A French Open without Rafael Nadal still has plenty of drama

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The 2023 French Open is upon us and — spoiler alert — the event is going to have a markedly different vibe this year. Some familiar faces will be missing with the gigantic absence of Rafael Nadal for the first time since 2004, as well as former champions Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza, along with the recent retirements of Serena Williams and Roger Federer. Notable names like Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray, Venus Williams, Nick Kyrgios, Emma Raducanu and Matteo Berrettini are also missing from the slate, so Roland Garros will be lacking some of its traditional star power.

But it won’t be lacking in talent, intense competition or compelling storylines.

The year’s second major is full of rising superstars like Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz, burgeoning new rivalries, young hopefuls seeking their first Grand Slam titles, and, not to mention, Novak Djokovic, who will be looking to make history in Paris.

Which players do you need to keep an eye on? What’s at stake for some of the game’s biggest names? Can anyone replace Nadal in the hearts and minds of fans at his favorite tournament? We try to answer all that and more ahead of Sunday’s opening-round matches.

C’est la vie

After competing in every tournament since 2005 and winning a cool 14 titles along the way, Nadal has rightfully been dubbed the “King of Clay,” complete with his own statue on the grounds at Roland Garros. But all good things must come to an end. Nadal was forced to withdraw from his favorite event last week because of a hip injury sustained at the Australian Open in January. But Nadal, who also revealed the 2024 season would likely be his last on tour, did his best to keep things in perspective.

“Tournaments stay forever; players play and leave,” Nadal told reporters. “So Roland Garros will always be Roland Garros, with or without me, without a doubt. The tournament is going to keep being the best event in the world of clay, and there will be a new Roland Garros champion — and it is not going to be me. And that is life.”

Since winning the title in Paris during his debut at the event, Nadal has consistently been the favorite to hoist the trophy at the end of the fortnight, and it almost feels unnatural to be speaking of anyone else in this position. But for those curious, according to Caesars Sportsbook, the top five in order to win the men’s title are as follows: Alcaraz, Djokovic, Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

While no one can replace Nadal, it will be fascinating to see who steps up in his absence and takes advantage of the opportunity.

Another Slam for Djokovic?

As a two-time champion at Roland Garros, and one of the few to defeat Nadal at the event, Djokovic is the de facto top contender for the title in the eyes of many. He proved as recently as 2021 that he has what it takes to win on the red clay, and he has more motivation than ever this time around.

Currently tied with Nadal for the most major titles by a male player in history at 22, Djokovic could break the tie to take sole possession of the men’s record, as well as tie Serena Williams’ record for the most Grand Slam titles in the Open era.

For a self-professed historian of the game like Djokovic, he is more than aware of what’s on the line, and, having just turned 36 and with a crop of young talent now contending for titles, he knows these opportunities can’t be taken for granted.

Djokovic hasn’t exactly played his best tennis as of late, however. In his three tournaments on clay, he went 5-3 and failed to advance past the quarterfinals in any event and withdrew from Madrid with a right elbow injury. While he recorded quality wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Cameron Norrie in Rome, he ultimately fell to Rune, 2-6, 6-4, 2-6, in the quarters. Despite the setbacks, Djokovic said he remained confident entering the French Open.

“I know I can always play better,” Djokovic said after the loss to Rune. “Definitely am looking forward to working on various aspects of my game, of my body, hopefully getting myself in 100% shape. That’s the goal.

“I always like my chances in Grand Slams against anybody on any surface, best-of-five. Let’s see how it goes.”

Djokovic would potentially face Alcaraz in the semifinals, in which case: get your popcorn ready.

The Big Three

No, we don’t mean Djokovic, Nadal and Federer here. We’re talking about tennis’ latest trio on top — Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina.

The three have combined to win the past four major titles and three of the five 1000-level tournaments this year, including the two clay events in Madrid (Sabalenka) and Rome (Rybakina), and now are the heavy favorites in Paris. After several years of a revolving door of contenders in the women’s game, it seems there finally is the consistency many have been hoping for atop the sport — and it’s getting really interesting.

Swiatek is the defending champion at Roland Garros, won the title in Paris twice, and until recently seemed all but unbeatable on clay. During her 2022 French Open run, which was part of a 37-match win streak, she dropped just a single set and didn’t allow her opponents in the quarterfinals, semifinals or final to win more than five games total. But Swiatek, who remains the overwhelming favorite according to Caesars Sportsbook, has shown a few cracks in her game recently. She earned the title at Stuttgart, her first clay event of the season, with a victory over Sabalenka but lost to her in the Madrid final and had to withdraw in the third set of her quarterfinal match against Rybakina in Rome due to a right thigh injury. She later said she didn’t believe it to be serious and just needed “to take [a] couple of days off.”

Swiatek, who turns 22 on Wednesday, remains in the draw and has been spotted on the practice courts at Roland Garros, but her health remains somewhat of a question mark. For the first time in a year, her No. 1 ranking could be in jeopardy. An early exit for Swiatek and a deep run from Sabalenka — or a Sabalenka victory over Swiatek in the final — could result in a change at the top.

The 25-year-old Sabalenka, currently ranked No. 2, has never advanced past the second round in Paris, but she also had never won a major before she got to Melbourne this year for the Australian Open. Anything is possible. And she admitted the world No. 1 ranking is a longtime goal.

“I’m doing everything I can to get closer not like to [Swiatek] but to my dream,” Sabalenka said in Rome. “I’m working really hard. I’m trying to stay focused on every match, every tournament. That’s what I really want to do.”

While Rybakina, 23, doesn’t have a chance to take over the No. 1 ranking — although she might have if she had received ranking points for her Wimbledon victory — she would undoubtedly settle for a second major title. Having also won Indian Wells this year and having reached the finals at the Australian Open (with a win over Swiatek in the round of 16) and Miami, few have been more dominant this season, and she has proved she can win on any surface.

Swiatek and Rybakina could potentially meet in the semifinals, and the winner of that clash could face Sabalenka in the final.

Coco’s time?

Coco Gauff reached her first major singles final last year in Paris, knocking off several accomplished clay players along the way and cementing her status as one of the best on the surface. The 19-year-old will certainly be looking to have yet another step forward this year at the tournament and win her first major title.

But that won’t be easy. In addition to the dominance of the players mentioned previously, Gauff has continued to struggle with her forehand and hasn’t achieved the results she was likely hoping for on clay in the lead-in events. Gauff went 3-3 in her three tournaments on the surface and failed to win back-to-back matches. Ranked No. 6 in the world, Gauff was pragmatic when asked about her “overall goal” for the clay season while in Rome.

“I mean, just continue to get better,” Gauff said. “I mean, the [ultimate] goal would be to win Roland Garros. I feel like [that is] everybody who enters the tournament’s goal.

“I do think just going back to committing to the process, I feel like this year we can really change the way I play. I feel like it’s a crucial year for me. So I think I want to relearn and retrain myself to be aggressive.”

But while the singles title might be a challenge this year — with a potential showdown against Swiatek looming in the quarterfinals — Gauff and doubles partner Jessica Pegula have as good a chance as any pair to win their first major title together. The duo — whom some call “Coco.jpeg” — reached the final last year and arrives in Paris with some serious momentum. This year, Gauff and Pegula have won the titles in Miami and Qatar, and reached the title matches in Madrid and Rome.

Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova are the top-seeded pair for a reason — they have won seven major titles together, including two at the French Open, after all — but Gauff and Pegula could certainly give them a run for their (prize) money. All $635,491.95 of it.

The Prince of Clay?

After he won the US Open last year and first took over the No. 1 ranking, the expectations for Alcaraz have been sky high. Having just turned 20 earlier this month, he already has won 10 career titles — including three on clay this season alone.

While no one will be able to match the fandom and crowd energy that Nadal so frequently inspires in Paris, Alcaraz, his fellow Spaniard, might come close. As he missed the Australian Open with injury, this will be his first major as a Grand Slam champion and the top seed, and his matches will almost certainly become must-see viewing, on the grounds and on TV.

As Alcaraz steamrollered his way through the draws at Barcelona and Madrid en route to the trophies, it seemed as if no one would be able to stop him on clay. But he uncharacteristically looked his age in his round of 32 match in Rome and fell to Fabian Marozsan — a virtual unknown playing in the first ATP main draw of his career — in straight sets.

Alcaraz told reporters after the stunning loss he had felt “perfect physically” but simply was made “uncomfortable” by Marozsan’s aggressive playing style. So, was the loss a fluke? A wake-up call? A motivator for the French Open? A signal to other players that Alcaraz is beatable? We’ll find out soon enough.

Marozsan, for his part, lost in the second round of qualifying, so Alcaraz won’t have to worry about facing him during this fortnight. But there are plenty of others Alcaraz might have to worry about.

Best of the rest

As the Vegas odds suggest, there are certainly others who are more than capable of winning it all. Here are the men who have the best chance, other than Alcaraz and Djokovic:

Rune: Another 20-year-old brimming with confidence and momentum, the Dane is currently ranked a career-high No. 6 thanks to a title in Munich and final appearances in Monte Carlo and Rome. Clearly comfortable on clay, and capable of beating anyone (just ask Djokovic, who has lost to him twice in the past seven months), the surging Rune could make Paris the site of his latest breakthrough.

Tsitsipas: The 2021 runner-up at Roland Garros is coming off a final appearance at the Australian Open. The 24-year-old has come oh-so-close to major glory but has never been able to finish the job. During this clay season, he has reached the final at Barcelona, the semifinals in Rome and notched quarterfinal appearances at both Monte Carlo and Madrid.

Medvedev: Once thought of as primarily a hard-court specialist, the 2021 US Open champion has proved to everyone — including himself — that he’s pretty good on clay as well. The 27-year-old won the first title of his career on the surface at the Italian Open, notching victories over Tsitsipas and Rune along the way, and dropped just one set throughout the tournament.

Casper Ruud: Having reached his first major final last year in Paris, and later matching that feat at the US Open, Ruud started his clay season strong with a title at the Estoril Open in April. Although he subsequently struggled, losing in the round of 16 in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and the round of 64 in Madrid, Ruud seemed to be turning things around at the Italian Open. He reached the semifinals before falling in three sets to Rune.

Andrey Rublev: A two-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the 25-year-old won the title at Monte Carlo, a doubles title at Madrid and reached the final at the Srpska Open. He’s never advanced past the quarters at any major but seems increasingly like a contender for a big title.

On the women’s side, there are more than a few others who could surprise with deep runs:

Pegula: The vastly overlooked world No. 3 and one of the most consistent on tour over the past few seasons, the 29-year-old American has reached the quarterfinals at four of the past five majors, including the 2022 French Open. She reached the semifinals at Charleston to start the clay season and made a quarterfinal appearance in Madrid, in addition to the doubles finals at Madrid and Rome. She’s yet to advance beyond the quarters at a Grand Slam, but that next step seems inevitable as she continues to improve.

Krejcikova: With a victory at 1000-level Dubai in February, including a statement win over Swiatek in the final, and having won the 2021 French Open, Krejcikova continues to state her case — in words and during competition — to be included in a “Big Four” conversation. Another title at Roland Garros would likely do the trick.

Jelena Ostapenko: The 2017 French Open champion has been resurgent as of late. The 25-year-old (and noted style icon) is coming off a semifinal appearance in Rome — having notched victories over Krejcikova, Daria Kasatkina and Paula Badosa en route — and knows what it takes to win in Paris.

Ons Jabeur: The 2022 Wimbledon and US Open finalist was handed a shocking defeat in the first round of the event last year after a stellar clay season. She hasn’t quite had success on the surface in 2023 thus far, due in part to a calf injury that forced 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 appears to be back to full health.

The night match debate

While the European clay court season has provided many exciting results, it has also had more than its fair share of controversy, specifically related to the treatment of women. From the pay disparity in Rome to the much-criticized trophy presentations during the women’s doubles final in Madrid and the women’s single final in Rome, the inequities in the sport have been top of mind of late.

Those conversations will likely not be stopping anytime soon. During the 2022 staging of the French Open, only one of the 10 prime-time night matches featured women, and the blatant disparity did not go unnoticed. Tournament director Amelie Mauresmo, herself a former WTA No. 1, defended the decision by explaining women’s tennis didn’t have the same “appeal” as men’s tennis.

As you might imagine, that justification didn’t go over very well. And, despite the current focus on gender inequality, Mauresmo didn’t exactly promise to rectify the situation this year in a recent interview with the BBC.

“To be honest, I’m not able right now to tell you anything about numbers of men’s or women’s matches,” Mauresmo said. “I think we have to wait for the draws first, and for the head-to-head every day because that is really what is pushing us to make a choice — to know which match is going to be the match of the day.”

Stay tuned.

Must-see opening round matches

Women

No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka vs. Marta Kostyuk

No. 3 Jessica Pegula vs. Danielle Collins

No. 8 Maria Sakkari vs. Karolina Muchova

No. 16 Karolina Pliskova vs. Sloane Stephens

No. 18 Victoria Azarenka vs. Bianca Andreescu

No. 21 Magda Linette vs. Leylah Fernandez

No. 26 Martina Trevisan vs. Elina Svitolina

Men

No. 13 Hubert Hurkacz vs. David Goffin

No. 24 Sebastian Korda vs. Mackenzie McDonald

No. 26 Denis Shapovalov vs. Brandon Nakashima

No. 30 Ben Shelton vs. Lorenzo Sonego

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