| By Long Island Tennis Magazine Staff

The 2012 French Open, the year’s second Grand Slam event, will take place May 27-June 10 at the famed clay courts of Roland Garros. The event was first played in 1891 as a French national tournament on grass. The surface would be changed to red clay in 1912. The first French Open, then called the French Championships, was held in 1891. For the first 34 years of the tournament’s existence, it was open only to French club players. In 1925, the Championships expanded, allowing foreign players to gain entry. With a change in rules came a name change, then dubbed the “French Internationals.” During its early years, the tournament had been held in several venues, mostly throughout Paris. It found a permanent home in 1928, when Stade Roland Garros was constructed to host the upcoming Davis Cup final.

World War II forced the French Internationals to close its doors from 1940-1945. In 1946 the tournament resumed and Frenchman Marcel Bernard won the title. Since then, only one other Frenchman—Yannick Noah in 1983 —has won the crown. Three French women have won the title since 1946, the last being Mary Pierce in 2000.
When tennis ushered in the Open Era in 1968, the French Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to embrace the new, professional philosophy. One of the most celebrated pros to play in Paris was Bjorn Borg, who won the first of his six French Open titles in 1974. In the 1980s, the women’s game came to the forefront at the French. After winning three French Opens in the 1970s, Chris Evert won four more in the following decade, her last title coming 12 years after her first. Evert squared off against Martina Navratilova in three consecutive French Open finals (1984-1986), winning the last two.

 The red clay court at the French Open is unique among Grand Slam events. It is a slower playing surface than grass or a hard court surface, which makes success difficult for even some of the best tennis players. The tournament also boasts the largest broadcast audience of any tennis event. Since 2006, the tournament has begun on a Sunday, featuring 12 singles matches played on the three main courts. Additionally, on the eve of the tournament's opening, the traditional Benny Berthet exhibition day takes place, where the profits go to different charity associations. In March 2007, it was announced that the event would provide equal prize money for both men and women in all rounds for the first time

French Open Past Champions

Year    Men's Singles   Women's Singles   Men's Doubles   Women's Doubles  
2011    Rafael Nadal   Na Li   Daniel Nestor & Max Mirnyi   Andrea Hlavácková & Lucie Hradecká  
2010  Rafael Nadal  Francesca Schiavone   Daniel Nestor & Nenad Zimonjic   Serena & Venus Williams  
2009 Roger Federer   Svetlana Kuznetsova   Lukas Dlouhy & Leander Paes    Anabel Medina Garrigues & Virginia Ruano Pascual  
2008 Rafael Nadal   Ana Ivanovic    Pablo Cuevas & Luis Horna  Anabel Medina Garrigues & Virginia Ruano Pascual    
2007 Rafael Nadal   Justine Henin   Mark Knowles & Daniel Nestor   Mara Santangelo & Alicia Molik  
2006 Rafael Nadal    Justine Henin-Hardenne  Jonas Bjorkman & Max Mirnyi   Lisa Raymond & Samantha Stosur  
2005 Rafael Nadal   Justine Henin-Hardenne   Jonas Bjorkman & Max Mirnyi   Virginia Ruano Pascual & Paola Suarez  
2004 Gaston Gaudio   Anastasia Myskina Xavier Malisse & Olivier Rochus   Virginia Ruano Pascual & Paola Suarez  
2003 Juan Carlos Ferrero   Justine Henin-Hardenne   Bob Bryan & Mike Bryan   Kim Clijsters & Ai Sugiyama  
2002 Albert Costa   Serena Williams  Paul Haarhuis & Yevgeny Kafelnikov    Virginia Ruano Pascual & Paola Suarez  
2001 Gustavo Kuerten  Jennifer Capriati  Mahesh Bhupathi & Leander Paes   Virginia Ruano Pascual & Paola Suarez  
2000 Gustavo Kuerten   Mary Pierce   Todd Woodbridge & Mark Woodforde   Martina Hingis & Mary Pierce  

 

The men’s side of the draw
The ATP Tour seems to be very top heavy right now with the top four dominating the competition, especially in Grand Slam play. Since 2004, there have only been three players not named Nadal, Federer or Djokovic to win a Grand Slam. Then, you add the fourth player to the mix, Andy Murray, who has consistently been thought of as nearly the same caliber of player, but he has yet to win a Grand Slam.

The favorites …
The obvious favorite is Rafael Nadal who is going for his seventh French Open title in 2012. With the win, he will surpass Bjorn Borg as the record holder for most French Open titles. The biggest obstacles in his way (aside from rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic) will be a lingering knee ailment and his two fellow countrymen from Spain, David Ferrer and Nicholas Almagaro, who have historically faired extremely well on clay. If he can stay healthy through the entire clay season, Nadal is the odds on favorite to be hoisting his seventh title in Paris.

 

Novak Djokovic is currently the top-ranked player in the world, and would be considered the overall favorite heading into the French Open if not for Nadal. If he wins, he will be making history with a career Grand Slam and his fourth consecutive major title.

 

Roger Federer is always a favorite whenever he steps onto the court. He still has yet to show signs of slowing down and has as good a chance to win the title as anyone else.

 

 

 

The sleepers …
John Isner has been playing some of the best tennis of his life and has recently jumped over Mardy Fish as the top-ranked American at ninth in the world. He won both his Davis Cup matches against France, and clinched the victory with a 6-3, 7-6(4) 5-7, 6-3 victory over sixth-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He has been playing well on clay and how can we forget his epic five-set match against Nadal in the first round of last year’s French Open. He is 20-7 on the season and not only is he America’s best hope for a victory, but is a definite sleeper to win the event.

David Ferrer/Nicolas Almagro—The two Spaniards are top 10 players on clay. Almagro is a little underrated, but has been improving dramatically lately. Ferrer is the more established of the two and is viewed as one of the toughest competitors on the ATP Tour. These two hopefuls tend to get overshadowed by Nadal, but don’t be surprised if one of them makes a strong run at the title.

The pretenders …
Andy Murray is a top talent, and his hiring of Ivan Lendl as coach was a great move, which shows his true dedication to winning a Grand Slam title. However, Roland Garros is not his best opportunity to do so and the coaching switch to Lendl might take some time to gel. Murray should eventually win that major that eludes him, but odds are it won’t be in Paris.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has consistently improved throughout his career and often causes fits for some of the top players, especially in Grand Slams. Tsonga will have the hometown crowd behind him, but despite being one of the top players on the ATP Tour, his game doesn’t translate as well on clay. With that being said, he is the French’s best hope to make any noise in Paris.

 

The women’s side of the draw
On the women’s side, it is quite the opposite of the men’s side of the draw as the field seems wide open and there is no clear cut winner predicted to raise the title in Paris. Without a dominant favorite on the women’s side, a few veterans will be looking to add to their resumes, in addition to some young guns looking to make a name for themselves. A hip injury has forced Belgium’s Kim Clijsters to withdraw which further opens an already wide open field. Women’s Grand Slams have seen a lot of young rising stars crawl out from the shadows to win on the big stage. Do not be shocked to see a winner that no one can predict. How many picked Li Na to win last year?

The favorites …
Victoria Azarenka finally showed what she is capable of by winning the Australian Open earlier this year. Based upon her dominant season thus far in 2012, currently with a 26-1 mark, she is one of the favorites heading into France. She is playing as good as anyone else right now and should be pretty confident heading into Roland Garros.

Maria Sharapova has recently been playing some of her best tennis after a few seasons filled with injury woes. She is one of the hardest workers on the WTA Tour and Roland Garros is her only missing Grand Slam title.

Serena Williams is coming off a big tournament run at the Family Circle Cup and looks to be in top form heading into the French Open. Serena is the only current active female to hold a career Grand Slam and also has a strong game on clay courts. She has put some off the court commitments on hold for now and is back focused on playing her game. Add that to the fact that she is healthy, and Serena has a good chance to add another title to her resume.

 

The sleepers…
Agnieszka Radwanska has been a consistent top 10 player for a while now, and many believe she has her best chance to win a Grand Slam on clay. She tends to make it to the later rounds of Slams, but does she have enough to make that next step and make a semi’s or finals?

 

Caroline Wozniacki as a sleeper? She isn’t ranked number one anymore, and many do not view her as a viable candidate to win in Paris. The fact that she won’t have to answer questions about being ranked number one without having a major to her name should relieve her of some pressure. Clay does suit her game well so major title might be in her near future.

 

 

 

 

The pretenders …
You may find it hard to believe that defending French Open champion Li Na is listed as a pretender, but the fact of the matter is she was overlooked by everyone last year, allowing her to fly under the radar and eventually win the title. This year, players will not overlook her and she should have more difficult and intense matches beginning with her first round of play.

Being the reigning U.S. Open champ, Samantha Stosur should be viewed as a favorite on any surface, at any tournament, against anyone. Stosur will be considered a favorite heading into Roland Garros based on her U.S. Open victory, but clay is not her strong surface and she is still considered to be a better doubles player than a singles player. In her recent match against Serena at the Family Circle Cup (on clay), she did not fare so well, losing 6-1, 6-1 to the dominant Williams.