Keep an eye on injuries, mindset, youth

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
11:46
AM ET
What started out as a wild and wacky French Open culminated with two established champions, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova, taking the singles trophies.

Now that the clay dust is settling, here's a look at what to watch following two weeks in Roland Garros.

1. Nadal's back
That might mean Nadal's back, as in he just won his ninth French Open, or Nadal's back, which was giving him problems during the tournament and might also have been acting up in the final against Novak Djokovic as well. The issue is which will be the bigger story as the season progresses.

It was unusual to see Nadal and Djokovic both struggling physically in the three-and-a-half hour final, not a long match by their usual standards. Nadal was cramping in the fourth set, and so badly during the ceremony that he could not hold the trophy properly. His team sent for a doctor afterwards.

The Spaniard cited hot weather after the cool conditions at the beginning of the tournament, saying "I felt I was totally exhausted. I don't know if I could have played a five-set match."

Now to see if he can bounce back for Wimbledon, a tournament he has won twice but lost in the second round in 2012 and first round in 2013. On top of that, another injury comes into play on grass -- his knee, which kept him off the tour for seven months starting in 2012. The bending required on grass tends to be harder on the back and knees than other surfaces.

"I hope my knee will have the positive feeling on grass, because I feel my knee better than last year on the rest of the surfaces," he said. "Grass always was a little bit harder for me after the injury."

Despite his fatigue, Nadal will play the grasscourt tournament in Halle this week to prepare for the All England Club.

2. Djokovic's reaction
The Serb has now been denied the career Grand Slam by Nadal for three straight years, and while he says he'll be back to try again next year, there is still the remainder of this season to play.

While Djokovic has not gone away after his French Open defeats in the previous two years, he has not performed quite as well in the big matches after falling at the French Open -- there were lackluster performances against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals and Andy Murray in the US Open final in 2012, and against Murray in the Wimbledon final in 2013.

His reaction will again be worth watching, because until now he had been this season's most consistent performer and beaten Nadal in both their previous meetings. There's also whether he will be affected by things off the court, with a wedding to fiancee Jelena Ristic and the birth of his first child expected this year.

3. Players 23 and younger emerging
They didn't lift the trophies, but the new guard made its presence felt more than at any Grand Slam in years, particularly on the women's side.

[+] EnlargeSimona Halep
AP Photo/David VincentSimona Halep had plenty to celebrate in Paris, and looks to be poised for more.
Simona Halep romped to the final and went three tough sets with Maria Sharapova. Garbine Garbine Muguruza turned the whole tournament on its head with her upset of Serena Williams in the second round, and was a game away from defeating Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. Eugenie Bouchard made the semifinals at a Grand Slam for the second straight time, and took Sharapova to three sets (okay, who didn't extend Maria?).

Younger players drew notice during the first week as well. Kristina Mladenovic took out Li Na in the first round, while Alja Tomljanovic defeated Agnieska Radwasnka. Sloane Stephens has now reached the second week of eight straight majors, while wildcard Taylor Townsend made the third round in her first appearance at one.

And there are others -- Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys, Belinda Bencic -- who made little impact at this French Open but are progressing steadily.

Up-and-comers were less visible on the men's side but Milos Raonic did reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, just like Grigor Dimitrov did at the Australian Open, while Jack Sock entered the third round.

It's not a takeover, but at least the next generation has started to introduce itself.

4. Sharapova's opening
More than anything, this French Open title was a victory for Sharapova as a competitor.

The 27-year-old had insisted Serena Williams' exit wasn't affecting her, but her tight performances as the event wore on suggested otherwise. She seemed to be on the verge of defeat the entire second week, going three sets in each match from the fourth round onwards. But the Russian wriggled though, and having already won each Grand Slam once, now finds herself with two on what was once her least-preferred surface.

"If somebody had told me... at some stage in my career, that I'd have more Roland Garros titles than any other Grand Slam, I'd probably go get drunk. Or tell them to get drunk," she said.

She may not have solved Serena, but Sharapova dominated the clay season and showed that she is right back in the mix at the top after her shoulder injury a year ago, and now has very little to defend this season. Back up to No. 5 in the rankings, she could climb right to the top once again if she can keep up the form she showed the first week at the French Open, and the fight she showed during the second.

5. Serena's stumbles
It's not that Williams was defeated as much as how she was defeated. In straight sets, 6-2, 6-2, by an inexperienced 20-year-old Muguruza . It was her most one-sided defeat in a Grand Slam, with Williams showing none of her famed fighting qualities or even her legendary serve. And she took the defeat with remarkable composure, smiling and chatting with her opponent at net.

So are two seasons of dominance finally starting to wear on her, as she suggested at Charleston, or will she return stronger than ever, as with her first-round defeat at the French Open two years ago? Williams has won only three of the eight tournaments she has played this season (with one withdrawal), and taken defeats from Ana Ivanovic, Alize Cornet, Jana Cepelova and now Muguruza. But there's nothing like a Grand Slam defeat to re-motivate her.

6. Federer's fluctuations
Not reaching the second week for the first time in 10 years might have been more noteworthy had Federer's claycourt season not had the (welcome) disruption of he and wife Mirka welcoming their second set of twins in May. While she did the heavy lifting, his schedule did not go unaffected. Federer pulled out of Madrid for the births and fell in his opening match at Rome, entering the French Open with less attention and reduced expectations.

It may be more significant that he continued this season's habit of dropping tight matches, going out to Ernests Gulbis in five sets. The 17-time Grand Slam has gone out in a deciding set in six of his seven tournaments this year.

If he could change that pattern, it would make a big difference to his results.

7. Over-30s stalling
While the French Open was a good tournament for younger players, it was a challenging event for older ones. Only one over-30 made the men's quarterfinals (David Ferrer), and none the women's, countering the recent prominance of the veterans. M

eanwhile, 32-year-olds Serena Williams and Li Na, as well as 34-year-old Venus Williams, all exited by the second round. Federer, also 32, went out in the fourth, while two quarterfinalists from a year ago, Tommy Robredo, 32 and Tommy Haas, 36, didn't get further than the third round and first round, respectively, with Haas retiring during his opener with shoulder problems.

One expection was Guillermo Garcia Lopez, who at 31 made the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time.

While the tendency for players to do well further into their careers looks set to continue, it may be a signal that the recent surge of over-30 success is slowing down.

8. Gulbis gaining
It's happened before. Ernests Gulbis goes on a run, declares he's working harder than before and creates anticipation that he's finally going to make good on his enormous talent. Then, after a few weeks and few broken racquets, it's back to his underachieving normal. Will this time be any different?

It could be, because Gulbis has become more consistent since his previous big run at Delray Beach and Indian Wells a year ago. Once again, he's been on a tear, winning the title in Nice and then reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal with wins over Federer and Tomas Berdych. But his results leading up suggest he's been building up to this, rather than just having one of his occasional shows of potential.

While he isn't likely to start doing well every week, another thing that's different is that the 25-year-old Latvian reacted to his breakthrough by looking forward to playing rather than partying.

"It's not enough. I need to reach more now," he said.

9. Halep stepping up
The Romanian is up to No. 3 in the rankings after reaching the French final, and as impressive as her results have been since a year ago, her play against Sharapova was even more so. Halep managed to both hit and compete on the same level as the Russian for much of the match, showing the potential of her game as she extended the match to three sets after being down a set and a break.

So can the Romanian now establish herself as a top player? Her size and game will make it tough for her to dominate the biggest names, but she has shown herself she can do well at the biggest tournaments, something she had not been able to do before this season.

"Before the tournament, in Grand Slams I could not play my best tennis," she said.

10. Transition to grasscourts
Those who went out unexpectedly early at the French Open, like Stanislas Wawrinka, Serena Williams and Na, find themselves with plenty of time to prepare for Wimbledon, but could enter the tournament lacking match practice. Wawrinka, who had not entered any warm-up events on grass, has taken a wildcard into Queen's Club after going out in the first round of the year's second major.

Those who unexpectedly went deep, like Andy Murray, Ernests Gulbis, Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard, will have to try to make the transition with only a few days in between. Nadal, Djokovic and Sharapova are used to it -- especially Nadal -- but their fatiguing French Opens could leave them drained at the All England Club.

It's tough to say which will provide better preparation for Wimbledon, so it's a question of seeing which group ends up doing better.

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