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Tennis expert Andy Schooler looks ahead to the French Open 2021,  which takes place at Roland Garros in Paris from May 30 to June 13.

When the French Open gets under way on Sunday, it will be the third time in a row that a Grand Slam tournament has taken place outside of its intended schedule.

Last year, COVID-19 forced this event to be held in September and October – and with it came slower, heavier conditions with many players taking to the court in their thermals.

At least the 2021 tournament has only been delayed a week so we’re back to ‘regular’ spring conditions.

In theory, that should be better for perennial men’s favourite Rafael Nadal, although the different conditions last season failed to knock him out his stride – he’s now won this title an incredible 13 times.

Still, for those who feel Nadal is more vulnerable when the balls play heavier – last year’s Rome defeat to Diego Schwartzman is certainly one piece of evidence – it is worth noting that this year’s tournament will introduce night sessions for the first time.

Playing under the floodlights that first came into (brief) use on Court Philippe Chatrier in 2020, the balls are sure to pick up more moisture and those who rely on their top-spin, such as Nadal, will find it harder to get their usual purchase on the balls.

There will be no fans in for the first nine of those 10 scheduled night sessions – a curfew is in place in Paris as France continues to battle the coronavirus – but at least some will be around in the day. It is also planned that the number allowed will increase towards the end of the event with government restrictions due to be eased.

Who is missing from the French Open 2021?

The entire world’s top 100 were on the men’s entry list when it was revealed last week but since there have been a couple of notable withdrawals – world number 14 Denis Shapovalov, who has been struggling with a shoulder problem, and 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka.

However, it is the women’s draw which will be missing a bigger star. 2018 winner Simona Halep has pulled out due to a calf injury. She would have been among the favourites for this year’s title too.

Several other big names who will play are already being written off.

Roger Federer is due to compete, but has played only one match on clay before Paris and has previously admitted he is focusing on the forthcoming grasscourt season. It would be no surprise for him to be playing on the green stuff in the Stuttgart tournament which runs concurrent with the second week of this event.

Serena Williams is another whose eyes are surely looking elsewhere. She’s played two clay warm-up events and one just a single match. Like Federer, this has always been her weakest surface with Wimbledon a much more realistic target for a player who will soon turn 40.

Who are the form horses ahead of the French Open 2021?

Rafael Nadal didn’t start the clay season in great form, losing in the Monte Carlo quarter-finals to Andrey Rublev. He also lost fairly early in Madrid. But just when he really needed to send out a message that he’s still the man to beat, he delivered, winning the Rome Masters by beating world number one Novak Djokovic in the final.

That win cemented Nadal’s position as the odds-on favourite for Roland Garros, although Djokovic’s week in Rome also boosted his hopes – he’d been struggling to find his best claycourt tennis prior to arriving in the Italian capital.

Last year’s two finalists take the top two spots in the market which is no surprise, particularly given the recent woes of Dominic Thiem, the runner-up here in both 2018 and 2019.

The Austrian has spoken openly about his mental struggles, a result of finally achieving his big career goal – to win a Grand Slam, which he did at last year’s US Open – and the enforced bubble life of the COVID-affected tour. He’s also been struggling with injury and while he’s shown some signs of life in recent weeks, it looks like this major will come a bit early for him.

Stefanos Tsitsipas is the man who has really stepped up during the current clay swing in Europe.

The Greek won in Monte Carlo, finished runner-up to Nadal in Barcelona (having held match point), pushed Djokovic to 7-5 in the third in Rome and polished his preparation by claiming the Lyon title.

He’s very much knocking on the door and this could be his big breakthrough.

Much, however, will rest on Thursday’s draw which has the potential to really shake up the market.

Nadal’s slip to third in the world rankings means there’s a 50-50 chance he ends up in the same half of the draw as Djokovic. If Tsitsipas lands in that section too, the current top three in the betting would all be in the same half.

As for the women, the winners of three big warm-up events are arguably the ones to watch – Ash Barty, Aryna Sabalenka and Iga Swiatek.

World number one Barty and Sabalenka met in the finals in both Stuttgart and Madrid with Barty winning the former and losing the latter before picking up a somewhat worrying arm injury.

Swiatek, who produced some stunning tennis to win last year’s French Open, responded in Rome, whose conditions are most like those which will be found in Paris.

So who are the French Open 2021 Best Bets?

As already suggested, Thursday’s draw could be particularly important this year, especially on the men’s side, but for now here are three to consider from each draw at a variety of prices.

Rafael Nadal

French Open 2021 Winner

5/6

Backing Nadal is no get-rich-quick scheme but to leave him out of this section would be foolish.

A record of 100 wins and two defeats at this tournament warrants serious respect and he’s got the potential to make even his odds-on price look big.

Last year Nadal won the event without dropping a set for the fourth time and with this year’s tournament likely to be held in conditions which are more favourable to his game, the King of Clay will take some stopping.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas

French Open 2021 Winner

6/1

The Greek’s form leading into the claycourt Grand Slam is highly encouraging. He was a point from defeating Nadal in Barcelona and wasn’t much further away from beating Djokovic in Rome.

Having landed his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo and added another trophy in Lyon, his preparation could not have gone much better.

Some would fancy his chances a little more if he’d beaten one of the Big Two but that would also have affected his odds. The 6/1 looks sure to shorten if he avoids Nadal and Djokovic in the draw.

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Casper Ruud

French Open 2021 Winner

The Norwegian has been on many people’s clay radar for some time but he’s really pushed his way to the fore in 2021, making the semi-finals at both the Monte Carlo and Madrid Masters events.

He defeated Tsitsipas at the latter to claim a notable scalp, while his only previous meeting with the Big Two came in Rome last year when he pushed Djokovic hard in the last four.

Put the finishing touches to his preparation with a title in Geneva and he certainly has the potential to go well in Paris. Again, much will depend on his draw but he’ll certainly be a dark horse if the cards fall nicely.

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Iga Swiatek

French Open 2021 Winner

5/2

With her crunching groundstrokes, Swiatek blasted her way to last year’s title without losing a set and was quickly installed as favourite for a repeat in 2021.

I had my doubts about her ability to reach such heights again but her efforts in Rome recently, which included a 6-0 6-0 demolition of Karolina Pliskova in the final, suggested otherwise.

Deserves favouritism given the way she’s played on clay, the only question is whether her price is now a bit too short.

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Coca Gauff

French Open 2021 Winner

The American teenager, who sprang to prominence by beating Venus Williams at Wimbledon two years ago when aged just 15, looks to have a real chance of reaching the business end of a Slam for the first time.

She’s had a breakthrough few weeks on clay, reaching the semis in Rome where she beat Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari before being edged out by Swiatek, 7-6 6-3.

Gauff backed that up with victory in Parma and she looks in a good place right now.

Having trained a lot at the Mouratoglou Academy in Nice, Gauff says France “gives me that feeling that I’m at home even when I’m not” so with both mind and body in good working order, her price of 25/1 looks tempting.

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Paula Badosa

French Open 2021 Winner

Swiatek sprang a big shock by winning last year’s title, while a real clay specialist, Nadia Podoroska, reached the semis.

Badosa has the potential to be this year’s surprise package having enjoyed some fine results in the run-up to Paris.

Off the long Spanish production line of claycourters, Badosa has beaten both Barty and Belinda Bencic with her spate of wins bringing semi-final appearances in Charleston and Madrid, plus the title in Belgrade.

She won the junior title here in 2015 and last year made the fourth round, so it’s clear there’s potential in backing Badosa.

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Odds are correct at the time of posting

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