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French Open 2018: Rafael Nadal favorite, no Andy Murray or Roger Federer

Sharp terracotta clay courts, luscious backdrops with the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance, rows of pristine Parisians wearing Panama hats... unmistakeably the French Open at Roland Garros.

The second Grand Slam of the tennis calendar - and the only major on clay - begins on Sunday.

Spain's 16-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal is still the man to beat in Paris, while 23-time major winner Serena Williams is the star attraction in the women's draw.

However, two of the biggest names will not be playing in the French capital - 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and Britain's former world number one Andy Murray.

In Murray's absence, the British charge will be led by Kyle Edmund in the men's draw and Johanna Konta in the women's.

Beating Nadal on a clay court is the ultimate challenge in tennis - a notion both 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic and three-time Grand Slam champion Murray agree on.

And, once again, the 31-year-old Spaniard is the favourite to win at Roland Garros.

Nadal triumphed in Paris last year, becoming the first player - male or female - to win the same Grand Slam tournament 10 times in the Open era.

Worryingly for his rivals, he has picked up where he left off last year on the clay, lifting his 11th titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona on his way to a record 50-set winning streak on a single surface.

Eventually that run came to an end in a defeat by Dominic Thiem in Madrid - Nadal's first loss on clay since the Austrian world number eight beat him in Rome 12 months previously.

Normal service resumed for the Spaniard at the Italian Open, a gutsy three-set victory over Germany's in-form Alexander Zverev giving him an eighth title in Rome, and helping him regain the world number one ranking from long-time rival Roger Federer.

Nevertheless Nadal - who begins his defence against Ukraine's Alexandr Dolgopolov - deflected talk of lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires for an 11th time following his win in Rome.

"Conditions in Paris are completely different," he said. "I don't believe that what happened, even if I lost - even with the victory - creates a big impact about what can happen in Paris."

Most French Open men's singles titles

Open Era since 1968

Where's Federer?

Federer waved 'au revoir' until the summer following his Miami Open defeat in March


For the second year running, Federer - who turns 37 in August - has decided to skip the entire clay-court season.

When announcing his decision last year, he spoke about the need to be smart with his scheduling to prolong his career, and the French Open - on his least favourite surface and a tournament which he has won only once in 2009 - has been sacrificial.

The decision proved to be a sensible one last year as a refreshed Federer returned to the court for the grass season, going on to lift a record eighth Wimbledon title.

The Swiss maestro regained the world number one ranking in February after a blistering start to the year in which he claimed the Australian Open during a 17-match winning run.

But successive defeats - by Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final, followed by a shock loss against injury-hit Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis - preceded the announcement Federer would again skip Roland Garros.

Federer has not played in Paris since 2015, leading to some suggestions - including from his old rival - that he does not fancy meeting Nadal on clay.

Most men's Grand Slam titles

Edmund ready for first Slam as Britain's top man

Edmund, ranked 17th, has broken into the world's top 20 for the first time


With Murray still not fully recovered from hip surgery, Edmund goes into his first Grand Slam as the British number one.

It is the first Slam since the 2006 US Open where three-time major champion Murray has not been ranked as the country's leading player.

Of course, Edmund has played on the biggest stage without Murray's shadow looming - most notably at the Australian Open in January.

The 22-year-old became only the sixth British man in the Open era to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, seeing his remarkable run ended in the last four by Croatia's 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic.

Since then the Yorkshireman has also beaten 2016 French Open champion Djokovic in Madrid, helping him climb into the world's top 20 for the first time.

He will begin his campaign against young Australian Alex de Minaur.

Cameron Norrie is the only other Briton in the men's singles draw. The world number 102, who shot to prominence in the Davis Cup defeat by Spain in March, has gained direct entry to a Grand Slam for the first time and will face Germany's Peter Gojowczyk in the first round.

Who can stop Nadal?

Alexander Zverev: The man identified by many as Nadal's biggest threat. The 21-year-old German is the leading player on the ATP Tour this year, having won 30 matches and claimed clay-court titles in Munich and Madrid. However, he has never gone past the last 16 of a Grand Slam.

Marin Cilic: The powerful Croat reached a career-high third in the world following his run to the Australian Open final, but has never gone beyond the last eight at Roland Garros. Runs to the Monte Carlo quarter-finals and Rome semi-finals, however, have left the 29-year-old hoping he can go deep in the draw in Paris.

Novak Djokovic: The once-dominant Serb has dropped down the rankings after an elbow injury which has disrupted his career since Wimbledon. He is now ranked 22nd in the world, but showed glimpses of returning to his best form with a run to the Italian Open semi-finals this month.

Dominic Thiem: The one man to have beaten Rafael Nadal on clay in the past two years. And it is a feat the 24-year-old Austrian has achieved twice - in Rome last year and in Madrid earlier this month. He is yet to transfer his talent into major prizes, having still not managed to land a Masters title, although he has reached the Roland Garros semi-finals for two years running.

Stan Wawrinka: A frustrating year for the 2015 champion, who has been sidelined by a knee injury for much of the past year. The 33-year-old Swiss has reached at least the semi-finals in each of the past three years, but a lack of time on court means a similar feat this year might be beyond him.

Serena Williams has not had much match practice but can still win

Serena Williams is aiming for a first Grand Slam title since having a baby


Serena Williams has only played four Tour matches since returning to the court after giving birth to daughter Alexis in September - but that has not stopped coach Patrick Mouratoglou saying the 23-time Grand Slam champion can still win in Paris.

Williams, 36, lost to older sister Venus in the last 32 in Indian Wells on her WTA return in March, then went out to Japan's rising star Naomi Osaka in round one at Miami a fortnight later.

The former world number one has plummeted to 453rd in the world rankings, but is able to use her protected ranking to play at Roland Garros. The unseeded American starts against Czech Kristyna Pliskova.

If she does win a fourth French Open singles crown, although there are still question marks about her fitness and sharpness, it will take her level with Margaret Court's all-time Grand Slam record of 24 majors.

Halep leads the female contenders

Simona Halep: The Romanian goes into the tournament as the world number one and the leading player on the WTA Tour this year, hoping this will be the moment she finally lands her first Grand Slam title. However, she has won only one of her past eight finals - including defeat by Jelena Ostapenko in last year's Roland Garros showpiece.

Caroline Wozniacki: The Dane landed her first Grand Slam title with victory over Halep at the Australian Open in January and is second in the year's Race to Singapore standings. Clay, however, is not her favourite surface, having never won a title on the red dirt.

Elina Svitolina: For the second year running, the Ukrainian world number four goes into Roland Garros as the Italian Open champion. In contrast to Halep, whom she beat in Rome, Svitolina has won her past eight finals - although has never reached a Grand Slam semi-final.

Jelena Ostapenko: The unseeded Latvian shocked the world 12 months ago when her all-out attacking game led to her an unlikely Roland Garros victory - just two days after her 20th birthday. She has maintained her place in the world's top 10 since, despite a patchy 2018 which has brought only one final. But she cannot be counted out - especially with the experience of savouring victory - to succeed again on her favoured surface.

Maria Sharapova: A two-time champion at Roland Garros, the Russian will be among the seeds for the first time at a Grand Slam since returning from a 15-month doping ban last year.

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