Rafa Nadal’s decision to skip the French Open due to injury has set up one of the most uncertain men’s tournaments in Paris in almost 20 years but a new generation led by world number one Carlos Alcaraz stands ready to grab a rare opportunity.
Nadal, who won the first of his record 14 titles at the claycourt Grand Slam in 2005, withdrew due to a lingering hip issue that has decimated his season since the Australian Open and the Spaniard expects to retire after the 2024 campaign.
As Roland Garros gears up for a surreal edition without the ever-present 22-times major champion, another tenacious Spaniard has emerged as one of the top contenders trying to keep a Grand Slam out of Novak Djokovic’s hands.
Alcaraz warmed up for his tilt at the Paris crown by winning the Barcelona and Madrid titles, and despite a hiccup in Rome is now in his third spell as number one after first reaching the peak by winning last year’s U.S. Open.
Djokovic, who will be going for a 23rd major title after going level with Nadal at Melbourne Park in January, sees the 20-year-old as the man to beat.
“A new generation is here already,” said the Serb.
“Obviously, he’s playing amazing tennis. It’s also good for our sport that we have new faces. We’ve been saying for years that we can expect that moment to come when you have a shift of generations.
“I’m personally still trying to hang in there with all of them. I still have the hunger to keep going. Let’s see how far I’m going to play.”
Djokovic’s preparation for the season’s second Grand Slam has been far from ideal.
In another stop-start year due to his refusal to take the COVID vaccine, the Serb missed Masters tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, while an elbow issue forced him out of Madrid.
He then struggled with a physical issue in Rome and lost to Dane Holger Rune, who finished runner-up to Daniil Medvedev.
While Djokovic says it is time for a new generation to shine, Munich champion Rune said the Serb would be his pick to win a third Paris title.
“If I have to pick one favourite, I’ll probably pick Novak. But it’s more open because we don’t have Rafa this year,” he added.
“Medvedev has been showing good signs in this clay season… For sure, he’s one of the favourites.”
Medvedev’s transformation on a surface that he has openly expressed a dislike for in the past comes during a stellar year for the Russian former world number one, who has won five titles and finished runner-up at Indian Wells.
A Paris quarter-finalist in 2021, Medvedev speaks French fluently and is likely to enjoy plenty of support from local fans, who will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Yannick Noah’s title but have little hope of a homegrown champion this year.
Casper Ruud, last year’s runner-up, is slowly rediscovering his best form after a dip earlier in the season by capturing the Estoril title before a semi-final run in Rome, while Andrey Rublev is also in the mix after his Monte Carlo victory.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, who fell to Djokovic in the 2021 title clash, will continue his quest for a first major trophy after his latest attempt in Australia ended in another chastening defeat by the Serb.
One man who may be glad to see the back of Nadal is Dominic Thiem, who lost to the Spaniard in back-to-back Roland Garros finals in 2018 and 2019. The Austrian will hope his favourite surface will bring out the best in him after a disappointing spell following wrist surgery.
The French Open runs from May 28 to June 11.