Nothing seems familiar at the Roland Garros this year, except the men’s defending champion, a certain Rafael Nadal who has won the title 12 times.

The time slot is new, rescheduled to late September from May due to the coronavirus pandemic. This means the weather will be different, with autumn chill and rain altering the playing conditions. The main court has a roof this year, which means rain will not always stop all matches. The official balls have been changed from Babolat to Wilson, a move that has prompted largely negative reactions from players for further slowing the conditions.

From millions up in smoke to ‘dangerous’ balls, the many challenges ahead of new-look French Open

But do these slew of changes mean that the essence of French Open 2020 will change? It will be the final Grand Slam of the season, played with restrictions and just 1000 spectators allowed per day but the winner still has seven rounds to win on the grinding red clay.

When it comes to the players too, there is yet another slight but imperceptible change. The top contenders are Nadal and top seed Simona Halep, both who opted to skip the US Open. That didn’t stop Halep from lifting the title at the Italian Open, the main tune-up event for Roland Garros but for once Nadal comes to his kingdom severely under-prepared.

Here are the big questions ahead of the rescheduled final Major of the year:

Will the 2020 impact get to Nadal?

In some ways, Nadal doesn’t enter the French Open this year as an overwhelming favourite. The three-time defending champion has played just three matches since February, a rustiness that was evident in his quarter-final exit in Rome, where he lost to Diego Schwartzman in straight sets. The 34-year-old has never won the French Open without lifting a clay court trophy in the year, a streak broken in the unprecedented year 2020 is.

But when have the odds affected him before?

Since his title-winning debut in 2005, the Spaniard has only lost twice at Roland Garros in 95 matches - to Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015. The last time he suffered such an early departure from the Italian capital was in 2017 – just weeks later he was lifting a 10th French Open without dropping a set.

However, there will be more challenges on his path to get to lucky No 13, the playing conditions and draw being major ones.

Lucky No 13? Rafael Nadal gears up for ‘most difficult conditions’ he has faced at French Open

“You have a slower court, slower balls, heavier conditions over all. Rafa doesn’t like that. He likes a sunny, dry day and a high bounce,” Martina Navratilova was quoted as saying. Nadal himself has heavily criticised the balls for slowing things down.

With so many unfamiliar obstacles in the way, will the French Open still have the familiar winner at the end of it? One win away from equalling Roger Federer’s record 20 Majors, there will be no better place or occasion to reach the landmark than his personal bullring in Paris.

More records in store for Djokovic and Thiem?

On the other hand, top seed Novak Djokovic comes in to Roland Garros as the man to beat. Having broken the Masters record weeks after his dramatic heartbreak at US Open, he reminded everyone that he is one of the strongest players on clay in this generation dominated by Nadal.

The only man to beat Djokovic in 2020 so far is Djokovic after a moment of anger prompted a sensational disqualification from the US Open. The 33-year-old arrives in the French capital with a 31-1 record this year and the way he bounced back after New York is proof of his unmatched mental strength and hunger to be the best.

Djokovic’s 2016 triumph at Roland Garros allowed him to become only the third man after Don Budge and Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time. He now has a chance to become the only man in the Open era to win all four Majors twice with a draw section that appears to be the easier one.

Djokovic’s last trip to Paris ended in fury due to the weather as he lost the two-day semi-final to Dominic Thiem, a two-time runner up at Roland Garros. But this time, the Austrian comes to the scene of his first Grand Slam final as a Major winner himself.

The conditions could well suit newly-crowned US Open winner, who has lost the last two finals to Nadal. The world No 1 has 17 career titles with 10 of those on clay and has beaten both Nadal (4) and Djokovic (3) on his favourite surface. He may have shed the clay grinder tag with hard-court success but the red dirt remains his most successful surface and he should have little difficulty adapting physically.

This year though, Thiem will be in the same half as Nadal and has a rougher draw than most. If he can positively channel his biggest career-high despite the many trips in the five-set, he should have a mental edge as well.

Of course, there are always outside contenders to watch out for in an unpredictable year. From US Open runner-up Alexander Zverev, who has added David Ferrer to his team, to Stefanos Tsitsipas who made a deep run in Hamburg this week, from former champion Stan Wawrinka (who faces Andy Murray in a poignant rematch of the 2017 semi-final in Round 1) to Daniil Medvedev, who is yet to win a match at Roland Garros. But the French Open is one Major that mostly stuck to script and it’ll take a great effort to see that change.

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Halep the favourite but does that count?

In the absence of defending champion Ashleigh Barty and recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka, 2018 champion and top seed Simona Halep has been anointed as the clear favourite. She proved that by winning her first Rome title last week, her 14th straight win and third straight trophy in a pandemic-interrupted season. The Romanian has been the most successful player on clay this year, with two trophies.

Tennis: Simona Halep heads into French Open as the player to beat

But despite the notable absentees, the French Open field is stronger than the US Open where six of the world’s top 10 players opted out and that means the ever-unpredictable women’s draw can always spring a surprise.

Serena Williams can never be discounted as she launches another bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles crown, this time as a 39-year-old. But Roland Garros is the American’s least successful major despite her wins in 2002, 2013 and 2015. Williams withdrew from last week’s Rome event with an Achilles strain, meaning she has not played on clay this year. Her draw won’t offer any freebies either, with a tough test in virtually every round.

The 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza can be counted as a contender while fellow former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka is hoping to take the momentum from her run to the US Open final into the clay swing.

Last year’s runner-up Marketa Vondrousova will again target a deep run in Paris having rediscovered some form at last week’s Italian Open, where she made the semi-finals before losing to compatriot Karolina Pliskova. The fourth-ranked Czech retired from the final with a thigh injury after dropping the first set to Halep.

Additionally, former Major winners Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, Angelique Kerber all have the artillery for a deep run as do top seeds such as Elina Svitolina, Aryna Sabalenka depending on who adapts to the conditions the best. But who can discount another first-time Major winner on the sport’s most challenging surface in a year everyone is struggling for consistency?

How much will changed conditions affect players?

Players will have to adapt to unfamiliar autumnal conditions in Paris, with gusting winds and persistent rain forecast for the start on Sunday. The weather outlook isn’t set to improve much either.

Already, top players like Halep have expressed reservations about how the cold climate will affect playing on clay but there is also the change in the tournament balls. Nadal has actually gone ahead and said the Wilson ball could pose physical problems for the players, a sentiment echoed by Thiem.

“I think it’s not the right ball to play on a clay court,” he said. “I really believe that the organisation needs to take a look at that for the next couple of years, for the health of the players, too, because the ball is super heavy and becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders.”

In such a situation, it will be survival of the fittest and that adds a whole new element of intrigue to an already unpredictable time and Slam.

With AFP Inputs

The French Open from 27th September 2020 will broadcast in India on the Star Sports network & Disney+ Hotstar from 1430 hrs onwards.