PARIS (ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES) – Rafael Nadal’s decision to skip the French Open due to injury has set up one of the most uncertain men’s draw 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 clay-court Grand Slam in 2005, withdrew due to a lingering hip issue that has decimated his season since the Australian Open and he expects to retire after the 2024 campaign.
As Roland Garros gears up for an edition without the ever-present 22-time Slam champion, another tenacious Spaniard has emerged as one of the top contenders to stop Novak Djokovic breaking the Slam record he shares with Nadal.
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 the 2022 US Open.
Djokovic 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 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.”
Having been placed in the same half of the draw as Djokovic, Alcaraz said he was keen to manage his own expectations.
“I’m going to try to do my best and that’s all I’m thinking about,” he said.
“I’m not the favourite, but of course I can say I’m one of them. I don’t have a lot of pressure, as I said before I just enjoy myself and try not to think about the pressure.
“I come here to enjoy, to show my best tennis. I’ll try to do a good result, but it’s not the only thing I think about.”
Djokovic’s preparation for the season’s second Slam has been far from ideal.
In another stop-start year due to his refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine, the 36-year-old 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 Denmark’s Holger Rune, who finished runner-up to Daniil Medvedev.
While Djokovic says it is time for a new generation to shine, Munich champion Rune insisted that the Serb would still be his pick to win a third French Open 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 also 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, he 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 edition.
Casper Ruud, the 2022 runner-up, is slowly rediscovering his best form after a dip earlier in the season by capturing the Estoril title, 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 Slam 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 is ready to get under way on Sunday. One thing for sure, there will be someone else besides Nadal the “King of Clay” who will lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires in a fortnight.