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Wide-open French Open enters new era

By AFP - May 26,2023 - Last updated at May 26,2023

France’s Yannick Noah reacts after winning against Sweden’s Mats Wilander during their men’s singles final match of The Roland Garros 1983 French Open tournament in Paris on June 5, 1983 (AFP photo)

PARIS — The 2023 French Open gets underway at Roland Garros in Paris on Sunday without defending champion Rafael Nadal and with two-time winner Novak Djokovic struggling with form and fitness.

AFP Sports looks at three talking points in the men’s singles:

 

Nadal absence and end of era

 

Rafael Nadal, an ever-present in Paris since his title-winning debut in 2005, will be absent from the French Open where he has been champion on 14 occasions. Failure to recover from a hip injury suffered at the Australian Open in January has also forced the soon-to-be 37-year-old to admit that 2024 will likely be his last year on tour.

This French Open will be the first since 1998 that has not featured either Nadal or the now retired Roger Federer.

Novak Djokovic, the man responsible for two of Nadal’s three losses in 115 matches at the tournament, would usually step into the role as title favourite.

However, Djokovic has been bothered by a recurrence of a right elbow injury which has disrupted his clay court season. He failed to get past the last-eight at any of the three clay events he played this spring.

He has also lost his World No. 1 spot to Carlos Alcaraz and will arrive in Paris ranked at three in the world behind Daniil Medvedev who succeeded him as Italian Open champion at the weekend.

“I know I can always play better. Definitely am looking forward to working on various aspects of my game, of my body, hopefully getting myself in 100 per cent shape. That’s the goal,” said Djokovic after losing to Holger Rune in the quarterfinals in Rome.

Djokovic was bothered by a thigh problem earlier this year but still swept to a 10th Australian Open and 22nd Grand Slam title, taking him level with Nadal on the all-time list.

 

Alcaraz, Rune in generational shift

 

When Nadal won his first French Open title in 2005, compatriot Carlos Alcaraz had only just turned two.

Eighteen years later, Alcaraz is World No. 1 and the reigning US Open champion.

After missing the Monte Carlo Masters with a spinal injury, he raced away with the Barcelona and Madrid clay titles before his confidence received a surprising dent at the hands of 135th-ranked Fabian Marozsan in the last 32 at a wet and chilly Rome.

“I really need some days to reset my mind a little bit, to be fresh for Roland Garros,” said Alcaraz who will be top seed at a Slam for the first time.

Alcaraz made the quarterfinals last year as did Holger Rune who arrives in Paris at a career-high six in the world.

Rune captured the clay title in Munich this spring and was runner-up in Monte Carlo and Rome, losing to Medvedev in the final having knocked out Djokovic in the last-eight.

Despite his baby-faced looks, Rune does not shy away from controversy — after his loss to Casper Ruud at Roland Garros last year, he accused the Norwegian of “lacking respect” while Ruud advised the Dane “to grow up”.

 

French wait reaches 40 years

 

Back in 1983, Yannick Noah won the French Open, stunning defending champion Mats Wilander in straight sets in the final. He remains the last Frenchman to win his home Slam.

No French player has made the men’s singles final since Henri Leconte 35 years ago.

There have been agonising near-misses with Gael Monfils reaching the semifinals in 2008 and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga making the last four in 2013 and 2015.

This year, however, the highest-ranked Frenchman in the draw will be Ugo Humbert at 38 in the world.

 

Women’s singles

 

Iga Swiatek can become the first back-to-back women’s champion at the French Open in 16 years if she can shake off a worrying injury.

Elsewhere, rivals battle inconsistent form and bruised confidence ahead of the season’s second Grand Slam tournament.

AFP Sports looks at three talking points in the women’s singles:

 

Title back-up systems failure

 

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek is already a three-time major winner after capturing the 2020 and 2022 French Opens as well as the 2022 US Open.

Now the 21-year-old Pole attempts to become the first back-to-back women’s champion at Roland Garros since Justine Henin won three on the bounce from 2005-2007.

It is a challenge which has defied some of the greats.

Maria Sharapova was champion in 2012 but then ended runner-up 12 months later.

Serena Williams swept to the title in 2015 before falling short in the 2016 final.

Since Henin’s triple, Francesca Schiavone also joined the near-miss club as her 2010 championship was followed by a runners-up spot the following year.

Before Henin, defending the women’s title appeared a lot more straightforward — Steffi Graf achieved it in 1987 and 1988 and again in 1995 and 1996.

Monica Seles racked up three-in-a-row from 1990-1992. Chris Evert went back-to-back three times — 1974-1975, 1979-1980 and 1985-1986.

Swiatek suffered a thigh injury which forced her to retire from her Italian Open quarterfinal against eventual champion Elena Rybakina in Rome last week but said she was “positive” about her chances of playing in Paris.

However, the French Open rarely reads the room. Swiatek’s 2020 title defence ended a year later in the quarterfinals.

Her successor as champion Barbora Krejcikova lost in the first round when she returned in 2022.

 

Ladies’ night?

 

As part of its deal with Amazon Prime Video, the French Open introduced night sessions for the first time in 2021.

Six of the first seven sessions that year featured men’s singles, leading to former women’s World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to highlight the obvious imbalance.

“It’s just honestly a bit frustrating every time you’re trying to deal with the organisation here, it’s becoming ‘pas possible [not possible]’. Everything you hear is ‘pas possible’.”

In 2022, only one of 10 night sessions featured a women’s singles clash.

Tournament director Amelie Mauresmo, a former Wimbledon and Australian Open champion, then compounded the controversy by suggesting men’s matches have “more attraction”.

She later apologised, insisting her comments had been taken out of context.

 

An open French Open

 

Despite her injury worry, Swiatek remains favourite to defend her Roland Garros title having won the Stuttgart clay tournament last month before finishing runner-up to Aryna Sabalenka on the faster, higher-altitude clay of Madrid.

World No. 2 Sabalenka won her maiden Grand Slam title in Australia in January but on clay the big-hitting Belarusian remains a work in progress.

She has never got beyond the third round in Paris despite making at least the semifinals at all of the other three majors.

Furthermore, her title win in Madrid this spring was followed by a first-up exit at the hands of 134th-ranked Sofia Kenin in Rome.

Kenin, a former Australian Open champion and runner-up in Paris in 2020, in turn lost in the opening round of qualifying for the French Open on Monday, knocked out by French World No. 278 Margaux Rouvroy.

Amongst the remainder of the top 10, Coco Gauff was runner-up last year while Maria Sakkari, Daria Kasatkina and Petra Kvitova have all made the semifinals.

Wimbledon champion Rybakina arrives in Paris having won the Italian Open although three of her six opponents in the Rome draw retired with injury.

The Russian-born Kazakh has yet to get past the last-eight at Roland Garros.

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