PARIS (AP) As usual, all eyes are on Serena Williams, no matter what – whether she’s attending the most talked-about wedding of the year or practicing at Roland Garros.
That she recently engaged in those two activities on consecutive days, in different countries, highlighted what a star she is, in and out of tennis, and added to the buzz that Williams will, indeed, return to play at the French Open, which is what her coach has vowed.
Main-draw action begins Sunday in what would be Williams’ first Grand Slam tournament in more than a year.
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The owner of 23 major singles titles, a record for the 50-year Open era, Williams hasn’t played on one of her sport’s most prestigious stages since winning the Australian Open in January 2017, while pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter on Sept. 1, then dealt with medical complications, and while she originally had hoped to be back on tour by the Australian Open this January, that did not work out.
Williams, a 36-year-old American, has played only four official singles matches in the early portion of her comeback and pulled out of clay-court warmup events in Madrid and Rome in May. She is ranked 453rd this week.
”It’s going to be great to see if she’s back,” defending French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko said.
Everyone surely will be watching.
Here is what else to know about before play starts on the red clay courts of the year’s second Grand Slam tournament:
DOES IT GO TO 11?
Rafael Nadal’s attempt to extend his record by winning an 11th title in Paris will be the main focus of the men’s draw. No other man has won more than six French Open titles in the professional era. The man nicknamed the ”King of Clay” has been nearly unbeatable on the surface, even winning 50 sets in a row until a recent setback. Nadal turns 32 on June 3, but he’s never looked better on red clay.
NO FEDERER, NO MURRAY
Skipping the French Open worked out well for 2009 champion Roger Federer in 2017, so why not do it again? He’s healthy but sitting out this portion of the season for the second straight year in a bid to be rested and refreshed for the grass, instead of putting his 36-year-old body through the grind required on the clay. Andy Murray, the 2016 runner-up, is recovering from hip surgery.
Maria Sharapova will be getting back on the clay of Paris for the first time in two years, after missing the 2016 tournament while serving a drug suspension, then being denied the wild-card entry she would have needed in 2017 because her post-punishment ranking was too low to earn an automatic berth in the field. Given that she’s won the French Open twice, part of a career Grand Slam, and won a trio of three-setters this month in Rome, including against Ostapenko. Another familiar face back in the draw: Victoria Azarenka, who gave birth to a son last year.
It’s been a while since the world has seen Novak Djokovic at his best after a series of right arm problems interrupted a career that hit its zenith at the 2016 French Open, when he won his fourth Grand Slam title in a row. After taking half of last year off, then struggling a lot so far this year, Djokovic looked a lot closer to himself in Rome, where he competed well before losing to Nadal in their 51st career matchup. ”I don’t think that there was too much of a difference,” Djokovic said after that setback, ”which is great for me, great news for me.”
RAINING ON THE PARADE
Now that the U.S. Tennis Association is going to inaugurate a second retractable roof at this year’s U.S. Open, and the All England Club is working on a second such setup for Wimbledon – allowing those two sites to join the at-the-forefront Australian Open as Grand Slam tournaments with multiple courts that can be covered, the French Open really seems behind the times when it comes to dealing with rain. The French tennis federation has talked about fixing this for years, and there are supposedly firm plans finally in place, but there still is no way to play when rain gets heavy at Roland Garros.
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.
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