Copy of 2024-05-21T103600Z_183287124_UP1EK5L0TFY47_RTRMADP_3_TENNIS-FRENCHOPEN-1716289740853
Spain's Rafael Nadal during a practice session ahead of the French Open at Roland Garros, Paris, on Tuesday. Image Credit: Reuters

Paris: Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won the last eight French Open titles but with the ageing Grand Slam champions nowhere near their best this year a new champion could be crowned.

Nadal’s final show

Nadal, a 14-times champion at Roland Garros, has been beset by injuries in his final season on tour while Djokovic has failed to reach a final in 2024.

Following a second-round defeat at Barcelona, Nadal cranked up his level to go on a surprise run to the Madrid fourth round and delight fans but in Rome a crushing loss to Hubert Hurkacz in his second match dampened spirits ahead of Roland Garros.

“Physically I have some issues, but not probably yet enough to say I’m not playing in the most important event of my tennis career,” said Nadal, who won his first French Open in 2005 and last lifted the Musketeers’ Cup two years ago.

“If I feel ready, I’m going to try to be there and fight for the things I have been fighting for the last 15 years, (even) if now seems impossible.”

Nadal’s indomitable spirit despite a plethora of injuries in his glittering career has never been in question, but the former world No 1 who has plummeted down the rankings risks being dumped out prematurely at his happiest hunting ground.

His earliest exit from the tournament came in 2016 when a wrist problem forced him to withdraw ahead of his third round clash with countryman Marcel Granollers and he has only lost three times in 115 matches.

Despite previously stressing that he would play in Paris only if he felt fully fit and competitive, Nadal understands the importance of going out on his own terms as he did in front of teary fans in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome.

“Probably when the people start to see that there will not be many chances to watch me play again, probably they feel a bit more emotional, more sad because it’s in some way the end of an important era in the history of tennis,” Nadal said.

“As a player, I want to be remembered for the results that I had. As a person, I hope to be remembered as a positive example of being respectful, well-educated and a good person.” Tennis fans will be hoping for one last hurrah.

Daunting task for Djokovic

Djokovic will hope to shake off a freak head injury and get his bumpy season back on track at the French Open, where the out-of-form Serb faces a daunting task to defend his title and retain his world No 1 ranking. The 24-time Grand Slam champion captured his third Roland Garros title en route to winning three of the four majors in a spectacular 2023 but has struggled to replicate that dominance this season.

Djokovic’s bid for a record-extending 11th Australian Open title was ended by eventual champion Jannik Sinner in the semi-finals in January, before the 36-year-old fell to lucky loser Luca Nardi early at Indian Wells to send alarm bells ringing.

Having been stunned by Casper Ruud in the Monte Carlo semi-finals, Djokovic was thrashed 6-2 6-3 by Alejandro Tabilo in the third round of Rome earlier this month, two days after being hit on the head by a fan’s water bottle while signing autographs.

“The way I felt on the court was just completely like a different player had entered my shoes. No rhythm, no tempo, no balance whatsoever on any shot,” Djokovic said of the defeat that hampered his Roland Garros preparation.

“It’s a bit concerning.” Reports in the Serbian media said scans had cleared Djokovic of serious injury ahead of the tournament starting on May 26 and he accepted a late wild card to compete in Geneva this week.

But having skipped Madrid before Rome, Djokovic could still head to Paris slightly undercooked with some fans fearing cracks are finally appearing in his armour.

Although it would be premature to write him off, Djokovic said he would need to improve drastically to win a fourth French Open trophy and go past Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl and Gustavo Kuerten into third in the list of Open Era Paris champions.

Adding to Djokovic’s headache is the emergence of Italian Sinner as another genuine threat to his Grand Slam ambitions alongside Spain’s Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz.

After a flat display in his defeat by Sinner in Melbourne, Djokovic split with long-time coach Goran Ivanisevic and fitness coach Marco Panichi to rediscover his best form for the French Open, Wimbledon and Paris Olympics.

Even if the move helps Djokovic capture a record 25th major, Sinner could still rise to number one for the first time on June 10 by reaching the Paris final, although doubts remain over the youngster’s fitness following a hip injury.

Young guns ready to take over

Meanwhile, young Grand Slam champions like Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner are also nursing injuries, making this year’s French Open highly unpredictable.

That has opened the door for the likes of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev to step up and open their Grand Slam account.

Zverev has not had it easy since he injured his ankle in the 2022 French Open semi-final and underwent surgery, but the 27-year-old has peaked at the right time, winning his sixth Masters title at the Italian Open on Sunday.

“Obviously being there (at Roland Garros) three times in the semi-finals in a row, (I was) playing some of the best tennis of my life there when I injured my ankle,” Zverev said.

“So in general it is always determined and marked in my calendar throughout the past few years. This year there’s no exception.

“That’s the one that I want to win. That’s the one that I look forward to the most maybe throughout the year. I’m going to do everything I can this year and we’ll see where I can end up.” Rublev, meanwhile, overcame the odds and battled through a suspected virus and an anaesthetised foot to win the Madrid Open before returning to the hospital to make a full recovery.

The 26-year-old Russian has fallen at the quarter-final hurdle at every Grand Slam but has two titles under his belt this season to give him a boost.

“For me was just to keep working, to keep trying to improve, because the season is long and we have too many opportunities, so in one moment I will have a chance,” Rublev said.

“As soon as I will have a chance, I will need to use it, because this week will change everything.”

‘Incredible tennis’

Tsitsipas warmed up for Roland Garros by winning his third Monte Carlo Masters title in four years last month, a welcome trophy for the Greek who had won just one ATP 250 title since June 2022.

“If I have to compare my level of tennis with the last two times that I’ve won here, I’d probably say this time has been the best, that I’ve come up with some incredible tennis,” he said after beating Sinner and Ruud in the semis and final.

“I had an opponent in the semi-final that is a world-class tennis player right now who refused to lose to anyone, and he’s been on a very good streak.

“So overcoming that obstacle, it’s definitely a sign that my tennis is progressing and I’m able to push those players.” Ruud exacted revenge at the very next tournament in Barcelona when he beat Tsitsipas in straight sets in the final.

The Norwegian will hope it is third-time lucky at Roland Garros after losing the last two finals to Nadal and Djokovic.

Ruud had also played several finals on the ATP Tour without winning before lifting the trophy in Barcelona.

“Honestly, this has been worth the wait,” he said. “A lot of finals that I’ve lost have been tough, a bit disappointing, of course.

“Any time you reach a final, it’s nonetheless a good week, so you can’t be too hard on yourself, but this one has been a long time coming.”