Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and storylines from the world of men’s tennis.
The second Grand Slam tournament of the year is underway at Roland-Garros and tennis fans are in for two weeks of top-flight competition as the men’s field competes even without the presence of the King of Clay Rafael Nadal.
We’ve had several weeks of big-time clay court events in places like Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, but there’s nothing quite like best-of-five set matches which undoubtedly will produce some of the most compelling and physically grueling tennis of the season.
Now that the draw is out and the tournament just underway, let’s look at some of the favourites and underdogs that the French Open has to offer in Rafa’s absence.
We must start with World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, who despite being just 20 years old has shown an aptitude for holding the top ranking on the ATP and producing his best results when it matters the most. Alcaraz already has one major title to his name at the US Open last Fall and seems poised to add to it sooner rather than later.
The Spaniard is coming into Roland-Garros full of confidence with titles in Barcelona and Madrid and, despite a recent hiccup against the previously unheralded Fabian Marozsan in Rome, Alcaraz is considered by most as the favourite this year in Paris.
Esteemed tennis writer from the New York Times Christopher Clarey had the following to say this week to Ben Lewis and myself on Match Point Canada about how Alcaraz might fare if he meets Novak Djokovic in the later stages of the tournament:
“I think he’s ready for the big matches. He’s a big court player you can just feel it and see it…Maybe even [facing Djokovic] might be more of an advantage to Carlos because he’s going to be so excited. And maybe that fresher body at 20 years old…against Novak who will have played a whole tournament and might not have had an easy time of it, maybe that plays to his favour. I want to see that match and I think we all do and I hope it happens, that’s the main thing.”
Alcaraz and Djokovic have already traded the No. 1 ranking on more than one occasion and yet we’ve been denied seeing the two battle each other thus far in 2023. It would be a great moment for the sport to see a rising star like Alcaraz and a still more-than-capable legend like Djokovic face-off in a Slam.
My second contender in Paris this year (feel free to disagree!) is another up-and-coming star on the ATP Tour Holger Rune, who has already shown he can handle pressure-filled matches. Not one to shy away from controversy on the court, Rune has a brash attitude that reveals an already impressive level of confidence for his young age.
Rune has avoided Alcaraz and Djokovic in the bottom half of the draw and if he limits the time he spends on court, could be the freshest of the three players should he make it to the final. Rune’s road to Roland-Garros has included wins against Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Jannik Sinner and Casper Ruud which is an impressive list of players for sure.
I’m certainly not intending to disrespect two-time champion Novak Djokovic by mentioning him as my third choice to hoist the trophy at Roland-Garros, but due to his physical challenges of late with his elbow and his lackluster results on clay this Spring, it’s hard for me to rank him any higher.
Best-of-five Djokovic is a different animal, however, and beating him in this format is going to take a monster effort from any of the other 127 participants in the draw. He’s got some extra motivation this year at Roland-Garros in knowing that Nadal is not around and this gives him an excellent opportunity to break their deadlock at 22 Major titles apiece.
Again drawing on our recent conversation with Christopher Clarey, he had the following to say on how he felt Djokovic might fare as he seeks his 23rd Grand Slam title.
“You can’t count Djokovic out, I mean, you just can’t. Best of five, Grand Slam, French Open record, clay court record, ability to peak at the right time. Based on where’s he at at this stage, and how he’s looked physically and everything else, you can’t put him at peak level by any means, but I’m not counting him out.”
Other contenders this year at the French Open – and I think we can agree that the 2023 installment of the tournament offers the most players who fit this bill in many years, such as previous finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas who has always played well in Paris and another youngster with skills on the red dirt in Jannik Sinner.
How about some long-shot candidates who are outside of the Top 15?
Alexander Zverev has fared well at the French Open before, with two semifinal appearances the last two years there. Though he has struggled this year and went through his clay court season without making it past the round of sixteen at any of the Masters 1000 events, perhaps a return to a location where he has tasted recent success will help?
Alejandro Davidovich Fokina is currently ranked 34th but has always been comfortable on the clay. The 23-year-old Spaniard made it to the quarter-finals at the French in 2021 as well as the finals in Monte-Carlo in 2022. He could find himself facing Djokovic in the third round and should not be taken lightly.
Of course many of my above observations and predictions may be quickly proven wrong as the draw unfolds, so take any of it with a grain of salt! Regardless I’m looking forward to seeing who hoists La Coupe des Mousquetaires in the absence of Rafa this year and celebrating a little diversity among the list of champions. Every generation of tennis stars must pass the torch to the next at some point. Perhaps this is the year a new Roland-Garros hero is anointed!