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French Open 2022 preview: Could we see a changing of the guard in the men's field?

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Roar Guru
18th May, 2022
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For over 17 years Rafael Nadal has been the man to beat at Roland Garros, but this year’s French Open could see a changing of the guard as far as the men’s field is concerned.

After earning a record 21st grand slam singles title at the Australian Open in January, the Spaniard has been riddled by injury, being sidelined for over a month after suffering from a rib stress fracture during his run to the final at Indian Wells in March.

That, the emergence of compatriot Carlos Alcaraz, who has earned comparisons to a young Nadal from 17 years ago, and Novak Djokovic winning the Rome Masters last week means that for the first time in a while the undisputed King of Clay won’t be the title favourite.

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It will be an emotional French Open as far as the locals are concerned, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to bow out of professional tennis after announcing this tournament would be his last, while showman Gael Monfils has withdrawn due to a heel injury.

On the women’s side, one woman has dominated the circuit since the shock retirement of Ashleigh Barty in March, with Iga Swiatek winning her past 27 matches in succession to prove herself as a worthy women’s world No. 1.

The new queen of women’s tennis has won five titles and heads to Paris, where she won her first major title in 2020 after starting off as an unseeded player, as the player to beat.

Having not played since February due to an elbow injury, reigning champion Barbora Krejcikova returns to Roland Garros short on match practice, while second-favourite Paula Badosa will be hoping to consolidate her status as one of the players to watch in the 2022 season.

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As always, we start by previewing the men’s contenders, starting with the reigning champion, Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic (SRB) [1]

French Open history
Best result: Won twice (2016, 2021)
Last year’s result: Champion (defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final)

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Australian Open result: Did not play

Titles so far this year: Rome Masters.

It was a controversial start to the year for men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who was deported from Australia on the eve of the Australian Open after failing to sufficiently prove his grounds for not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

This meant that he missed out on the chance to win a record tenth title at his pet event and could only watch on from home as Rafael Nadal went on to break the three-way tie he held with him and Roger Federer for the most number of major men’s singles titles won.

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He also briefly lost the world No. 1 ranking to Daniil Medvedev in February, but despite not being able to play at Indian Wells and Miami due to his unvaccinated status, he regained it after the Australian Open runner-up lost to Gael Monfils at the former tournament.

The Djoker returned to competition in time for the European clay court season, which started with an early loss to little-known Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in Monte Carlo.

He then made his first final for the year in his hometown of Belgrade, only to be beaten by Andrey Rublev after winning the first set and then being bagelled in the last.

A run to the semi-finals in Madrid, where he was beaten by Spanish teen sensation Carlos Alcaraz, followed before he won his first title for the year at the expense of Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Rome Masters last week.

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Djokovic, who will turn 35 on the first day of the tournament, now heads to Roland Garros, where he is the defending champion, with a much-needed boost of confidence, having played plenty of matches on the red dirt in recent weeks.

Seeing Nadal triumph at the Australian Open earlier this year will only fuel his desire to do well on the Parisian clay courts, but while I think he will have it tough attempting to defend his title, he will still put up one almighty effort.

Prediction: Semi-finals.

DECEMBER 03: Novak Djokovic of Serbia in action against Marin Cilic (not seen) of Croatia during 2021 Davis Cup Tennis Tournament semi-final match at Madrid Arena on December 03, 2021 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

(Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal (ESP) [5]

French Open history
Best result: Won thirteen times (2005-08, 2010-14, 2017-20)
Last year’s result: Semi-finals (lost to Novak Djokovic)

Australian Open result: Won (defeated Daniil Medvedev in the final)

Titles so far this year: Melbourne, Australian Open, Acapulco.

While it is hard to dispute Rafael Nadal’s status as the King of Clay, a recent rib injury that has seen him sidelined for two months, as well as the fact he turns 36 next month, could see the Spaniard’s French Open dominance tested again in 2022.

The Mallorcan started the season by winning his first 20 matches, including winning a record-breaking 21st major men’s singles title at the Australian Open in which he came from two sets to love down to defeat Daniil Medvedev in an epic championship match.

Not only did he break a three-way tie he held with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for the most major men’s singles titles won, but he also joined the Djoker in winning each of the four majors at least twice.

His 20-match winning streak came to an end with an upset loss at the hands of Taylor Fritz at Indian Wells, after which it was revealed that he had suffered a rib stress fracture.

The Spaniard returned to competition in time for his favourite time of the tennis season, but for the second time in three years he would fail to win any of the Barcelona Open, Madrid or the Rome Masters.

In the Spanish capital he lost to compatriot Carlos Alcaraz, who went on to become the tournament’s youngest winner, and last week in Rome was beaten in the third round by Canadian Denis Shapovalov, whom he’d beaten in five sets at the Australian Open earlier this year.

There is therefore some doubt as to whether Rafael Nadal can further extend his dominance at Roland Garros, which has seen him win over 100 matches and 13 titles from 16 appearances dating back to his debut in 2005.

The only three losses have come at the hands of Robin Soderling (in 2009) and Novak Djokovic (twice, in 2015 and last year), and only twice ever has he been stretched to five sets (against John Isner and Djokovic in 2011 and 2013 respectively).

But given this is a kingdom he has dominated for nearly two decades, you can never count out the King of Clay, and I have him reaching another final at best.

Prediction: Final.

Rafael Nadal celebrates.

(Photo by TPN/Getty Images)

Carlos Alcaraz (ESP) [6]

French Open history
Best result: Third round (2021)
Last year’s result: Third round (lost to Jan-Lennard Struff)

Australian Open result: Third round (lost to Matteo Berrettini)

Titles so far this year: Rio, Miami, Barcelona, Madrid.

It’s official. The future of Spanish tennis, and maybe even clay court tennis, has arrived.

The young man making all the noise this season is 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who has drawn comparisons with a young Rafael Nadal with everything he has achieved over the past 12 months.

Like Nadal did nearly two decades ago, the El Palmar native has quickly rocketed up the rankings, reaching his first major quarter-final at the US Open last September, where he was forced to retire against Felix Auger-Aliassime due to a leg injury.

At the Australian Open earlier this year Alcaraz was seeded 31st and reached the third round, where he took Italian Matteo Berrettini to five sets before going down in a fifth-set heartbreaker, after which the New York Times called him “one of the most exciting next-generation talents in sports”.

A run to the semi-finals at Indian Wells followed, where he ended Cameron Norrie’s title defence before losing a three-set encounter against Nadal.

He then made his huge career breakthrough at Miami, where he became the first Spaniard to win the tournament, defeating Casper Ruud in the final after again ending a title defence en route, that of Hubert Hurkacz’s in the semis.

The European clay court swing saw Alcaraz enter the world’s top ten for the first time upon defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals in Barcelona.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

He went on to win his fourth career title there after saving a few match points against Alex de Minaur in the semi-finals, followed by defeating compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta in the final.

Twelve months after losing to Nadal on his 18th birthday, Alcaraz managed to turn the tables at the Madrid Masters, defeating his legendary compatriot in the quarter-finals, followed by defeating top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals en route to another tournament win.

He thus became the youngest player to beat a reigning world No. 1 since Nadal did so against Roger Federer at Miami in 2004, and he also became the first (and likely only) player to beat Nadal and Djokovic in back-to-back matches on clay.

The 19-year-old now arrives at Roland Garros as one of the favourites for the tournament, if not the favourite, on the back of his ultra-impressive form that has captured the hearts and imagination of tennis fans and commentators this year.

One record he won’t match at the French Open is that of Nadal’s, who won the tournament on his very first attempt in 2005; Alcaraz reached the third round last year, where he lost to Jan-Lennard Struff.

Nonetheless, he, not Nadal or Djokovic, will be the man to watch at Roland Garros this year.

Prediction: Huge call, but I think he can go all the way. Champion.

Other men’s contenders

Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) and Alexander Zverev (GER).

We now swing over to the women’s side of things, where world No. 1 Iga Swiatek is the player to watch as she looks to extend her 27-match winning streak, the longest by anyone in a single season since Serena Williams in 2013, on the Parisian clay courts.

The Pole is one of many surprise winners that have emerged at Roland Garros in recent times, others including reigning champion Barbora Krejcikova, 2017 winner Jelena Ostapenko and 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, among others.

While she will start the prohibitive favourite to claim the title, she is not short of serious contenders, including Krejcikova as well as Paula Badosa, both of whom have achieved career-high rankings of world No. 2.

Iga Swiatek (POL) [1]

French Open history
Best result: Won (2020)
Last year’s result: Quarter-finals (lost to Maria Sakkari)

Australian Open result: Semi-finals (lost to Danielle Collins)

Titles so far this year: Doha, Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart, Rome.

Since Ashleigh Barty announced her shock retirement from the sport just a month short of her 26th birthday in March, Iga Swiatek has set the tennis world on fire, winning five titles so far in 2022.

Upon winning the third of those titles in Miami, the Pole ascended to the top of the rankings, eclipsing Agnieszka Radwanska’s best ranking of No. 2 in 2012, and has only continued to go from strength to strength since.

As the season turned to the European clay court swing, the 20-year-old justified her status as the world’s best new player, claiming titles in Stuttgart and Rome on either side of missing the Madrid Open in order to manage fatigue.

Swiatek now returns to Roland Garros, where in 2020 she stormed through the field to win the title without dropping a set, the culmination of which was a straight-sets dismissal of Sofia Kenin in the championship match.

Because that year’s French Open was rescheduled to September-October, it meant that her status as champion lasted just short of eight months, as she fell to Maria Sakkari in the quarter-finals last year.

Now, for the first time, she will enter a major tournament as the title favourite, and all eyes will be on the world’s best player to see if she can add to the success she enjoyed in 2020, which I believe she can and will.

Prediction: Champion.

Iga Swiatek of Poland

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Barbora Krejcikova (CZE) [2]

French Open history
Best result: Won (2021)
Last year’s result: Champion (defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final)

Australian Open result: Quarter-finals (lost to Madison Keys)

Titles so far this year: None

Having not played for nearly three months due to an elbow injury, Barbora Krejcikova finds herself racing the clock to be fit for the defence of her French Open title, which she won last year by defeating veteran Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final.

The Czech doubles specialist started the season by reaching the final in Sydney, where she lost to Spaniard Paula Badosa in a three-set thriller after a tiebreak was required to settle the matter.

She then reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open, defeating former major champions Jelena Ostapenko and Victoria Azarenka en route before falling to Madison Keys in the quarter-finals.

After early exits in the Middle East swing, the 26-year-old suffered an untimely elbow injury prior to Indian Wells, which has left her sidelined for nearly three months, thus leaving her short on match practice ahead of her return to Roland Garros.

During her time off the court, the Czech has achieved a career-high ranking of world No. 2, but her status as defending champion means she could risk dropping out of the top ten if she suffers an early defeat on the Parisian clay courts.

Despite her lack of match practice, I think she can mount a good defence of her French Open title, though I can’t see her returning to the championship match.

Prediction: Quarter-finals.

Barbora Krejcikova holds the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup aloft.

(Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)

Paula Badosa (ESP) [3]

French Open history
Best result: Quarter-finals (2021)
Last year’s result: Quarter-finals (lost to Tamara Zidansek)

Australian Open result: Fourth round (lost to Madison Keys)

Titles so far this year: Sydney

If Carlos Alcaraz is the future of Spanish men’s tennis, then Paula Badosa is it on the women’s side of things.

The 24-year-old claimed her third career title in Sydney to start her season before reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open, where she lost to the resurgent Madison Keys in straight sets.

Since then, her results have been modest at best, reaching the semi-finals at Indian Wells as well as at Stuttgart, after which she achieved a new career-high ranking of world No. 2.

However, she has fallen before the quarter-final stage in her two most recent tournaments, losing to Simona Halep in the second round at her hometown tournament in Madrid before going down to Daria Kasatkina in the third round in Rome last week.

She now returns to Roland Garros hoping to better her result from last year, where she lost a three-set quarter-final thriller against Tamara Zidansek despite being up a break in the deciding set.

But if there is ever a time for the Spaniard to make her grand slam breakthrough, it’s here.

Prediction: Final.

Other women’s contenders

Maria Sakkari (GRE), Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Pliskova (CZE) and Simona Halep (ROU).

The French Open gets underway this Sunday, 22 May.

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