Prospects for Men at French Open as Uncertain as the Clay Beneath Their Feet

Clay-court tennis

Clay, like grass, is a live surface, so it can take players time to adapt to it. But this season, especially on the men’s side of the game, few players have found their feet or form on clay. A combination of age, injury, and loss of form has affected many of the top men, meaning that for the first time in nearly 20 years, there is no clear favorite going into the French Open. Indeed, nobody can even say with any certainty who will actually play in Paris.

An Unpredictable Clay-Court Season For the Men

In the lead-up to Roland Garros, a narrative usually develops in which one or two players establish themselves as the best on le terre battue (the beaten earth, as it is often called in French) and proceed to dominate the rest of the clay-court season. That has certainly been true of the women this year, especially Iga Swiatek, who reinforced her own impeccable French Open credentials by beating Aryna Sabalenka in both the Madrid and Rome finals.

On the men’s side of the sport, however, nothing could be further from the truth. No one player has shown true consistency, with each of the four biggest clay-court tournaments before the French Open producing a different winner. And even when a male player has won one of the most prestigious clay-court tournaments this season, they have rarely backed it up at the next event and certainly not won it.

The result is that the French Open promises to be the most open that it has been for 20 years. That is before The Big Three of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, who between them have won 18 of the last 19 French Opens (the sole exception being in 2015, when Stan Wawrinka triumphed in Paris). There is even the possibility that just as in 2004 when Argentina’s entirely unfancied Gaston Gaudio won the tournament to collect his only Major Singles title, 2024 could produce a complete shock winner.

The Big Two (of Three)

Of course, two of The Big Three, Nadal and Djokovic, are still playing, but it is by no means certain that they will both play at Roland Garros next week, and there is absolutely no guarantee, as there has been virtually for the last two decades, that one of them will win it.

With 14 French Open titles to his name, Rafael Nadal is, of course, the King of Clay. Yet the odds are definitely against the great Spaniard making it 15 and out this year. Because of the terrible injury problems that he has suffered over the last two years, which are the natural corollary of the many injuries he has suffered throughout this career, he did not play in Paris last year and indeed barely played anywhere else.

This season, although he returned for the clay-court season, he has continued to express doubts that he will make it to Roland Garros. Although he would undoubtedly like to make a farewell appearance at the tournament in what he admits will be his last year on tour, he has also said often that he may not enter the tournament if he is not convinced that he can win it.

Although Nadal showed signs of improvement between his first clay-court tournament this season in Barcelona and his second in Madrid, he has still not shown enough to suggest that he can be a genuine contender for the French Open, an impression that was confirmed by his relatively limp defeat to Hubert Hurkacz, who is hardly a clay-court specialist, in the early rounds in Rome.

In any case, Nadal may yet skip the French Open itself to spend longer preparing for “Roland Garros II” this year, which is effectively what the tennis tournament at the Paris Olympics will be. For the first time since London in 2012, there will effectively be two tournaments at the same Major venue in one year. Even if the Olympic Singles title, for all its grandeur, cannot compare to winning a Major proper (not least because Olympic tennis is played out over three sets rather than five), Nadal might just skip both the French Open and Wimbledon in order to go all in at the Olympics.

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Djokovic Looks Almost As Unprepared As Nadal

Remarkably, Novak Djokovic looks almost as unprepared as Nadal does for the start of the French Open. Although he is the defending champion and has won at Roland Garros three times, 2024 has been an annus horribilis for him so far. After winning three Majors last year (the exception being Wimbledon, which he narrowly lost to Carlos Alcaraz in an all-time great final) and looking like he was back to his unbeatable best, he has experienced something of a nosedive this year, both in form and confidence.

Djokovic lost in the Australian Open semi-final to Jannik Sinner, the eventual winner, and he is yet to win a tournament this year. Worse still, he has suffered a succession of shock defeats, including to Alejandro Tabilo in Rome, albeit after he was accidentally hit by a water bottle that fell from a spectator’s bag as they queued for an autograph or selfie.

Djokovic has also split with his long-term coach, Goran Ivanisevic, the second such split in recent years after he parted company with the man who oversaw most of his Major triumphs, Marián Vajda. Currently, he is without a coach. Indeed, he has even joked about coaching himself. But given his form for most of this coachless season, that hardly seems like the best of ideas at this point in his career.

Even Djokovic, a three-time French Open champion, will want some more time on clay, which is why he will compete at an ATP 250 event in Geneva this week. It is unusual for Djokovic to play the week before a Major, but it may be the way to play himself into form. And if anyone can play himself into form either a week before the French Open or during the tournament itself, it is Djokovic. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that his preparation for this year’s Roland Garros has been relatively poor.

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And What Of The New Two?

If the remaining Big Two of Nadal and Djokovic showed frailty before the French Open, the same is true of what might be called “The New Two,” namely Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, the two brilliant young players who have come through in the last two seasons to win Major Singles titles.

As with Nadal, there is no guarantee they will even appear in Paris, given they both missed Rome through injury. Sinner has already publicly stated that he will not risk playing in Paris if it increases his chances of missing even more of the season. And Alcaraz, for all his superhuman efforts over the last two seasons, has yet to complete a full season on the ATP Tour. He effectively missed the end of both the 2022 and 2023 seasons, and this year, he has also had injury problems.

The Outsiders

So, with Nadal, Djokovic, Alcaraz and Sinner all struggling with injury and consequently struggling with form, who else among the men might have a chance of going deep in Paris and perhaps even winning the tournament?

Remarkably, the current favorite among the outsiders (i.e., those men who have yet to win a Major Singles title) might just be Alexander Zverev, especially after he triumphed in Rome for the second time in his career. That is a testament to his affinity with clay, and given the struggles of others, he has a chance of doing well at Roland Garros.

In his dreams, Zverev wishes that he can find full reward in Paris after the horrendous ankle injury that he suffered in the French Open semifinal in 2022 when he was really challenging Nadal. It has taken him virtually until now to get back to full fitness and form, but at his best, as in Rome, he is a potential Major winner.

Zverev is in far better form than the other outsiders for the French Open. Stefanos Tsitsipas may have won three of the last four Monte Carlo titles, but increasingly, it appears that he can only win in Monte Carlo, as his results elsewhere have not been nearly as good. Equally, Casper Ruud has been the runner-up in the last two French Open Finals, but apart from winning the ATP 500 event in Barcelona, beating Tsitsipas in the final, he has shown little consistency on clay this season.

Finally, there are the two Russians, Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, to consider among the other main contenders. Yet there is little or nothing to suggest that they can go all the way in Paris. Medvedev may have won in Rome last year, but he has certainly not backed that up this season. And although Rublev produced a remarkable “sickbed victory” in Madrid, where he had been seriously ill all week but somehow managed to win the tournament, he crashed out early in Rome.

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And The Complete Outsiders?

One of the great truisms of sport is that form is temporary, but class is permanent. But this year, a short-term burst of form rather than enduring class might just be enough to win in Paris. Whoever can suddenly rediscover, or even discover for the first time this season, some form on clay might just be in a position to triumph at Roland Garros.

That is why, although it is still likely that the winner of the Men’s Singles at the 2024 French Open will come from the world’s top 10, for the first time in 20 years, there is a real chance of a rank outsider coming through and winning a Major title. That is a tantalizing prospect, especially for the players themselves.

Main Photo Credit: Matthias Hauer/GEPA via USA TODAY Sports


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