Rafael Nadal looms large despite his absence

Rafael Nadal’s absence will loom large at the 2023 French Open. He’s played in each since 2005, winning 14 (!!) along the way. Will it look like Roland Garros without him?

It will, but it will be hard to deny that something is missing. Nadal is loved around the world not only because of his tennis prowess, but also because he was always grateful, generous and kind to his fans. The Roland Garros audience loves him almost more than they love the French players.

Nadal’s absence is also painful for another reason. It’s a look to the future, when Nadal is done playing for good. He has announced that 2024 will likely be his last year on the circuit, giving him at least a chance of winning his incredible 15th French Open trophy.

Tennis will be a little less brilliant without Nadal. A little less happy. A little less fun. But he picked an incredible time to step down, as there are plenty of exciting and fun young players ready to take the limelight. There’s no way to replace Nadal, but tennis wouldn’t be the way it is today without him. He inspired so many of today’s young players to get into the sport and keep trying. He may be gone, but we’ll still see parts of him on the pitch whenever guys like Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Holger Rune play. That’s the beauty of tennis: no one is ever really gone.

File photo taken on June 5, 2022 shows Spain's Rafael Nadal poses with his trophy during the award ceremony after the men's singles final match between Spain's Rafael Nadal and Norway's Casper Ruud at the tennis tournament of Roland Garros in Paris, France.  On June 5, Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Casper Ruud of Norway in straight sets to win his 14th French Open championship, becoming the first player in the Open era to win 22 men's Grand Slam titles.  (Photo by Meng Dingbo/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal has won 14 French Open trophies, which is why his absence from Roland Garros, his favorite Grand Slam, will be deeply felt. (Photo by Meng Dingbo/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Who to watch at the French Open

Carlos Alcaraz

Last year at this time, Alcaraz was on a roll. He had broken out in spectacular fashion, winning four tournaments (including his first ATP 500 and ATP 1000 trophies) in three months. He arrived at Roland Garros as a media darling and presumed winner, before a single ball had been served. He reached the quarter-finals, which was seen as a disappointment. But now Alcaraz is a year older (just turned 20) and he has another year of top-level experience under his belt, as well as his first Grand Slam trophy. He’s also had the last two weeks off after being knocked out of the Italian Open in the early rounds, so he’s going to be very, very well rested at the start of Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic

What more can be said about Djokovic at this point? It seems inevitable that he will eventually break the tie between himself and Nadal and win his 23rd Grand Slam, but right now people seem to be waiting for him to drop a point somewhere. It’s hard to tell with him, but the wins aren’t as easy or frequent as they once were. He has won two tournaments this year (the Australian Open and an ATP 250 tournament in Adelaide), but both took place in January. Since then, he has played in four tournaments and retired in the first rounds of two of them. But Djokovic knows how to put on a show in the majors. He is still a threat, something none of his competitors ever forget.

Daniel Medvedev

With so much attention on Alcaraz and Djokovic, Medvedev could be the dark horse to win the French Open. It’s a strange thing to say about the No. 2 male tennis player in the world, but it’s true. Medvedev is a hard-court specialist, but in May he won his first trophy on clay at the Italian Open. And that’s on top of the three straight tournaments he won in March. It’s amazing that Medvedev has only one Grand Slam trophy, but improving on clay could help him win his second.

Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev wins the Italian tennis internationals at Foro Italico.  Rome (Italy), May 21, 2023. (Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev wins the Italian tennis internationals at Foro Italico. Rome (Italy), May 21, 2023. (Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Casper Ruud

It was a breakthrough year for Ruud in 2022. He was on the losing side of Nadal’s 14th French Open trophy, and was also a runner-up at the US Open a few months later. Two finals in a year is the escape he’s been looking for – before 2022 Ruud had never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. But 2023 has been a bit hectic. He had a horrible hard-court season, going 5-6, before bouncing back during the clay-court season. Ruud has won nine of his 10 ATP singles titles on clay, so that was exactly what he needed to get back on track. Unfortunately, he will head to Roland Garros just days after failing to defend his Geneva Open title, losing in the quarter-finals to Nicolas Jarry.

Other notables

Frances Tiafoe tends to have better luck on hard courts (he never made it past the second round at Roland Garros), but after his incredible breakout at the end of 2022, he should be considered a contender (or at least a spoiler) at from now.

Stefanos Tsitsipas has now lost two Grand Slam finals to Djokovic: the 2021 French Open and the 2023 Australian Open. With Nadal out, this could be the perfect time for Tsitsipas to exorcise his Djokovic demons.

Who will not be at Roland Garros

Rafael Nadal

No one, including Nadal, thought the hip injury he suffered at the Australian Open in January would still bother him five months later. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in. Nadal hasn’t played since his second-round defeat in Melbourne and recently acknowledged that 2024 will likely be his last year on the tour. Playing at Roland Garros means so much to him, and it’s really disappointing that he’s not here.

Nick Kyrgios

Kyrgios misses the French Open for Nick Kyrgios’ biggest reason: he injured his knee chasing a guy who stole his mother’s Tesla.

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