French Open: Old Meets New

Despite the hopes of numerous young players to secure a breakout win at the 2023 French Open, it became evident that their time has not yet arrived, as 36-year-old veteran Novak Djokovic once again emerged victorious.

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As the clay court season drew to a close, all eyes in the tennis world turned to Paris to witness the 2023 French Open unfold on the iconic clay courts of Roland Garros. As one of the four prestigious Grand Slam tournaments, the French Open is unique, being the only one played on clay courts. However, the use of the clay courts can serve as an advantage or disadvantage depending on the player. As the clay surface allows for a slower ball speed, it is most suitable for baseline players who rely on defense and getting depth on returns. On the contrary, it can take away the advantage of players who favor power as it makes their previously lethal shots easier to return. This year, however, the clay courts of Roland Garros lacked one of its most consistent performers: Rafael Nadal. Nadal has been dubbed the “King of Clay” due to his dominating success on clay courts, specifically those at Roland Garros. Nadal has an astounding 97 percent winning record in the tournament and owns 14 out of the past 18 French Open titles. To commemorate his legacy at the tournament, Roland Garros even unveiled a three-meter-tall steel statue of Nadal in 2021. However, Nadal withdrew from this year’s tournament because of a lingering hip injury that has kept him off the court since January. Nadal received hip surgery earlier this June, but it will still be at least another five months before fans can see the Spaniard back in action.

With Nadal out of the tournament, the door was left wide open for new favorites. Entering the tournament, Nadal’s fellow countryman Carlos Alcaraz was the favorite to take home the trophy. After regaining his spot as world number one from Novak Djokovic, Alcaraz looked to win his second Grand Slam title following his maiden Grand Slam at the U.S. Open last year. It was never going to be easy, though. Pulling on Alcaraz’s heels was Djokovic, who had previously been tied with Nadal at 22 Grand Slam titles. Out of Djokovic’s 22 slam titles, only two of them were from the French Open, as he looked to break the tie with Nadal this French Open to become the sole holder of the men’s Grand Slam Title record. As Djokovic was the third seed, he and Alcaraz were on the same half of the draw, potentially setting up just their second meeting if they were to both reach the semifinals. Other favorites entering the tournament included second seed Daniil Medvedev and sixth seed Holger Rune, the latter entering the tournament having just lost to Medvedev in the Italian Open finals.

All tennis tournaments are bound to be filled with upsets, and this year’s French Open was no exception. In the first three rounds, half of the top ten players were eliminated. In the first round, Medvedev lost to qualifier Thiago Seyboth Wild in a shocking five-set upset. Clay was never a particularly successful court for Medvedev, as he had never gotten past the fourth round at the French Open. Despite this, he had higher hopes for this year’s tournament due to his win on the clay courts in Italy. Though he lost, Medvedev added his humorous touch to the situation during his post-match press conference. “Every time [the clay season] finishes I’m happy. I don't know if people like to eat clay, to have clay in their bags, in their shoes, the socks, white socks, you can throw them to garbage after clay season. Maybe some people like it. I don’t,” Medvedev said. In the first round, tenth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime also faced an upset after falling to veteran Fabio Fognini in straight sets. However, the upsets didn’t stop there. In the second round, eighth seed Jannik Sinner lost a five-set thriller to unseeded Daniel Altmaier despite having two match points. One round later, seventh seed Andrey Rublev started the match up two sets to none before losing to Lorenzo Sonego, while ninth seed Taylor Fritz lost in four sets to Francisco Cerúndolo. The draw, which had already felt wide-open following Nadal’s withdrawal, somehow became even more so.

While other top seeds faltered, favorites Djokovic and Alcaraz remained as their highly anticipated semi-finals grew closer. Entering the third set after splitting the one set apiece, it was a tight battle between the two, each producing their share of extraordinary tennis. Early into the third set, Alcaraz suffered from leg cramps and was unable to call a medical timeout. Players are only allowed to receive treatments for cramps at a changeover or the end of the set, so in order to receive treatment for his cramps, Alcaraz had to concede his service game. However, this did little to help Alcaraz, as after he started experiencing cramps, he became noticeably slower and hesitant. Djokovic subsequently went on to secure the victory, winning both the third and fourth sets 6-1. Fourth seed Casper Ruud advanced to face Djokovic in the finals after defeating Alexander Zverev in straight sets. This marked his third Grand Slam final in just over a year. After a relatively slow start this year, Ruud was able to climb to the finals under the radar. Despite starting the highly competitive first set with a 0-3 deficit, Djokovic was able to fight back against Ruud and win the set in a tiebreak. After this, Ruud never looked like the same player. Going on to win the next two sets 6-3 and 7-5, Djokovic was able to make history at Roland Garros. With this French Open win, Djokovic won his 23rd Grand Slam title, making him the sole holder of the men’s Grand Slam title record. His victory also marked a monumental achievement as he became the first male player to win each Grand Slam tournament at least three times.

Headlined by players like Alcaraz and Ruud, the next generation of players is highly touted, and rightly so. Many of them had high hopes for this year’s French Open, especially with Nadal out of the draw. Many of them have waited a long time to break out onto the big scene. However, one thing is clear after Djokovic’s convincing title run: They’ll have to wait a little while longer.