Competition Heats Up At French Open

Melissa Block talks with Doug Robson, tennis reporter for USA Today, about the French Open competition this year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. It's day two of the French Open, with the play on clay and lots of anticipation.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BLOCK: First, on the men's side, will Rafael Nadal win a record seven French Open championship or will Novak Djokovic win in Paris for the first time and complete a grand slam, winning all four major titles in a row? No male player has done that since 1969, and that was Rod Laver.

And, on the women's side - well, the storyline's a bit murkier there. Douglas Robson is covering the French Open for USA Today. He joins me from Paris, where he's been watching the action at the main stadium.

And, Douglas, let's start with the women. Last year's winner in Paris was Li Na of China. This time, she's ranked seventh. Who are the favorites?

DOUG ROBSON: Well, the favorites are really the number one seed, Victoria Azarenka. Number two, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, who's always a favorite when she come into a tournament healthy. Azarenka claimed the number one ranking after she won the Australian Open, but clay isn't her best surface. She's a very aggressive baseliner and she has posted some good results on clay, but she almost went out in the first round today. She was down a set in 4-0, but then she won 12 of the next 14 games and just cruised.

BLOCK: It's interesting to think about Serena Williams. She's 30 now, hasn't won the French Open in a decade, so if she were to win this year, that would be just a remarkable comeback on her part.

ROBSON: It would be. I mean, Serena's always been a big tournament player. She had a slow start this year. She took a bad loss in the fourth round of the Australian Open, but she's really rounded into form in the last few weeks and, believe it or not, she's had her best results on clay, which is not her favorite surface.

BLOCK: And Maria Sharapova hasn't won a major title since 2008. She has said in the past that she struggles on clay. I think she used the metaphor of - that she felt like a cow on ice.

ROBSON: She sure did. She has had her problems moving on the slick surface here in Paris, but she's really worked hard on improving her movements and she's had a very consistent season. She's reached the quarter finals or better in every event this year.

BLOCK: Let's move over and talk about the men's side, Douglas. Roger Federer, who's ranked number three, says Rafael Nadal is the favorite, no discussion. He says we're crazy to even talk about this. And Nadal, we should say, is especially great on clay and in Paris. What a record he has there, 45 and one. His only loss coming in 2009. What is he able to do on clay that the others can't quite top?

ROBSON: Well, you know, Paris is Rafa's house and that's because the surface really accentuates the things that he does well - generate an incredible amount of topspin, play defense that is the most smothering in the game and it's a grindfest. I mean, no one is fitter out here than Rafa Nadal and, when you go best of five, there are few players that can really last with the Spaniard.

BLOCK: The number one seed, Novak Djokovic, played today. We mentioned he's going for that grand slam. It would be the first time since 1969. How does he look?

ROBSON: Well, you'll recall, last year, when he came into Paris, he had won every tournament that he'd entered. He came in undefeated. There was a lot of hoopla, a lot of pressure on him. He ended up losing in the semifinals to Roger Federer. And, this year, he comes in having won the Australian Open, but having taken a few losses along the way. So he comes in maybe with a little less confidence than he had last year, but he also is not playing under the weight of that undefeated streak. Now, that being said, he does have history on the line. He'd be the first person in 43 years to hold all four majors at one time and that would be an accomplishment that not even Nadal or Federer can claim.

BLOCK: And, apart from the favorites, Douglas, new names, people we should be keeping our eyes on?

ROBSON: On the men's side, I mean, I think the real feel-good story of the season has been American Brian Baker. He's a 27-year-old who was a top junior 10 years ago and then his body just started to break down and he had four or five surgeries over the course of three years, went back to school in his native Tennessee and he was effectively off the circuit for five, six years. But his body started to come back and he started to play last year and he earned himself a wild card into the French Open and I think it's been a really fun story to watch.

BLOCK: We'll be looking to see how he does there. Douglas Robson, who's in Paris covering the French Open for USA Today. Douglas, thanks so much.

ROBSON: Thank you.

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