

Then again, we've seen this before. In 2011 he came into Paris undefeated on the year with wins over Nadal in both the Madrid and Rome finals. He fell in the French Open semifinals to Federer. Last year he came off an arm injury to beat Nadal in the Rome final, but lost to him in four sets in the French Open final. 

Can Serena Williams get one notch closer to Steffi Graf's record?


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When Serena was in the midst of trying to catch Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert's mark of 18 major titles last year, she refused to talk about it. The pressure was too much for her and it showed in her surprisingly early losses at the first three Slams of the year. 

Since winning the U.S. Open to get No. 18 she has lost just one completed match, to Simona Halep—a loss she avenged a few days later in the final of the WTA Finals. To the extent an in-form Serena has any rivals on tour, she has already beaten them both—Maria Sharapova and Halep—this year. 

We know that clay is Serena's worst surface. After winning the French Open for the first time in 2002 it took her 11 years to do it again in 2013. Meanwhile, it is Sharapova and Halep's best surface. The clay mitigates some of Serena's power off the ground but it magnifies the benefits of her serve. She can win free points on clay at a rate that few others can, but the key is to stay healthy and hold her nerve. 

Sharapova or Halep: Who will be the women's No. 2 seed in Paris?


Securing the No. 2 seed means not having to play Serena until the final. That would be a boon to last year's French Open finalists, Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep.

No. 2 Sharapova and No. 3 Halep have the most points to defend on clay this season. Sharapova has a hefty 3,575 points falling off after winning Stuttgart, Madrid and the French Open, while Halep has 2,056 points on the table after finishing runner-up to Sharapova in Paris and Madrid. After a strong start to the season, Halep now sits just over 300 points behind Sharapova in the rankings and she will have more opportunities than Sharapova to gain points before the French Open. 

Who will be this year's Ernests Gulbis?


Who will play spoiler this year? Gulbis stunned Roger Federer to make the French Open semifinals last year. On the men's side, No. 4 Kei Nishikori has proven he can win on European clay, after a title at the Barcelona Open last year and a lead over Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Open final, where he retired with injury. If he can hold his top four seeding heading into Paris he'll make life much easier for himself. 

Two more surprising and yes, counterintuitive, dark horses during the clay season are Milos Raonic and John Isner. No. 5 Raonic is serving better than ever and his consistency off the ground has improved as well. Isner seemed to find his best form in Indian Wells and Miami and if he can bring that confidence and aggressive game-style to Europe he could finally find success there. Clay should give both these big guys more looks on returns and off the ground. I would be surprised if Raonic didn't make a semifinal or better at the lead-up events. 

Who will be this year's Andrea Petkovic?


When it comes to the women's side of the draw, the French Open tends to yield the more surprising slate of semifinalists. Petkovic took advantage of a upset-laden part of the draw to make her first Slam semifinal last year. Eugenie Bouchard was also a surprised semifinalist in Paris and won her first and only WTA title in Nürnberg, Germany. 

One to watch is Victoria Azarenka. Her hard court season was encouraging, and though clay isn't her best surface, she's made the finals of Rome, Stuttgart, and Madrid, as well as the French Open semifinals in 2013. With zero points to defend on clay her ranking, currently at No. 32 should rise dramatically.

More clay dark horses include No. 10 Carla Suarez Navarro, Garbine Muguruza, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. The two Spaniards made the French Open quarterfinals last year and if they remain healthy, they could be dangerous draws in Paris. 

As for the Americans, Keys can win on clay. She just has to believe it. The 20-year-old is already into the Family Circle Cup semifinals in dominant fashion, with her massive power cutting through the clay court effectively. For Stephens, clay is her favorite surface and she's back to playing the positive tennis that's been missing the last year. I'd be very surprised if she's unseeded by the time the French Open rolls around.