Can Alcaraz fill Nadal's void at the French Open? | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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Can Alcaraz fill Nadal's void at the French Open?

May 26, 2023 08:41 AM IST

The 14-time champ is missing but the young Spaniard is showing that he is more than a worthy successor.

There was a joke making the rounds on social media over the past week that despite his absence from this year’s French Open, Rafael Nadal will be the favourite to win the title. As silly as that is, it’s a reminder of the otherworldly dominance the Spaniard has showcased on the red dirt in Paris for nearly two decades.

Carlos Alcaraz in action.(AP) PREMIUM
Carlos Alcaraz in action.(AP)

Heading into Roland Garros without Nadal in the draw will undoubtedly be strange for tennis fans across the globe. His name has been synonymous with the tournament as he won it a staggering 14 times starting from 2005.

As gaping as that hole is, though, there’s another Spaniard, equipped with similarly bulging muscles and ferocious groundstrokes, who seems ready to make Court Philippe-Chatrier his own.

It’s been eight months since Carlos Alcaras first became the world No. 1. Being just 19 years old and winning his first Grand Slam title at the 2022 US Open allowed him to become the youngest No. 1 in the history of the ATP Rankings. The significance of that triumph wasn’t lost on anyone, you could sense it was the start of something special.

A hamstring injury forced Alcaraz to withdraw from the Australian Open earlier this season but since then, he’s done enough to show that his sensational run last year, which led him to the Breakthrough of the Year award at the Laureus World Sports Awards recently, was no flash in the pan.

In his first tournament back from injury, Alcaraz won the ATP 250 Argentina Open, and he followed that up with titles at Indian Wells (ATP Masters 1000), Barcelona Open (ATP 250) and Madrid Open (ATP Masters 1000).

Now, ahead of the French Open, Alcaraz is back at the top of the rankings and for the first time in his young career, he’s the favourite heading into a Grand Slam. He may have won the US Open last year but with Nadal, who was having a stellar 2022, in that draw too, he wasn’t really the favourite at the start. This time, though, as the likes of John McEnroe and Tim Henman have said, Alcaraz has the edge despite Djokovic’s presence.

There’s good reason for this optimism around Alcaraz. After all, it isn’t just about the 10 titles he has claimed over the past couple of seasons, he showed his calibre against Nadal and Djokovic – the two finest clay court players of their generation – at last year’s Madrid Open. In the week that he was turning 19, Alcaraz defeated both legends on consecutive days as he stormed to the title.

That match in Madrid remains the only time Alcaraz and Djokovic have clashed on the tour. This time at the French Open, the two could square off in the semi-finals as the Serb is seeded third behind Daniil Medvedev.

While Alcaraz would take confidence from the head-to-head lead he has over Djokovic, the 22-time Major winner can, of course, never be counted out. The 36-year-old has won the French Open twice, reaching the quarter-finals or beyond 16 times. Djokovic has always been vocal about his desire to own the most men’s singles Grand Slams titles and there’s little doubt he’ll be determined to make the most of this opportunity and move ahead of Nadal.

Alcaraz has the top billing and the tools, which include speed, power, variety from both flanks and a devastating drop shot, to go all the way. But he’ll have his task cut out as potentially, Cameron Norrie, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Djokovic and Medvedev could be in his path from the fourth round onwards. His best performance at Roland Garros so far was a quarter-final appearance last year. But this time, all eyes will be on him.

A Nadal-less French Open is unchartered territory, can Alcaraz signal the beginning of his reign?

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