Burning questions as French Open nears
With the French Open only three weeks away, here are five burning questions as both tours prepare for back-to-back tune-ups in Madrid and Rome:
Can Rafael Nadal hit the reset button? Nadal feeds off his confidence, but it's been lacking on his best and favorite surface. In his first two European clay tournaments of the season, the 27-year-old Spaniard lost to David Ferrer in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Masters and to Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals of the Barcelona Open -- defeats against two players he has dominated and at events he has owned. Nadal is 1-3 against top-10 players this year, and the highest-ranked player he's beaten on clay is No. 35 Andreas Seppi. A title in Madrid or Rome would silence doubts about his readiness to defend his French Open crown.
Is Novak Djokovic 100 percent healthy? With Nadal struggling mentally, this seems like a huge opportunity for Djokovic to regain the No. 1 ranking, finally snag his first French Open title and complete the career Grand Slam. The question, though, is whether the wrist injury that bothered him in Monte Carlo is healed. Given the constant refrain from lower-ranked players that they are believing more in their chances of beating the ATP's best, it's important for both Djokovic and Nadal to squash that notion as quickly as possible on clay.
Who is in the best position to take advantage if Nadal and Djokovic stumble? I still believe Nadal and Djokovic will round into form, but in the event they can't the ATP field becomes wide open. Roger Federer has rebounded well this season and he made the Monte Carlo final, putting him in the mix. He lost that final to Stanislas Wawrinka, who continues to argue with his play -- whether he likes it or not -- that we should expect bigger things than just the Australian Open title this year. Then there's last year's French Open finalist, Ferrer, a consistent Tomas Berdych, a possibly resurgent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the likes of Fabio Fognini, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. More so than in any other year in recent memory, it's hard to ignore the rest of the field.
Has Serena Williams rediscovered her spark? The world No. 1 is the defending champion in Madrid, Rome and Paris. She hasn't played since losing to Jana Cepelova in the second round of the Family Circle Cup in March, when Williams, 32, spoke of needing a break after playing a heavy schedule over the last two years. Is four and a half weeks of rest enough to get her back on track with her health and motivation? It took a remarkable amount of effort, focus and drive last year to win her second French Open. Can she summon the hunger to do it all again? We'll find out in Madrid, where Williams is the two-time defending champion, if she's back to the dominant form that produced a perfect record on clay last season (28-0).
Will we have any WTA clarity heading into Paris? We've seen enough of Williams to know that she could very easily run the table over the next five weeks. But what if she's still stuck in a funk? Maria Sharapova, who is 40-3 on clay since the start of 2012 (all three defeats were to Williams), looks primed to take advantage after winning her first title of the year last week, in Stuttgart, Germany. Beyond that, though, there are a lot of question marks. No. 2 Li Na may be a former French Open champion, but she hasn't played since the Sony Open final on March 29, opting to rest her knee. No. 4 Victoria Azarenka, who has played only three tournaments this year, will miss Madrid and Rome with a foot injury. Ana Ivanovic continues to back up her great start to 2014, while other strong clay players such as Simona Halep, Jelena Jankovic and Dominika Cibulkova haven't had an opportunity to shine quite yet. The next two weeks should (hopefully?) give us a better sense of how the WTA's best stack up on the surface. A FAN'S VIEW: Ana Ivanovic