The French Open is back, just eight months after the pandemic-delayed last edition, and there’s a sense of familiarity that was missing last time around.

Roland Garros has returned to its usual summer slot, there’s been a full-fledged clay season preceding it and the crowds are set to be back in slightly bigger numbers. A certain 13-time champion, Rafael Nadal, enters match-fit and following a solid run on clay, world No 1 Ashleigh Barty returns after choosing to not defend her title in 2020 and even Roger Federer is making his Grand Slam comeback after missing the last three.

But as familiar and regular as it feels, the question ahead is: What pattern can possibly change at Roland Garros in 2021?

  • Can someone dethrone Rafael Nadal as he aims at a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title?
  • Can Iga Swiatek actually do the one thing seemingly more difficult than winning a women’s singles Major - defend her title?
  • Can Novak Djokovic finally win a second French Open title that will place him above his rivals in a crucial ‘GOAT’ metric?
  • Can a top seed in the women’s draw make a deep run or actually go all the way? 

These answers will only unfold over the course of the next two weeks, but here’s a look at what we know about these burning questions heading into the season’s second Grand Slam.

From Nadal and Swiatek to Tsitsipas and Sabalenka: Here’s who shone on clay ahead of French Open

Can Nadal be stopped from winning another French Open?

How many times has this question been asked in preview? Perhaps in 12 different years at least, as the 13-time Roland Garros champion has always seemed to enter Paris as an overwhelming favourite. The one time he didn’t, the autumnal edition last September, he overwhelmed the favourite Djokovic in the final. That’s just how Rafa rolls at Roland Garros.

But this time, there is another new angle added to the mix. If Nadal wins his 14th French Open, not only will be extending his own extraterrestrial streak there but also own the record for most men’s singles Grand Slam titles. At present he shares the record with Federer at 20 and after a decade of being second in the race, he is now poised to lead it.

Seeded third in a strange twist, he is drawn in the same half as Djokovic and Federer, and could face the world No 1 in the semi-finals. But the Spaniard, who turns 35 on June 3, arrives buoyed by having defeated Djokovic in the Rome Masters final in what was his fourth different ‘Decima’ at a clay-court event. He has just lost two matches on clay – to the younger Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev – and has saved match points to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovlaov to give a good indication of where he stands in the run-up.

In his own words, no one is invincible, but he certainly looks unstoppable.

Data check: Rafael Nadal completes fourth different ‘La Decima’ with Italian Open win

Will we see a title defence in the women’s draw?

Iga Swiatek heads into the tournament trying to become the first player since Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2016 to successfully defend a women’s Grand Slam singles title. But no one has achieved this at French Open since Justine Henin in 2007. In fact, so unpredictable has the clay-court Major been in the last few years, the last five winners have been first-time champions with two actually being unseeded winners.

Swiatek, who turns 20 in a few days and broke into the Top 10 just this week, was the lowest-ranked woman at 54 to win the French Open last year. Like Jelena Ostapenko in 2017, it was her first title. Unlike the Latvian, Swiatek appears better equipped to stay at the top.

The most striking demonstration of this was at the Italian Open, where she saved a match point against Barbora Krejcikova and then beat Elina Svitolina and Coco Gauff, no pushovers on clay, in one day to reach the final. She capped it by blanking Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 in under 50 minutes to win her first 1000-level trophy. She has lost one match on clay so far, having played just two tournaments, and it took Barty to stop her at Madrid.

The form guide points to an unlikely title defence if the teen can handle the pressure of expectations and play the free, fearless-striking game that took her to the title last year.

Top seeds are second favourites

The second-in-line on the favourites chart are the top seeds across both draws. Djokovic and Barty both enter as legitimate contenders behind the defending champions.

Barty, the 2019 champion, is unbeaten at Roland Garros after skipping her title defence and much of the 2020 season citing travel risks. But the Australian has returned in 2021 with a new zing. The world No 1 has won three titles this year, one in a superb final on clay, and reached the Madrid final, before an arm injury at the Italian Open forced her out of the quarter-finals. She says she is fit now and will look to make up for lost time at the venue where she lifted her first Major. But top seeds haven’t traditionally done well in recent women’s tennis.

Data check: With Pliskova’s exit at the US Open, the women’s top seed tumble trend continues

Djokovic, the 2016 champion and four-time runner up, can become the first man in over half a century to win all four Majors more than once. The world No 1 has lost three finals to Nadal in 2012, 2014 and then last year. But Djokovic will have the knowledge that he was responsible for one of Nadal’s just two losses at French Open, back in the 2015 quarter-finals. He has suffered a couple of shock losses on clay this season and is playing the week before a Major at home in Belgrade, but his Rome final run and experience suggests he can’t be counted out.

Potential dark horses

In the women’s draw, injuries and indifferent form in the clay swing cloud the chances of most of the top seeds and make the draw open as well.

Based on form alone, the most likely candidate for first-time women’s champion is Aryna Sabalenka. The 23-year-old Belarusian has found her feet on clay this season, claiming her biggest career title at the Madrid Open with a three-set win over Barty two weeks after losing a three-set final to the Australian at Stuttgart. The fourth seed has momentum on her side and just needs to click on the day for a good run.

With few obvious viable candidates, Naomi Osaka a chance to step up on clay. But she was knocked out early in both Madrid and Rome and her best performance at Roland Garros is the third round. Serena Williams is also in the draw but she has won just one of three matches on clay this month having returned after nearly three months away following the Australian Open and looks unlikely to make a deep run.

In the men’s draw, most potential challengers are the usual suspects in the Top 10 who regularly flatter to deceive at Slams.

Of the chasing pack, in-form world No 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas is the brightest hope and has built a solid clay resume. The 22-year-old Greek won his first-ever Masters at Monte Carlo, had match point before losing the Barcelona final to Nadal and then lifted the Lyon trophy. He reached the semi-final last year, losing to Djokovic in five sets, and can very well take it a step ahead if he builds on his past performances.

Madrid champion Alexander Zverev is also in the mix after wins over Nadal and Dominic Thiem. The US Open 2020 finalist has had a mixed clay season but has enough experience to make a deep run.

Two-time runner-up Thiem has been low on form, fitness and confidence since his Grand Slam breakthrough at the US Open. If he has to turn his season around, it has to be on the surface he first shone on.

Second seed Daniil Medvedev has yet to win a match at Roland Garros in four attempts and openly dislikes clay. At present, the only expectation is that he wins his first ever French Open match.