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5 things at French Open: Nadal nears Federer; Djokovic's career Slam; Sharapova eyes Wimbledon

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PARIS - Heading into the French Open, there appeared to be reasons to wonder whether Rafael Nadal would leave Roland Garros as the champion yet again.

There were the three losses on clay, including one last month to Novak Djokovic.

There was the aching back that hampered Nadal during a loss in the Australian Open final in January — and, it turned out, flared up again in Paris.

And there was the question of whether Nadal could keep up his near-perfection at the French Open, a tournament he has dominated the way no man ever has dominated any of tennis' Grand Slams.

In the end, none of it mattered. Nadal beat Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 in Sunday's final to improve to 66-1 at Roland Garros, including 35 wins in a row. Nadal owns nine French Open titles, the last five in a row.

"Today, the tennis gives me back what happened in Australia," Nadal said. "For me, playing here in Roland Garros is just unforgettable, forever."

Here are five things we learned during the 2014 French Open:

NADAL'S PLACE IN HISTORY: It was only a dozen years ago, at the 2002 U.S. Open, that Pete Sampras won his record 14th Grand Slam title. At the time, no one else had more than 12. The next year, Roger Federer won the first of what are now 17 majors. Now Nadal has raised his total to 14 — less than a week after his 28th birthday, so there is time to add to it. He is about two months older than Federer was when he got No. 14.

DJOKOVIC'S CAREER SLAM: Once more, Djokovic came close to joining Federer and Nadal as an owner of a career Grand Slam. And once more, Djokovic ran into Nadal. Djokovic is 0-6 against Nadal at the French Open, including losses in the 2012 final and 2013 semifinals. Federer went through something similar — he lost to Nadal in Paris in the 2005 semifinals and every final from 2006-08, before finally getting his French Open title in 2009, after Nadal lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round. Maybe Djokovic just needs a little help, too. "He deserves to win this tournament," Nadal said. "I am sure he will do it in the future."

THE BIG 2: Nadal and Djokovic are separating themselves from the other two members of the Big 4, Federer and Andy Murray. Federer, 32, has lost before the quarterfinals at three of the last four majors. Murray made the French Open semifinals, but was overwhelmed by Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. Setting his sights on a title defence at Wimbledon starting June 23, Murray made a groundbreaking choice for his new coach, hiring former women's No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo.

SHARAPOVA'S BACK: After a second-round loss at Wimbledon in 2013, Sharapova played one match the rest of the year, because her surgically repaired right shoulder acted up. Her second French Open title proves she is back — and might be ready to win a second Wimbledon trophy 10 years after her first. Sharapova still has problems serving — 12 double-faults in her 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 victory over Simona Halep on Saturday — but if she can keep winning third sets at her current rate, that might not matter.

WILLIAMS AT WIMBLEDON: Serena Williams' title defence ended meekly, with a 6-2, 6-2 second-round loss to 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza, one of the up-and-comers who made an impression in Paris (Halep is 22; semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard is 20). No one reacts better to disappointment than Williams, so look out at Wimbledon.

___

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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