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PREVIEW: 2023 French Open – Men’s Draw

Rafa Nadal has failed to recover form a hip issue and will miss his first French Open since 2004. Without the all-conquering Spainiard in the mix, the likes of Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Djokovic and Alcaraz will all aim scoop the biggest prize on clay. Damien Kayat previews.

Stefanos Tsitsipas - French Open
Image Copyright - Steve Haag Sports

Rafa Nadal has failed to recover form a hip issue and will miss his first French Open since 2004. Without the all-conquering Spainiard in the mix, the likes of Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Djokovic and Alcaraz will all aim scoop the biggest prize on clay. Damien Kayat previews.

Two women looking excitedly at cellphone

2023 ATP Tour
Grand Slam Tennis
Men’s French Open Championships
Stade Roland Garros, Paris, France (Outdoor Clay)
28th May- 11th June

This truly feels like the end of an era. Having a French Open without Rafa Nadal is similar to having Mission Impossible without Tom Cruise. It just feels a little soulless. Rafa has failed to recover from a hip injury and will miss his first Roland Garros title since 2004.

He has an incredible 97% win-rate at Roland Garros, winning 14 of the last 17 editions of the event. This may represent the greatest display of dominance for any individual athlete in a single sporting event.

Stephen Hendry’s reign of dominance in 90’s snooker is perhaps somewhat comparable. In any event, his withdrawal does open the door for fellow legend Novak Djokovic.

The Serb currently shares the record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles with the pugnacious Spaniard. Victory here will give him some real breathing space in the GOAT conversation (epically considering Rafa’s intentions to retire next season).

But Djokovic hasn’t looked himself since claiming that 10th Aussie Open title earlier this season. In fact, he hasn’t won a single event since. This makes this year’s Roland Garros showpiece the most open in recent memory.

World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz is the current wunderkind of men’s tennis and will feel that this could be his time. Danil Medvedev has been in scintillating form this season while the likes of Rudd, Tsitsipas and Rune will no doubt be galvanized by Nadal’s absence.

Past Winners

It comes as no surprise that Nadal has won four of the last five renewals of the French Open, with his only blip coming in 2021 where he was knocked out in the semi-finals by a certain Serb.

  • 2022: Rafa Nadal by Casper Rudd (6-3, 6-3, 6-0)
  • 2021: Novak Djokovic bt Stefanos Tsitsipas (6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4)
  • 2020: Rafa Nadal bt Novak Djokovic (6-0, 6-2, 7-5)
  • 2019: Rafa Nadal bt Dominic Thiem (6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1)
  • 2018: Rafa Nadal bt Dominic Thiem (6-4, 6-3, 6-2)

This Season's Clay-Court Precursors

The 2023 edition of the French Open certainly appears to be wide open if this season’s previous big events are anything to go by. 

Keep in mind that at the time of writing the Lyon Open and the Geneva Open were still in progress. Take a look below:

  • US Men’s Clay Court Championship: France Tiafoe bt Tomas Martin Etcheverry (7-6, 7-6)
  • Grand Prix Hassan II: Roberto Carballes Baena bt Alexandre Muller (4-6, 7-6, 6-2)
  • Estoril Open: Casper Rudd bt Miomir Kecmanovic (6-2, 7-6)
  • Monte-Carlo Masters: Andrey Rublev bt Holger Rune (5-7, 6-2, 7-5)
  • Barcelona Open: Carlos Alcaraz bt Stefanos Tsitsipas (6-3, 6-4)
  • Srpska Open: Dusan Lajovic bt Andrey Rublev (6-3, 4-6, 6-4)
  • Bavarian International Tennis Champs: Holger Rune bt Botic van de Zandschulp (6-4, 1-6, 7-6)
  • Madrid Open: Carlos Alcaraz bt Jan-Lennard Struff (6-4, 3-6, 6-3)
  • Italian Open: Danil Medvedev bt Holger Rune (7-5, 7-5)
  • Lyon Open and Geneva Open: in progress

The Top Three: Alcaraz, Medvedev and Djokovic

There certainly are three favourites coming into Roland Garros, and all Alcaraz, Medvedev and Djokovic will fancy their chances without the imperious Nadal to worry about. 

Carlos Alcaraz

I’m really feeling the hype for the current darling of the tennis world: Carlos Alcaraz. He captured the imagination with last year’s scintillating US Open victory and he has quickly turned into one of the most formidable clay-court players in world tennis.

He reached the quarterfinals here last season and just defended both his Barcelona and Madrid titles. He did suffer a surprise defeat to Fabian Marozsan in Rome. The Hungarian qualifier actually set the template for success against Alcaraz, matching him stride for stride in terms of baseline aggression.

Still, I think Alcaraz probably didn’t mind an early Rome exit. It has given him the perfect little period to recharge his batteries ahead of this year’s French Open. I think he has an exceptional chance of winning his 2nd Grand Slam title.

Danil Medvedev

Medvedev is an interesting conundrum. The 2021 US Open champ and 2022 Aussie Open runner-up obviously has the cojones for the biggest stages.

And he has dispelled lingering concerns regarding his clay-court prowess with an astonishing victory in Rome (his maiden clay-court title). That victory in Rome took his season win-loss record to an astonishing 39-5.

That includes a season-leading five ATP Tour titles. The Russian should feel absolutely primed for an unforeseen French Open title charge (especially given the absence of 2022 Aussie Open conqueror Nadal). But I still don’t think Medvedev has what it takes to win a Slam in Paris.

It’s a much different proposition converting those three-set tournament victories into Grand Slam success. And that’s especially true on clay. Medvedev has played more tennis than anyone this year and I think he will struggle in the latter portion of the tournament.

He has never gone beyond the quarterfinal stage here and I find it hard to see him lifting this year’s trophy.

Novak Djokovic

That leaves us with this year’s biggest quagmire: Novak Djokovic. The Serb has seen and done it all before. He has often gone into Slams with dubious form and emerged victorious.

That’s just how he is built. But something feels a little different this year. He hasn’t reached a final in four events since the Aussie Open. Additionally, he has failed to go beyond the quarterfinal stage in each of his last three events.

He also seemed to be suffering with a leg issue during his Rome quarterfinal defeat to Rune. But the Serbian legend has been known to ‘exaggerate’ injuries before (remember his hamstring issues during this year’s Aussie Open).

I wouldn’t be too fazed by news of injury. And he should feel hugely motivated by the prospect of going to 23 Grand Slam titles on his own. I think we will see a revitalized Djokovic, desperate to take advantage of Nadal’s absence.

Top Ten Contenders- Tsitsipas and Rune

I have to admit that I was tempted to back Casper Rudd following his semi-final run in Rome. A two-time Grand Slam finalist in 2022, Rudd hasn’t quite been able to replicate that form in 2023.

But I still have my reservations following his general form this year. I also think that some people are getting a little too giddy after Andrey Rublev’s Monte-Carlo victroy.

The Russian has consistently underdelivered on the Grand Slam stage, losing all seven of his previous quarterfinal matches. He seems to hit a mental hurdle in the latter stages of the Slams and I would avoid him. Jannik Sinner is a decent shout but I have narrowed my picks down to Tsitsipas and Rune.

Stefanos Tsitsipas

I just feel that this could be Tsitsipas’ year. The Greek created some clamour in Rome, attempting to eject his mother during his tough semi-final defeat to Medvedev. That wasn’t the end of the hullabaloo.

Mark Philippoussis has just left his coaching staff on the eve of the French Open. I think the Greek has the experience to put all these distractions to one side. I feel like he has the right combination of power and durability to win this year.

He reached the final here in 2021 and reached another Grand Slam final at this year’s Aussie Open. He hasn’t won a title this year (I think he struggled to move past that Aussie Open defeat to Djokovic). But he is an accomplished clay-court player and he has started to look threatening on the sticky stuff.

Holger Rune

20-year-old Danish sensation Holger Rune burst onto the scene at last year’s French Open, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas to reach his maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal. And it was really the catalyst for a fantastic campaign. He would reach four consecutive finals to end the year, culminating in a sensational Paris Masters final win over Novak Djokovic.

And he has played some amazing tennis during this spring clay-court swing, compiling a brilliant record of 13-3 in this window. He won the Munich title but crucially reached two Masters 1000 finals in Monte-Carlo and Madrid. He is arguably the most in-form clay-court player in world tennis outside of Carlo Alcaraz.

Mid-Tier Choices- Khachanov and Norrie

Borna Coric is being seen as a real dark-horse contender after a semi-final run in Madrid and a quarterfinal run in Rome. But the Croatian has only one Grand Slam quarterfinal to his name and I think he lacks the mettle to make a concerted Grand Slam run.

Karen Khachanov

That’s why I’m opting for ironman Russian Karen Khachanov. He has reached the semi-final stage of the last two Grand Slams. He also narrowly lost to Medvedev in this year’s Miami semi-finals. He just has that inalienable ability to turn it on in the biggest events.

The Russian reached the quarterfinal here in 2019 and has been on the cusp of some good results this year (highlighted by a quarterfinal run in Madrid).

Cameron Norrie

I feel like I have to bring balance to the universe following Rafa’s Nadal withdrawal. This leads me to fellow lefty Cameron Norrie. To be fair, Norrie has been one of the most consistent all-court players in the world over the past three years.

He has also shown a real penchant for clay, reaching five clay-court finals in the past three years. This culminated in him winning the biggest clay-court event of his career at this year’s Rio Open (beating the remarkable Carlos Alcaraz in the process).

He has gone slightly quiet in the European clay-court swing (though he is a Lyon quarterfinalist at the time of writing). I just think his Wimbledon semi-final run last season will stand him in good stead for this year’s French Open. He is able to impart massive topspin on his forehands and I can see him reaching the latter parts of this event.

The Longshots - Struff and Cerundolo

Right then. I’ll round off this preview with two guys – a red-hot journeyman and a battling clay-court specialist – who could upset the applecart should the stars align.

Jan-Lennard Struff

German journeyman Jan-Lennard Struff wasn’t on anyone’s radar six weeks ago. But two massive Masters 1000 clay-court showings have propelled him to a career-high singles ranking of 26 in the world.

He beat Casper Rudd en route to a quarterfinal run at Monte-Carlo. And he enjoyed an unbelievable run in Madrid, beating Tsitsipas and becoming the first ever lucky-loser to reach an ATP 1000 final (ultimately losing to Alcaraz in three sets).

He seems to be embracing this late-career surge and could be a dangerous banana peel for the elite players.

Francisco Cerundolo

I always feel that it’s wise to include a true clay-court specialist in my longshot options. 24-year-old Argentine Francisco Cerundolo fits the bill perfectly. The Current Argentine No.1 enjoyed a breakthrough 2022 campaign, reaching two ATP 500 semi-finals and a Masters 1000 semi-final in Miami.

He then defeated Casper Rudd en route to his maiden ATP Tour title in Bastad. He hasn’t quite reached those levels in 2023. But he has been showing signs of his best form over the past six weeks or so. He beat Auger-Aliassime en route to a quarterfinal berth in Miami.

He has also picked up some massive scalps during the clay-court campaign: he beat Norrie in Monte-Carlo, Rudd in Barcelona and Sinner in Rome. He is currently embroiled in the Lyon Open and he will one that the top seeds will be keen to avoid in the early stages.

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