PARIS: Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova begin their Roland Garros title defences on Monday while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga carries the burden of trying to end France’s 30-year wait for a home champion.
Nadal, the seven-time champion and with a Paris record of 52 wins against just one loss, starts against Germany’s Daniel Brands, the world number 60, who has lost all four first round matches he has contested at Roland Garros.
Nadal is playing his first Grand Slam tournament since a shock second round defeat at Wimbledon last year sent him home to Manacor to rest his suspect left knee.
His seven-month absence meant he missed the Olympics as well as the US and Australian Opens.
But he has been the most successful player since his return in February, winning six titles from eight finals.
Despite that formidable record coming into Paris, the 26-year-old Nadal was desperate to cool the hype over an unprecedented eighth French Open title.
“The Grand Slams are not the only tournaments on the tour,” said the Spanish third seed.
“When I go on court playing in a Grand Slam or playing in a Masters 1000 or playing in a 500 or 250, my feeling is try my best and try to play with the same passion in every tournament.”
Sharapova, seeded two behind Serena Williams, starts against Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei while 2011 champion Li Na, the sixth seeded Chinese star, opens proceedings on Court Philippe Chatrier against Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues.
Russian star Sharapova opened her claycourt season with a title win in Stuttgart, but was then easily beaten by Williams in Madrid before pulling out of the Rome quarter-finals with an illness.
She currently stands 2-13 against Williams and has not beaten the American since 2004, the year she won Wimbledon.
“It never came easy for me to play on the clay, and that’s why it took many years,” she said.
“But yet I felt like with every year I was getting closer — got to a couple of semi-finals — and last year I just felt like everything came together in many different ways.”
Tsonga, the sixth seed and looking to become the first French player to win the men’s title since Yannick Noah in 1983, faces Aljaz Bedene of Slovenia.
But Noah is not convinced that Tsonga or the likes of compatriots Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet have what it takes to be Grand Slam winners.
“It’s not that I think they are no good. It’s just that the guys ahead of them are stronger,” said Noah.
“Jo is capable of beating a top five player at any time, if he plays an exceptional match, but he can’t do that twice in a row. Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, over five sets, they are just better.”