French Open: Leading men on collision course, Jabeur bids to stop Swiatek

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Rafael Nadal pushed back the charge of the new generation with his Australian Open triumph in January, and now the Spanish clay-court king returns to Roland Garros.

The French Open promises to be a thrill ride over the next fortnight, with Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz all in the same half of the men's draw.

Among the women, it is hard to look past the 2020 champion Iga Swiatek, who is on a staggering roll of form, winning her last five tournaments to take a firm grasp on the number one ranking.

With the help of Opta analysis, we can look at how the second grand slam of the year is shaping up to be a major to savour.


Does the men's tour suddenly have a new Big Three?

For years, the so-called 'Big Three' on the ATP tour has been made up of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Nobody would dispute the greatness of any one of the trio, but Federer is probably done as a force at the highest level.

He has a couple of comeback events inked in for later in the year, after his latest spell of knee surgery and rehab, but the Swiss will have turned 41 by the time he plays competitive tennis again.

Perhaps a new 'Big Three' is emerging, with 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz suddenly looking the big threat to Djokovic and Nadal this season. Daniil Medvedev has a strong shout to make it a present-day 'Big Four', as did Andy Murray in his heyday.

Recent results have pointed to one of Alcaraz, Djokovic or Nadal winning in Paris, but the fact they are on the same side of the draw means only one can reach the final, and that player might have been worn down by the effort it will doubtless take to reach that point. Nadal and Djokovic are on a quarter-final collision course, with Alcaraz potentially awaiting in the semi-finals.

Nadal has 13 titles at Roland Garros, seven more than any other men's player in the Open Era, with Bjorn Borg next on the list with six. Nadal has lost just three of 108 matches played at the French Open – excluding walkovers – losing to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and to Djokovic in the 2015 quarter-finals and 2021 semi-finals.

Djokovic is the defending champion this time and has reached the final in seven of the last 10 grand slams he has contested, winning five of those. However, he has reached the final only six times in the French Open (W2 L4), fewer than in any of the other three majors.

Alcaraz is the fascinating outlier, having not yet gone beyond the quarter-finals of a slam, yet he has won an ATP tour-leading four titles in 2022, including a run at the Madrid Open where he beat both Nadal and Djokovic before trouncing Alexander Zverev in the final. He has shot up from 32nd to number six on the world rankings since the beginning of the year.

Youth has not been a barrier to success in Paris in years gone by. Indeed, four of the five youngest men's grand slam winners in the Open Era have been champions at Roland Garros: Michael Chang in 1989 (17 years, three months and 20 days), Mats Wilander in 1982 (17y 9m 15d), Borg in 1974 (18y 10d) and Nadal in 2005 (19y & 3d). Alcaraz will be 19 years and one month old on the day of the men's final this year.

Last year's runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas should fancy his chances of reaching another final, given he has been placed in the bottom half of the draw, which appears the more easily navigable. Greek Tsitsipas has won an ATP tour-leading 31 matches this season, three more than Alcaraz who sits second on the list but has played four fewer tournaments than Tsitsipas.

Nobody ever expects a rank outsider to come through and scoop the trophy, but if an unseeded player does triumph in the men's singles, it will be the first time that has happened since Gaston Gaudio lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2004.


Does the women's tour suddenly have a new Big One?

Swiatek was ranked number 54 when she stunned the tennis world by charging to the French Open title in October 2020, at the pandemic-delayed tournament.

She is now firmly established at number one, having seemingly taken the shock retirement of Ash Barty in March as her cue to step up.

Swiatek has won 37 matches this year, including Billie Jean King qualifiers, and that is one more than she achieved in the entire 2021 season. She is 12 wins ahead of the next player on the list, Ons Jabeur, and is on a 28-match unbeaten streak. If Swiatek claims her second French Open title, she will become just the third player in the 2000s to win six trophies in a row, alongside Justine Henin (2008) and Venus Williams (2000).

Having won the Internazionali d'Italia in her last outing, Swiatek is seeking to become the first player since Serena Williams in 2013 to do the Rome and Roland Garros double in the same season.

Swiatek has not been the only low-ranked recent champion in Paris, with Barbora Krejickova triumphing as world number 33 last year, while Jelena Ostapenko was at 47th on the WTA list when she won in 2017. Defending champion Krejcikova has not played on tour since February due to an elbow injury but is attempting a comeback at Roland Garros.

If Swiatek misses out, Jabeur is the player many fancy to come through. The Tunisian leads the WTA Tour – excluding grand slams – in several metrics this year, notably most winners (852), forehand winners (486), backhand winners (260) successful net approaches (196) and successful drop shots (103). She has also won 11 out of her 12 last matches. Indeed, no player has won more matches on clay this season than Jabeur (17).

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