The names missing from the French Open field are as noteworthy as can be: Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
They are the owners of a combined six titles at Roland Garros and 46 Grand Slam singles trophies in all and the three most marketable athletes in tennis.
That trio’s reasons for being absent? Federer decided to skip the entire clay-court circuit to focus on preparing for grass and hard courts. Williams is pregnant and due in the fall, with plans to return to the tour in 2018. Sharapova’s ranking wasn’t high enough to gain direct entry into the tournament as she returns from a 15-month drug suspension, and the head of the French Tennis Federation decided not to give her a wild card.
Still, there are plenty of story lines to keep an eye on at Roland Garros, where play begins Sunday.
Here is what to watch on the red clay courts of the year’s second Grand Slam tournament:
Andre and Nole
Novak Djokovic has been in a slump for nearly a year (his last Grand Slam title came at the 2016 French Open, when he won his fourth major in a row) so he opted to shake things up. His latest move was bringing aboard Andre Agassi as a coach for the French Open; they were out there practicing in Paris on Thursday. Agassi won eight major titles — four fewer than Djokovic — but has never coached.
Winning three clay-court tournaments in a row signaled that Rafael Nadal is back and once again a candidate to win the tournament he has dominated the way no man has dominated any Grand Slam event. Could he win his 10th French Open championship a year after withdrawing before the third round with an injured left wrist?
Life is hard at No. 1
Both players ranked No. 1 right now in singles, Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, have been struggling most of the year. Murray is 16-7 with one title; Kerber is 19-10 with no titles and an 0-7 record against top-20 players. “Last year, I just played and there was pressure,” Kerber said, “but this year is more like, ‘OK, the expectations are bigger.’”
Which woman will step up?
Williams or Sharapova would have been popular picks to win the French Open. Without them, there is no clear-cut favorite to take the title. Simona Halep, the runner-up in 2014 and maybe the best current player without a major trophy, has been playing well on clay, but she tore a ligament in her right ankle recently. Other women who could make a splash include No. 3-ranked Karolina Pliskova, a finalist at the U.S. Open in September, or No. 6 Elina Svitolina, who just won the Italian Open on clay.
This is the first week in the 40-years-plus history of the ATP computer rankings that the top five men are all 30 or older. When that quintet of major champions (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Stan Wawrinka) finally slows down, there will be a gap at the top. Worth keeping an eye on some of the up-and-coming younger guys in Paris, such as Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios.
Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova said she would announce Friday whether she will return to action at Roland Garros, less than six months after being stabbed during an attack at home in the Czech Republic. Fans and opponents alike would love to see her back in competition.
Amanda Anisimova, a 15-year-old from New Jersey, became the first player born in 2001 to earn a spot in a Grand Slam main draw when she claimed the U.S. Tennis Association’s wild card for the French Open. She’ll also be the youngest player in the French Open since Alize Cornet in 2005. Anisimova reached the junior final in Paris last year.
Swingin’ in the rain
The French Open is still the only Grand Slam tournament without a roof — there are plans to have a retractable cover above the main stadium in a few years — and things did not go well last year. An entire day of play was washed out, the first time that happened at the event in 16 years, and other weather-related decisions by tournament officials drew criticism from players.