For nearly two decades, Rafael Nadal has ruled Roland-Garros. The so-called ‘King of Clay’ has been effectively unconquerable on the tough red of Paris, so rarely ever overcome by its challenges. This time, however, is different.
No one is too surprised. The injury problems have long loomed and threatened what was once Nadal’s safe place, the colosseum he could return to even when the odds were stacked against him. But not this time.
What follows is a men’s singles draw where there is no rulebook. The last bastion of the Big Three era, Novak Djokovic, is one of only two former champions left in the draw.
He can count his two French Open titles as among the greatest in his career. In 2016, he capitalised on Nadal’s early withdrawal to complete the Career Slam. In 2021, he forced the Spaniard out on his own turf.
But for a third to follow, he must navigate choppier waters. The form man Carlos Alcaraz, albeit not a far favourite, could come in the last four.
Alcaraz has for a while looked like the heir to Rafa’s throne. His is a game slowly gearing itself for the slow paces of Paris. With his foot in the Grand Slam door following victory in New York back in September, the potential is there for a statement victory this fortnight.
Tsitsipas is one of four players, along with Djokovic, Medvedev and Alcaraz, to have the prospect of leaving Paris not only French Open champion but world number one
In the other half of the draw lies Daniil Medvedev. He arrives having recently won in Rome. The journey to love the red stuff has been a difficult one for Medvedev, but he is another who benefits from a more open draw.
Slightly further out on the fringe of contention come Holger Rune, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Denmark’s Rune is slowly climbing up the rankings after a fabulous season and had his best Grand Slam run to date at this event one year ago. Turning one quarter-final in only six main draw appearances into major success will be a tall order, but he is the one to watch.
Ruud is one of many licking his lips over Nadal’s absence. He made the final in Paris last year after Alex Zverev’s semi-final withdrawal, before being briskly humbled by the 14-time champion in the final. After following that up with another final at the US Open, he arrives with a clear opportunity if not rude form.
Tsitsipas is one of four players, along with Djokovic, Medvedev and Alcaraz, to have the prospect of leaving Paris not only French Open champion but world number one. He came closest to the first accolade here two years ago, where a two-set lead ebbed away against Djokovic’s might in the final.
Paris’s men draw presents an age of tennis on a precipice. Novak Djokovic remains one slam away from a place in history and taking the lead on majors over Nadal and Roger Federer for the first ever time. But the signs that the times are changing have never been clearer. If a new champion is crowned in Paris, it will be a further indication of the birth of a new era and new rulers. Things will never be the same again.