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By Stuart Fraser

Roland Garros is underway

It is always an exciting time when another grand slam fortnight is on the horizon.

Yet the trouble with Roland Garros is that it seems to be underway before many people realise.

The early Sunday start does indeed provide us with an extra day of tennis.

But the first day of the French Open is so low profile, it doesn’t give us the exciting start that other slams do, such as Wimbledon who open up the first day’s play on Centre Court with the defending men’s champion.

Even the sports news broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live last Friday didn’t seem to know about the early start, stating that the French Open was to begin on Monday.

I suppose they were right in a way though.  Yesterday was when the big guns emerged and we got the feeling that the second grand slam of the year had truly begun.

All the talk leading into this year’s tournament is of Novak Djokovic.  And rightly so considering that he currently sits on a 40-match consecutive win streak.

If the Serb is to win his first Roland Garros title this year, he will equal Guillermo Vilas’ all-time record of 46 consecutive victories.  Considering the present state of men’s tennis, it would be a remarkable achievement.

The early signs were good in his first-round win yesterday against Thiemo De Bakker in which he only dropped six games.  Next up for Djokovic is Victor Hanescu and that could be followed by a mouth-watering third round match up against Juan Martin Del Potro.

If that is the case, Djokovic will be cautious but he has no need to be fearful of Del Potro or anyone else as a matter of fact.  During his win streak, he has beaten Rafael Nadal on four occasions, twice on clay, and Roger Federer three times which will have given him tremendous belief and confidence.

But whilst Djokovic is the one who many are talking about, bookies still have Nadal as the 10/11 favourite.  And no wonder considering his record in Paris over the past six years.

Yet there seems to be a sense of feeling that the Spaniard is no longer invincible on the clay.  Djokovic’s victories over him in recent weeks means that there does not seem to be this unbeatable aura surrounding Nadal on the red stuff.

When I say that, I am by no means writing Nadal off.  I just feel that the state of play has changed, highlighted by the fact that Andy Murray fans seem to be quite content that the Scot is in the same half as Nadal, rather than Djokovic.

Nadal faces a tricky start when he gets his campaign up and running today against John Isner in the first round.  It is always a tough challenge when you come up against a big server like the American, especially in the opening match.

But with reports suggesting that the new Babolat balls are extremely fast, which will suit the big servers, it makes Nadal’s first match a good bit trickier.

There has been hardly any talk about the chances of Federer winning his seventeenth grand slam title in Paris over the next fortnight.  In fact, many cannot see it being anything other than a Nadal versus Djokovic final in just under two weeks time.

But to completely write off the chances of the greatest player of all time may be a little foolish.  His motivation for the ATP Tour events is clearly not as high as it once was but there is no doubting his enthusiasm to add yet another grand slam title to the illustrious and extensive list.

The Swiss faced a testing first round match against Feliciano Lopez yesterday but came through it with relative ease in straight sets.  It was a solid performance which he will be hoping will set the tone for the next two weeks.

Whilst Djokovic, Nadal and Federer face early tests at Roland Garros, Murray has benefited from a kind draw to say the least.  His first match today is against the French qualifier Eric Prodon, the world No.124.

If Murray comes through that, he then faces the Italian Simone Bolelli, another qualifier.  Milos Raonic was the seed potentially awaiting him in the third round but the Canadian was defeated yesterday by Michael Berrer which has undoubtedly opened up the draw for Murray.

For the first time in his tennis career, Murray comes to Roland Garros with some talking of him as a potential winner.  Djokovic and Nadal are the clear front-runners, but the Scot’s performances in Rome and Monte Carlo this year show that he can compete with the very best on the red stuff.

Outwith the world’s top four players, it is hard to spot other potential contenders.  Nicolas Almagro’s win in Nice last week reminded us that he is handy on the clay and it is hard to completely discard the challenge of Robin Soderling, a finalist at Roland Garros for the past two years.

But are they capable of beating players like Djokovic and Nadal in Paris this year?  I await to be convinced.

Leon Smith on red clay

The French Open has always been regarded as the slam that Andy Murray is least likely to win.

But whilst his best chances of winning his maiden slam still lie on the hard courts of Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadows and the grass at Wimbledon, his performances on the clay this year have shown that he is capable of mounting a challenge at Roland Garros.

Murray may have struggled with his early forays on the clay but there are definite signs that the Scot is finally getting to grips with the red stuff.

And that’s something that doesn’t surprise his former coach and the current British Davis Cup captain Leon Smith.

Speaking at the recent AEGON Return to Tennis Masterclass at Craiglockhart, Smith said: “It’s a surface he can play on because he is very smart and he moves great.

“One of the things he is very good at is working out opponents.  When he was young, he used to go through the draw sheet and give me the strength and weaknesses of each player and I think that is something he should always have with him.  Tactically he is very astute.”

It is this tactical know-how which helps Murray play what can be like a game of chess on the clay at times.  But why do so many of the other British players struggle to adapt?

Smith said: “Because we don’t have any red clay courts really.  The climate is very difficult and it means that a lot of the players are playing indoor tennis.

“It takes years and years to get used to the movement on it.  There is a lot of sliding, it’s different patterns of play and it’s a different psyche as well with longer rallies.

“We are not alone in that.  If you look at the United States and their French Open record, they have the same thing where they don’t have a lot of success because they don’t have a lot of red clay courts either.”

So what is the solution?  With a substantial period of the season played on the clay as well as a number of clay events throughout the year on the Challenger and Futures circuit, it is not something the LTA can ignore.

Smith said: “We do things like long trips to Spain with some of the 16, 17 and 18-year-olds.  We send them out for six weeks on the red clay, playing against some of the Spanish clay courters to try and emphasise that mental toughness, longer points and tougher conditions.

“It might not be the best surface for British players but we are trying to do a lot more like that.  We are not going to specialise on it because that is going away from our strengths which is playing on quicker courts but it is certainly something we want to try and give more opportunities to our players.”

Cox in with a chance

With Wimbledon fast approaching, attention is starting to focus on what British players will be involved this year.

The fact that there were no English players in the main draw of the men’s event last year certainly made for interesting headlines.  Andy Murray and Jamie Baker were the only two Brits to compete and they are of course both Scottish.

The good news for the English tennis fans this year is that James Ward is pretty much a certainty to be awarded a main draw wild card.  Ward is currently ranked at No.215 and easily meets the LTA’s criteria of being inside the world’s top 250 to be recommended for a wild card.

It is nervy times though for Dan Cox, currently at No.276 in the rankings.  Cox has only one more event, next week’s Nottingham Challenger, before the LTA’s ranking list deadline on the 6th of June.

But as revealed by Mike Dickson in his Daily Mail World of Tennis blog, the rules may be slightly bended to consider those players who are not far from the threshold.

If that is the case, then Dan Evans, the world No.305, could also be another name which may be considered.

In the LTA’s criteria list, they also state that a younger player who has performed particularly well prior to the Championships may be considered.  This means Oliver Golding and Liam Broady, both aged 17, may be given the opportunity to perform on the big stage at SW19.

Personally I feel that the All England Club shouldn’t hold back on awarding main draw wild cards to the British players.  Last year, they awarded three wild cards to the next three players on the direct acceptance list.

That was such a waste in my opinion.  You don’t see the other slams holding back from giving opportunities to their own players to compete in their home event.

The other grand slam tournaments even arrange wild card reciprocal agreements with each other to give their players a great opportunity to compete in other slams.  Wimbledon is the only slam which doesn’t take part in this.

However I understand that this is something they are considering doing in the next few years.  Let’s hope it comes to fruition.