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Even without Rafael Nadal, the French Open will be filled with intrigue


The French Open of 2023 is approaching, and — spoiler alert — this year’s competition will have a very different atmosphere. Rafael Nadal’s massive absence, Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza’s previous titles, Serena Williams and Roger Federer’s recent retirements, as well as Nadal’s massive absence for the first time since 2004, will leave some recognizable figures out of the picture. Roland Garros won’t have all of its usual star power this year because notable players like Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray, Venus Williams, Nick Kyrgios, Emma Raducanu, and Matteo Berrettini aren’t on the schedule.

However, it won’t be short on talent, fierce competition, or interesting plots.

The second major of the year will feature up-and-coming players like Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz, blooming new rivalries, young aspirants vying for their first Grand Slam championships, and Novak Djokovic, who will be trying to make history in Paris.

Which players need to be watched out for? What is on the line for some of the biggest names in the game? Can anyone take Nadal’s place in the hearts and thoughts of the crowd at his favorite competition? In advance of Sunday’s opening-round games, we attempt to respond to all of these questions and more.

Life goes on,

At the competition that helped define him, Rafael Nadal’s absence will be felt keenly. Getty Images, Eurasia Sport Images, and Antonio Borga
Nadal has earned the moniker of “King of Clay,” complete with his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros, having participated in every tournament since 2005 and winning a whopping 14 trophies along the way. However, everything good must come to an end. Nadal’s hip ailment, which he sustained during the Australian Open in January, caused him to withdraw from his favorite competition last week. But Nadal tried his best to maintain perspective, adding that the 2024 season would probably be his last on the tour.

According to Nadal, “Players play and leave; tournaments last forever.” So, without a doubt, Roland Garros will continue to exist with or without me. There will be a new Roland Garros champion, and it won’t be me. The competition will continue to be the finest on clay. Life is like that.

Nadal has consistently been the favorite to lift the trophy at the conclusion of the fortnight since he won it in Paris when he made his debut in the competition, and mentioning anyone else in this situation feels almost out of place. Alcaraz, Djokovic, Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner, and Stefanos Tsitsipas are the top five men’s contenders, according to Caesars Sportsbook, for those who are interested.

Despite the fact that Nadal cannot be replaced, it will be interesting to see who rises up and seizes the moment.

A second Grand Slam for Djokovic?

At the French Open, Novak Djokovic has the chance to make history. EPA / IAN LANGSDON
Djokovic is the de facto front-runner for the title in the opinion of many because he is a two-time champion at Roland Garros and one of the few players to overcome Nadal there. He demonstrated in 2021 that he possesses the skills necessary to triumph on the red clay, and this time around, he is more motivated than ever.

At 22 major titles, Djokovic is currently tied with Rafael Nadal for the most major titles by a male player in history. If the tie is broken, Djokovic would surpass Nadal and tie Serena Williams for the most Grand Slam titles in the Open era.

For someone who considers himself to be a historian of the game, like Djokovic, he is well aware of what is at stake. Having reached 36 and with a new crop of young players now vying for trophies, he also knows that these opportunities cannot be taken for granted.

But lately, Djokovic hasn’t exactly playing his best tennis. He finished 5-3 in his three clay-court competitions and was forced to withdraw from Madrid due to an elbow ailment. He never made it through the semifinals in any of the competitions. Although he beat Cameron Norrie and Grigor Dimitrov admirably in Rome, he ultimately lost to Rune, 2-6, 6-4, 2-6. Djokovic claimed that despite the failures, he felt confidence going into the French Open.

Djokovic admitted after his defeat by Rune, “I know I can always play better. “I am definitely looking forward to focusing on many parts of my game and of my body, hopefully getting myself in 100% shape. The objective is to accomplish that.

“I always think I have a good chance in Grand Slam matches against anyone on any court, best-of-five. Let’s see what happens.

Get your popcorn ready if Djokovic does end up facing Alcaraz in the semifinals.

“The Big Three”

If Iga Swiatek hopes to retain her French Open crown, she will have some tough opposition. AP photo by Marijan Murat
Not Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer, mind you. Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, and Elena Rybakina are now tennis’ top three players.

The three have combined to win the previous four major championships and three of the five 1000-level competitions this year, including the two clay events in Madrid (Sabalenka) and Rome (Rybakina). As a result, they are currently the overwhelming favorites in Paris. The women’s game has had a rotating cast of contenders for several years, but it appears that consistency has finally arrived at the top of the sport, and things are starting to get extremely intriguing.

In addition to winning the title twice in Paris, Swiatek is the defending champion at Roland Garros and up until recently appeared to be untouchable on clay. She lost just one set throughout her 37-match winning streak at the 2022 French Open, and she didn’t let any of her rivals win more than five games in any of the tournament’s semifinals, final, or quarterfinal matches. However, Swiatek has recently displayed some flaws in her game despite still being the clear favorite, per Caesars Sportsbook. She beat Sabalenka to win the title at Stuttgart, the season’s first clay event, but fell to her in the Madrid championship match. She also withdrew from her quarterfinal match against Rybakina in Rome after suffering a right thigh injury in the third set. Later on, she said that she didn’t think it was serious and that she just needed “to take [a] couple of days off.”

Swiatek, who turns 22 on Wednesday, is still in the draw and has been seen on the Roland Garros practice courts, but there are some concerns about her health. She might lose her top spot for the first time in a year. A change at the top could occur if Sabalenka makes a strong run while Swiatek falters, or if Sabalenka defeats Swiatek in the championship match.

The No. 2 ranked Sabalenka, who is 25 years old, has never made it past the second round of a tournament in Paris, but she had also never won a major title before she arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open this year. There are no limitations. She also acknowledged that she had been aiming for the world’s top spot for a while.

Sabalenka stated in Rome, “I’m doing everything I can to get closer, not like to [Swiatek], but to my dream.” “I’m exerting a lot of effort. I’m attempting to maintain attention on each game and competition. I truly want to accomplish it.

While Rybakina, 23, doesn’t have a chance to overtake the No. 1 spot—although she might have if she had received ranking points for her Wimbledon triumph—she surely would be content with winning a second major championship. Few have been more dominant this season than her, and she has demonstrated that she can triumph on every surface by winning Indian Wells, Miami, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells in addition to making it all the way to the finals of both events.

It’s possible that Swiatek and Rybakina will square off in the semifinals, with the winner going on to play Sabalenka in the championship match.

Coco’s moment?

Coco Gauff’s chances of winning a singles championship this year may be slim, but her doubles momentum favors her. Getty Images, Tim Clayton/Corbis
Coco Gauff beat out a number of skilled clay-court players en route to reaching her maiden major singles final in Paris last year, solidifying her place among the top on the surface. This year at the competition, the 19-year-old will undoubtedly aim to advance further and take home her first major victory.

It won’t be simple, though. Along with the above mentioned players’ dominance, Gauff has struggled with her forehand and hasn’t had the success she was probably expecting for on clay in the lead-in events. Gauff failed to sweep a pair of matches in her three surface competitions, going 3-3 overall. When questioned about her “overall goal” for the clay season while in Rome, No. 6 in the world ranked Gauff was frank.

Gauff remarked, “I mean, just keep improving. The [ultimate] objective would be to win Roland Garros, after all. I think everyone who enters the competition has it as their main objective.

“I feel that this year we can truly transform the way I play. I do think simply going back to committing to the process would help. It seems like a pivotal year for me. As a result, I believe I should refresh my aggressive training.

Gauff and doubles partner Jessica Pegula have as much a chance as any pair to win their first major championship together, even though winning the singles crown this year may be difficult given the possibility of a quarterfinal matchup with Swiatek. The team, sometimes referred to as “Coco.jpeg,” advanced to the final the previous year and is coming into Paris with a lot of enthusiasm. Gauff and Pegula reached the championship bouts in Madrid and Rome this year and won the titles in Miami and Qatar.

Gauff and Pegula may definitely give Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova a run for their (prize) money. After all, the top-seeded duo has won seven major titles together, including two at the French Open. Completely $635,491.95 of it.

Prince of Clay?

Could Carlos Alcaraz succeed Rafael Nadal on clay? Getty Images, Tim Clayton/Corbis
Expectations for Alcaraz have been extremely high since he originally reached the No. 1 position after winning the US Open last year. He recently turned 20 and has already amassed 10 career victories, three of which have come this clay season.

Alcaraz, another Spaniard, may come close to matching the adoration and fervor that Nadal so routinely generates in Paris, despite the fact that no one will be able to match him. His matches will almost surely become must-see watching, on the grounds and on TV, as he will be playing in his first major as a Grand Slam champion after missing the Australian Open due to injury.

Alcaraz appeared unstoppable on clay as he bulldozed his way through the draws in Barcelona and Madrid on the way to the titles. But in his round of 32 encounter in Rome, he appeared older than usual and lost in straight sets to Fabian Marozsan, a relative unknown competing in his debut ATP main event.

Alcaraz informed reporters after the shocking defeat that he had been “perfect physically” but had only felt “uncomfortable” because to Marozsan’s aggressive playing style. So, was the defeat an accident? An alarm clock? A spur to the French Open? a sign that Alcaraz can be defeated to other players? We’ll find out in due time.

Alcaraz won’t have to worry about playing Marozsan this weekend because he dropped out of qualification after the second round. Alcaraz may need to worry about a lot of other things, though.

superior to the rest

Don’t write Holger Rune out for the French Open. Getty Images, Tim Clayton/Corbis
There are undoubtedly other people who have a strong chance of succeeding, as the Vegas odds indicate. In addition to Alcaraz and Djokovic, the following men have the highest chances:

Rune, a fellow 20-year-old who exudes confidence and energy, is placed at No. 6 right now, which is a career-high, thanks to his victory in Munich and final appearances in Monte Carlo and Rome. The advancing Rune might make Paris the location of his most recent breakthrough. He is obviously at home on clay and capable of defeating anyone (just ask Djokovic, who has fallen to him twice in the last seven months).

Tsitsipas: The Australian Open finalist from 2021 is coming off a second-place finish at Roland Garros. The 24-year-old has so nearly achieved tremendous success but has never been able to complete the task. He has achieved success on clay this season by making it to the final at Barcelona, the semifinals in Rome, and the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo and Madrid.

Medvedev: Formerly regarded as a hard-court specialist, the 2021 US Open winner has shown the world—and even himself—that he is also competent on clay. At the Italian Open, the 27-year-old earned his first career championship in the surface division. Along the way, he defeated Tsitsipas and Rune, and he dropped just one set the entire competition.

Casper Ruud: After making his first major final in Paris last year and then duplicating that achievement at the US Open, Ruud kicked off his clay season with a victory at the Estoril Open in April. Ruud appeared to be improving at the Italian Open, even if he afterwards struggled, losing in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid, as well as the round of 64 in Madrid. He advanced to the semifinals before losing to Rune in three sets.

Andrey Rublev, a two-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, won the title at Monte Carlo, won a doubles championship in Madrid, and advanced to the final of the Srpska Open. He is 25 years old. Even though he has never advanced past the quarterfinals in a major, he is emerging as a serious title candidate.

There are plenty additional ladies who could come out of nowhere to make deep runs, including the following:

Pegula: The 29-year-old American is the world No. 3 but has received little attention, and over the past few seasons, has been among the most reliable players on the tour. He has advanced to the quarterfinals in four of the last five majors, including the 2022 French Open. As the clay season got underway in Charleston, she advanced to the semifinals, and she also appeared in Madrid’s quarterfinals and the doubles finals in Rome and Madrid. Although she hasn’t yet advanced past the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam, the next step appears likely as she keeps getting better.

Krejcikova: Having won the 2021 French Open and a 1000-level tournament in Dubai in February that included a statement victory over Swiatek in the final, Krejcikova continues to argue in both words and in competition for a place in the “Big Four” discussion. Probably all it would take is another victory at Roland Garros.

The 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko has recently been on a tear. With triumphs against Krejcikova, Daria Kasatkina, and Paula Badosa en route to her semifinal appearance in Rome, the 25-year-old (and well-known fashion star) is well-prepared to prevail in Paris.

Ons Jabeur, who will compete in the US Open and Wimbledon finals in 2022, suffered a surprise loss in the event’s opening round last year after having a standout clay season. She hasn’t exactly had success on the surface in 2023, in part because of a calf injury that prompted her to retire early in a semifinal match against Swiatek at Stuttgart and withdraw from Madrid, but she won the title on the green clay at Charleston in April and seems to be in good shape.

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