French Open: Could Roland Garros 2023 be the scene that settles the argument?
Even the fiercest French Open devotee would struggle, in all honesty, to make a case that Roland Garros has been the most competitive of events in the last 20 years.
That, of course, is no reflection of the tournament itself. It’s a reflection of the brilliance of Rafael Nadal. No player, male or female, has managed to dominate a major like the Spaniard has. He has won 14 of the last 18 French Open crowns. A fitting return for the undoubted King of Clay.
This year, though, the French Open feels like it carries connotations and consequences that could reverberate for years to come. After all, every major now also provides the backdrop for tennis’ most titanic ever struggle, the one that, in most people’s minds, will settle the argument of who is the greatest player of all time: Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
Nadal has always maintained that he doesn’t feel like he needs it and there is little reason to doubt his sincerity there.
“Of course, I would like to be the one who finishes with the most majors,” Nadal said last year. “Yes, of course you would. I am a competitor, no doubt about it, but for me it has never been an obsession and never will be. Well, it may be a dream, but not an obsession at all.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, has never hidden his desire to win the Slams race, and every credit to him for that as well. He has said on many occasions that it is a huge ‘motivation’ for him and that is reflected in his tennis.
“I’m thrilled to be in a position to be in the mix for most Grand Slam titles at this stage of my career and professionally that’s what matters the most,” he said in 2020.
If he was going to come out on top against Djokovic in the slam race, it was always clear that his hopes were going to be pinned on Roland Garros. After all, nearly two thirds of his total majors have been won on the clay of Paris. If he is going to add another to that number, it won’t be this year.
Indeed, it appears that Nadal’s body is finally starting to break down on him. We use that word ‘appear’ for a reason, of course. That reason is that we simply do not dare write off Rafael Nadal. Currently, his plans are to miss potentially the rest of the season before returning for one final year on tour in 2024, injury permitting.
That leaves Djokovic in a position of knowing that, probably, he only needs to win one more slam to win the race, and few could begrudge him it. Whether it happens at Roland Garros, of course, is a different question entirely.
Djokovic himself has not looked in the best physical condition. He has been struggling with an embow injury and has definitely not been his usual dominant self. Will that injury stand up to five-set tennis at Roland Garros?
After all, it is far from a formality that Djokovic will win it, just because Nadal isn’t there. Carlos Alcaraz will have plenty to say about it, as will previous defeated finalists Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Daniil Medvedev has, surprisingly, really found his feet on clay this season too and when he is in the mood, regardless of the surface, he can be a threat to anyone.
What is apparent, though, is that the Grand Slam race now feels like it’s over. Nadal having another couple of Roland Garros’ to count on was, in truth, the only thing stopping us from calling it some time ago. Nadal’s major-winning days may be over, but Djokovic’s are not.
And, if he can win a 23rd at Roland Garros this year, then we can probably call time on what has been one of the most fascinating and thrilling sporting races of all time.
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