PARIS: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, with 41 Grand Slam titles between them, will attempt to derail the growing hype surrounding teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz at the French Open from Sunday.
All three have been placed in the top-half of the draw, meaning only one will make the final. Defending champion Djokovic is seeded to face 13-time winner Nadal in the quarter-finals. Alcaraz is a potential semi-final opponent.
On the women’s side, Iga Swiatek is the undeniable favourite for a second French Open title after winning her past five tournaments.
Since the shock retirement of world number one Ashleigh Barty, the 20-year-old Swiatek has swept aside all-comers and transformed herself into the player to beat in women’s tennis.
The Pole hasn’t lost since falling to another former Roland Garros champion, Jelena Ostapenko, in Dubai in February. Her winning streak is the longest on the WTA tour since Serena Williams won 34 matches in a row in 2013.
Djokovic and Nadal are two greats of the game who have played each other more than any other two men in the Open era, including nine times at Roland Garros. Yet it’s Alcaraz who has generated so much fascination.
Alcaraz had to come through qualifying at Roland Garros only last year but looks set to be a fixture at the top of the sport for years to come. He has won four titles already in 2022 including the Masters events in Miami and Madrid, where he defeated Nadal, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev in successive matches.
Djokovic was unable to defend his Australian Open title in January after being deported from the country and has played only five tournaments in 2022 but arrives in Paris buoyed by a sixth Italian Open title, becoming just the fifth man to win 1,000 career matches in the process.
A chronic foot issue may be the biggest threat to Nadal’s bid for a record-extending 14th French Open trophy despite his victory at the Australian Open, with the injury preventing the Spaniard from rediscovering the kind of form he will need to see off a host of challengers.
Djokovic, however, said on Friday that Nadal and Alcaraz were among the favourites to win at Roland Garros but added he was confident of replicating his success from last year.
Djokovic, who will be 35 on Sunday when he begins his title defence against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, would pull level with Nadal’s haul of 21 Grand Slam titles if he wins in Paris.
“Nadal always has to be right at the top, because of his records particularly at this tournament,” Djokovic said. “And then you have Alcaraz who is the story of men’s tennis in the last four or five months... He has made a quantum jump forward.
“I feel that I am always in contention to fight for any Grand Slam trophy. As a defending champion of course more so, [I] believe I can do it again. Reliving the memories from last year is something that obviously gives me goosebumps and motivation to try to replicate that.”
Among other contenders, Russian world number two Daniil Medvedev, who gave up a two-sets lead to lose to Nadal in the Australian Open final, only returned to action in Geneva this week after undergoing a hernia operation.
Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, though, has enjoyed a solid clay season. He defended his Monte Carlo title before making the last-eight in Barcelona, semi-finals in Madrid and final in Rome.
Unlike the men’s event where Nadal has won 13 of the past 17 editions, a first-time women’s Grand Slam champion has been crowned in each of the past six French Opens.
Swiatek was one of them when she won in 2020 but she has clearly marked herself out from the raft of other one-time major champions of recent years by the way she has built on her breakthrough success.
She might be the overwhelming favourite for the French Open — the 20-year-old arriving in Paris on the back of an incredible 28-match winning streak — but says she is feeling relaxed and has nothing to prove.
“I’m more relaxed. I don’t know about being nervous, because usually it comes closer to the match, so we will see,” Swiatek told a news conference on Friday. “But I’m more relaxed, because already I’ve kind of proved to myself and to other people that I can be at the top of the game.”
Swiatek will start her campaign against a qualifier on her way to a potential fourth-round encounter with 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, the hard-hitting Latvian who was the last player to beat her, in Dubai in February.
She has been so red hot in recent weeks that it’s hard to see anyone who will have the ability to challenge her.
Defending champion and world number two Barbora Krejcikova is still recovering from an arm injury while last year’s runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has already pulled out injured.
Naomi Osaka, who shone a light on mental struggles suffered by athletes when she abruptly withdrew from last year’s championships following a row with organisers over media commitments, is back next week but she is struggling with an Achilles injury and has never made it past the third round here.
Swiatek’s biggest rival could well be Ons Jabeur. The sixth-ranked Tunisian triumphed in Madrid — a tournament the Pole opted to skip — but was then demolished in the Rome final by Swiatek.
Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2022