King Carlos’ coronation?: Rafael Nadal’s absence changes complexion of Roland Garros, spotlight on Carlos Alcaraz

Paris, May 24

There’s a reason a statue of Rafael Nadal stands outside Court Philippe Chatrier on the southwest outskirts of Paris.

No player ever lorded over any Grand Slam tennis tournament the way Nadal has ruled the French Open, winning it year after year after year for a read-it-again-to-make-sure total of 14 times. It is impossible to overstate what a monumental development it is that Nadal’s name will be absent from the bracket when play begins Sunday.

The last time they held the claycourt Major without him? Back in 2004 – back before women and men received equal prize money there, before the main stadium was reconstructed with a retractable roof, before night sessions were added to the schedule.

“Him and Roland Garros is something special,” said Coco Gauff, the 19-year-old Floridian who was the runner-up to Iga Swiatek for the 2022 women’s title in Paris. “I remember last year … I made the mistake of doubting him. Next thing you know, he pretty much stormed his way to the final and won in straight sets.”

Then, using the now-familiar acronym for “Greatest of All-Time,” Gauff continued: “He’s just a GOAT’ in that way. A GOAT’ on clay. Someone you can’t underestimate.”

Every man in the field – well, every realistic and honest man – knew there was one player to avoid in the draw. And they all knew it was almost certain that Nadal would leave France with yet another Coupe des Mousquetaires. His career record at Roland Garros: 112-3.

So the question becomes: Who takes advantage of his absence?

Will it be the wunderkind considered an heir apparent, Carlos Alcaraz, who won the US Open in September at age 19, finished last season ranked No. 1 and just returned to that spot? What about Novak Djokovic, who owns two victories against Nadal at the French Open and two titles of his own at the place? Or Daniil Medvedev, coming off his first clay title? Or Holger Rune, who’s beaten Djokovic twice in a row?

“I see it maybe more open this year than the other years,” Rune said. “It’s interesting. It makes it more fun.”

The stakes for Djokovic are obvious: A championship would be his 23rd at a Slam, breaking a tie with Nadal for the men’s record. As it is, the 36-year-old from Serbia has won 10 of the past 19 Major trophies. Nadal collected a half-dozen in that span, while three men claimed one apiece, all at the US Open: Alcaraz, Medvedev and Dominic Thiem. — AP

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