TENNIS-FRA-OPEN-GARROSThe French Open has always held a sacred place in this tennis fan’s heart. Parisians aren’t like you or I. Fact is, they’re better. Whether it’s smoking cigarettes in the stands or vociferously booing players for no discernible reason, they do things their own way. Refined jerks add so much more to the sporting landscape with their hooting and demonstrative  sighing than the casual fan. The game – nay, the world – would be worse off without them.

Here’s looking at you, Satan.

We head into the second major of the year with less questions to answer than expected. Rafael Nadal’s knees have withstood the rigors of the European clay court season. Serena Williams dispatched Victoria Azarenka with ease in Rome, proving the only person who stands a chance of stopping Serena from winning her second French Open title is Serena herself. The favorites have made an impressive case, one so strong that seeing someone other than Nadal and Williams leave Roland Garros with a garish trophy and fat check in hand will be quite surprising.

It’s the ‘others’ that will intrigue in Paris. The others being the group of players that have a shot – however fleeting – at knocking off the overwhelming favorites. On the men’s side three names come to mind, all with their own personal demons when it comes to taking down Rafa on clay, let alone at a major. Roger Federer will need divine intervention to win it all, and no, Robin Soderling is not walking through that door. Novak Djokovic is the only hope for the anti Rafa crowd and he’s coming off an uncharacteristic loss to Tomas Berdych. The Czech big man could be this year’s Soderling. Unfortunately the words ‘could be ‘ have been synonymous with Berdych’s career up until this point.

On the women’s side there is slightly more belief. Serena bowed out in the first round last year, losing to Virginie Razzano in one of the biggest upsets in French Open history. Azarenka will be there at the end, as will Maria Sharapova. Unfortunately for those two their head-to-head numbers against Williams are terrible (4-25 combined).

Two weeks in Paris awaits.

Who Won’t Win (Crazy Family Edition) 

Bernard Tomic 

Sympathy is all the tennis world has to offer Bernie Tomic at this point. His father, John, is awaiting trial for headbutting his son’s hitting partner in Madrid. While that sounds like a lost episode of Murder She Wrote it’s par for the course when it comes to John Tomic. In March of last year Bernard asked an umpire to throw his father out of the stadium in Miami for disrupting a match. The hitting partner that was allegedly beaten by Father Tomic also said Bernard has been subject to physical abuse from his Dad. Tomic’s chances on the dirt aren’t great. Wimbledon will be his next opportunity to make the long awaited jump into the top-tier, but a run in Paris would be a good start to forgetting another depressing episode. Here’s hoping we have something good to talk about regarding the Australian number one in a week’s time. John will coach Bernard in Paris–even though he is banned from tournament grounds–because you don’t choose your family. They choose you.

Caroline Wozniacki

The world was Caroline’s oyster in January 2012. Heading into the Australian Open the Dane, seeded number one, was on the cusp of winning her first Grand Slam. She went on to lose to eventual champion Kim Clijsters in the fourth round and lost her number one ranking in the process. From then on it’s been rough. Matters have not been helped by Wozniacki’s father, Piotr. Whether it’s being a petulant idiot in the stands or berating his daughter on the practice court, one wonders what could delude someone into to thinking this sort of ‘support’ is helpful.

The family-player dynamic in tennis is one of the more bizarre in sports. While it’s plausible Walter Gretzky heckled Wayne with brutal  jabs until that wrist shot was just right, at least he had the wherewithal to do it behind closed doors. Awful jokes aside it’s worth tracking the success of players who have sought outside help after being coached by a family member. As Sport Illustrated’s Courtney Ngyuen points out, Li Na and Aga Radwanska thrived after ditching their kin.

The New York Times Goes To Paris

After conquering Melbourne with $100 in his pocket we find Seth Kugel in Paris, where travelling frugally is easier said than done. The prospect of no Beer during a weekend in a new city is  frightening–and also a sign I may have a problem–but Seth managed, taking in as many free museums as he could while eating for cheap. Along his travels one scene stood out for the frugal traveler.

Charles DeGeorge’s 19th-century sculpture “La Jeunesse d’Aristotle,” a marble rendering of the young philosopher reading pensively, while just behind him a flesh-and-blood young strawberry-blonde struck a virtually identical pose, sending a text message.

Needed beer for this. Truth be told it’s hard not to be envious of Seth’s travel savvy. Along the way he met new friends who showed him around the city without destroying his budget. Comédie-Française, Musée Carnavalet and Cathédrale Notre Dame were all covered. Unfortunately no beer and no wine makes Devang go something something.

Happy Birthday, Suzanne

Born on May 24th, 1899, Suzanne Lenglen dominated women’s tennis from 1919 to 1926. In that span she lost once. Yes, once. Not only was she a fantastic player, Lenglen was an iconoclast during a tumultuous time, bucking deeply intrenched trends with bravado that would make today’s players blush. Lenglen’s father played a large role in grooming his daughter for success – sound familiar – but that didn’t stop Suzanne from being her own person.

Lenglen was nothing if not daring. Her disdain for convention was a large part of her allure during the period of social tumult that followed World War I. She was continually doing in broad daylight what most people only dreamed of in the dark of night. She drank, she danced, she smoked, she swore, she wore her skirts short and her arms bare and she had lovers—lots of them. She was a Gallic elaboration on the postwar silent movie siren, The Vamp, adding to that sullen stereotype her own elements of wit and charm.

As profiles go, this is one of the best I’ve read. It’s worth your time.

The Commentator That Will Make You Cringe 

Banal commentary is the bane of the sports fan’s existence. Watch a single Blue Jays broadcast with the sole task of listening to Pat Tabler speak and questions regarding life’s worthiness will ensue.

Mats Wilander is worth listening to.  Wilander wasn’t the most skilled player, but he excelled in the mental aspect of the game. He brought these strengths to the commentary booth. Wilander has taken Federer to task for his failure to change his tactics against Nadal, and also went as far as claiming the Swiss star ‘lacked balls’ when facing Rafa. Fed fans, including myself, weren’t pleased. The truth is hard to hear sometimes.

Wilander drew the ire of former charge Marat Safin after criticizing the Russian’s sister for failing to play well in Grand Slam finals. Wilander isn’t a bullshit artist and unlike some of his colleagues his filter is often shut off. That’s why Mats is cringe worthy. Not for uttering awful cliches while dancing around a touchy subject, but for saying what we, the people at home, are thinking. Catch him on Eurosport during the tournament.

Wayback Playback

Two Americans in a Grand Slam final? On Clay?! The 1990s were a special time for U.S tennis. In 1991, Jim Courier defeated Andre Agassi in a five set classic at Roland Garros. Sam Querrey, at number 20 in the world, is currently the top ranked American on the tour. Yikes.

The First Round Match You Should Watch

Milos Raonic v. Xavier Malisse

Milos has had a rough time on the clay this season, losing to likes of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Fernando Verdasco in consecutive weeks. While those results are disheartening they may have been for the greater good. After two and a half years Raonic split with coach Galo Blanco in search of change. Long time tennis scribe Neil Harman reports the lanky Canadian has been working with Brad Gilbert in the lead up to the French Open. Long-term, Gilbert hasn’t always enjoyed the best relationships with his charges, but his ability to induce immediate change in the short term helped players like Andy Roddick, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori make the leap from talented youngster to legitimate pro.

Raonic is farther along than those players were when Gilbert began working with them, but the nickname dropping American will provide a sorely needed new set of eyes.

The Contenders

Rafa, Serena and everyone else. The question, and it’s a good one, is who needs this more. Nadal’s return from knee troubles can already be deemed a success. A dominant run through the clay court season saw the Spanish Bull stretched more than usual–Ernests Gulbis came close to beating him in Rome–but the record doesn’t lie. Eight finals in a row, 36-2 since returning in February and a 52-1 all time mark at Roland Garros makes him an overwhelming favorite.  For Serena, this tournament is huge. She’s won 24 consecutive matches heading into Paris and is also 36-2 this season. She’s gone 67-3 since Wimbledon last year. Crazy.

As I mentioned, there’s them and then, there’s everyone else. Players who could spoil the coronation include Gulbis, Frenchman Richard Gasquet, who could be buoyed by the home crowd, though his record in five set matches against the elite is not good. Marion Bartoli – who also has quite the insane family - is streaky as hell, but also has the ability to takeout a top seed. Federer and Djokovic should be there late in week 2 along with Sharapova and Azarenka. How much they have left after a grueling trip through the mid-rounds will be telling. Rafa isn’t dropping needless sets to #64 in the World on clay.

The draw was kind to Federer, who starts off with two qualifiers and avoids Nadal until the final. A Rafa-Nole semi-final is on the horizon. Sharapova and Azarenka are in the bottom half of the draw, setting up a potential all-world shriek fest in the semi-fnals.

The Picks

Nadal d. Federer

S. Williams d. Azarenka

I used to be bold back in the day. Enjoy the next two weeks and remember, cracking a bottle of wine at 9 AM is generally acceptable as long as you’re not in a relationship, don’t have kids and have little to live for. Just be confident about it.