WATCH: Djokovic reasserted himself towards the front of the ATP pack was a dominant week in Rome; will it be enough to fend off 13-time Roland Garros champ Rafael Nadal or insurgent Carlos Alcaraz?

If you can imagine the French Open as a house of cards, it’s easy to see how removing one—let’s call it the King of Clay—can throw the entire enterprise into disarray. It feels a little like that this year. For the better part of a decade-and-a-half, one question has utterly dominated the run-up to the second Grand Slam of the year: “Can anyone beat Rafael Nadal?”

Occasionally other issues intruded, but even those—will Roger Federer ever complete a career Grand Slam? —lived at the leisure of Nadal’s absolute mastery at Roland Garros. But that seemingly eternal story line is shot now, maybe forever. Age (Nadal is 34) and career-threatening injury have taken their toll due on the 13-time French Open champion. Nadal has limped through a subpar 2022 clay season and his chronic foot injury may keep him out of the big dance entirely. It seems a pity, but this an emblematic moment in tennis, rife with opportunity.

“Probably is not like five or 10 years ago,” Nadal told reporters in Madrid last week, admitting that while everyone paid lip service to the “on any given day” trope, the Big Four has dominated the men’s game. “The situation is changing. We are getting old, too. New generations are coming strong. Roland Garros will be such an important event [again]. But I think there is a lot of contenders.”

The upcoming major (May 22-June 5) also promises to be a thrilling red-dirt rodeo for the WTA, not least because of a startling young talent, 20-year old Iga Swiatek. The winner of five tournaments already this year, Swiatek has helped the game get past the loss of 26-year old No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, who retired unexpectedly after winning the Australian Open.

“I am so excited about this tournament,” Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst, told me recently. “This has all the makings of an epic event.”

The two singles draws will look different, with a clear favorite in Swiatek on the women’s side and dramatic uncertainty among the men. But expect a fair amount of mayhem in both divisions. Let’s look at some of the elements that make this upcoming major so compelling.


The situation is changing. We are getting old, too. New generations are coming strong. Roland Garros will be such an important event [again]. But I think there is a lot of contenders. Rafael Nadal on the Big 3

The future of 19-year old Carlos Alcaraz has arrived . . . and the affable Spaniard with the broad smile is ready to leap the queue and claim a prized seat alongside Nadal and company at the head table of the ATP. The main question regarding the 19-year old, No. 6 ranked sensation—he’s 28-3 on the year, with four titles including two at Masters 1000 events—is whether he can go the five-set distance, perhaps multiple times, during the French fortnight. Here’s what former No. 1 Andy Roddick had to say during a recent Tennis Channel broadcast:

“Alcaraz is one of the rare men his age who you don’t question his ability in best-of-five. Maybe we’re just victims of the moment, and [certainly] last year at the US Open his body gave out a little bit [near the end]. But when he showed up in Australia this year, the first photos you see, all of a sudden he belongs to the Rafael Nadal school of biceps—it was a complete transformation of his body in the off-season.”

In other words, Alcaraz is already a beast.


Iga Swiatek may be the WTA’s version of Carlos Alcaraz. . . this year, playing scorched-earth tennis like we’ve rarely seen on clay against all comers. She also may evolve into the WTA game’s long-sought dominant champion. Swiatek is without the dramatic history and emotional baggage of a Barty or Naomi Osaka; she flat-out loves to play and compete. In that she is really old-school, seemingly built for the long run.

To the naked eye, Swiatek isn’t, like Alcaraz, a physical powerhouse. But the 5-foot-9 star is already a French Open champion (2020) and she’s riding a 28-match winning streak (third-longest in the WTA since 2000). That will create a certain amount of pressure, but she seems prepared to handle it.

“The pressure is constantly on,” Swiatek told reporters at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. “I mean, it's not like I'm analyzing it every week because I would get pretty tired just doing that.”

“I’m really happy for the WTA that Iga has stepped to the forefront,” McEnroe said. “Losing Barty robbed us of a very solid No. 1 and I was like, ‘Oh man, what’s going to happen now?’ But Iga has stepped up and distanced herself from the others in a big way. When I first saw her play a couple of years ago I realized that no other woman can hit with her amazing combination of spin and pace. She’s as much of a lock going into a major as anyone I've seen in a long time.”


Djokovic’s anticipation, the way he moves and runs to get back to his next spot, you get that from reps...He’s dialed in now. Andy Roddick

Novak Djokovic’s quest to finish first in the mens’ Grand Slam singles title derby. . . resumes in earnest as he strives to equal Nadal with major title No. 21. Djokovic was sidetracked by a number of debacles during the COVID period, including his 2020 default from the US Open, and the vaccination controversy that kept him out of the Australian Open in 2022. But he now appears to be ready to focus on the task at hand.

Shaking off the rust took some time this spring, but Djokovic looked formidable as he slashed his way to the Italian Open title. Before that final, Roddick said, “Djokovic’s anticipation, the way he moves and runs to get back to his next spot, you get that from reps. Those weeks when he was struggling in Belgrade and Monte Carlo were building to this moment. Now he can get on cruise control, distribute the ball side-to-side, mix up his returns. He’s dialed in now.”


A new wave of WTA contenders is rolling into Roland Garros. . . led by Paola Badosa, Maria Sakkari, Anett Kontaveit and Ons Jabeur (defending champ Barbora Krejcikova has been inactive due to injury). Those women have leapfrogging over former Grand Slam champions Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber, and Sloane Stephens as well as perennial contenders like Karolina Pliskova, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Victoria Azarenka.

Take it as a sign of the times that Simona Halep, a former French Open champion (and three-time finalist), failed to make the semifinals in either Madrid or Rome, losing respectively to Jabeur and Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins. As McEnroe said, “It’s interesting, the biggest names in women's tennis are not even in the mix lately.”


The heat on the heavily promoted ATP “Next Gen” stars. . . is becoming intense. Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipsas bolted to the top of the game, yet neither has won a major. In Rome, Zverev was asked by a reporter how far—or near—he is to the player who won the selfsame Italian title five years ago at age 20. The German, ranked No. 3, shot back: “Are you saying I’m worse than I was five years ago?”

It was a telling reaction. Zverev may not be “worse,” but then his rivals and peers just might be better. The fact that some players might have caught up or even surpassed him (Daniil Medvedev, for one, has won a major) has to worry Zverev.

Stuck in the same boat: 23-year old Tsitsipas who seems to be coming up just short in his biggest matches. Roddick framed it this way: “Stef has been mostly brilliant winning in Monte Carlo, and he played well in Madrid and Rome (lost the final to Djokovic) yet if I had 25 bucks to bet on the tournament he may be my fourth pick to win.”


The women in the U.S. fleet feature some fresh new contenders . . . in Danielle Collins, No. 11 Jessica Pegula, the two most highly ranked women in this post-Williams era. And don’t discount No. 19 Coco Gauff, or rehabilitated Amanda Anisimova. There’s a toughness and hunger in this cohort that appears lacking these days in U.S. stalwarts including Stephens and Madison Keys.

The uncertainty surrounding Rafael Nadal’s fitness will energize the entire field. . . yet it may work in Nadal’s favor by diverting attention—and pressure—to his rivals. You know the mantra of the last decade: you write Nadal off at the French Open at your peril. So, forget the lack of 2022 clay titles, the resurgence of Djokovic, and the emergence of Alcaraz—Nadal’s fitness may be questionable, but he is still a mind-blowing 105-3 at Roland Garros. Don’t expect him to surrender his clay kingdom without a fight.

“My body is like an old machine,” Nadal said in Rome, following a loss due partly to pain in his compromised foot. “To put this machine on again takes some time.”

Nadal will have almost two weeks to treat his foot and prepare for the tournament, and much can change in that time to keep the King of Clay’s castle from turning into a house of cards.