For years, tennis’ European spring came with a sense of certainty. That Rafael Nadal, no matter his form or fitness in the preceding months of the season, would roar to greatness. Nadal could be awesome anywhere, on any court in the world, but on clay, he seemed infallible.
The soft, shifting red-brick courts was his home, his stomping ground, his kingdom. And he defended it ferociously. Starting with his breakout season in 2005, Nadal has won 63 clay-court titles, including 10 titles at the Rome Masters, 11 titles at Monte Carlo Masters. In his 18 visits to Roland Garros, he captured the French Open crown a staggering 14 times – the most number of titles any player has won at a single Grand Slam.
This year, for the first time since his debut in 2005, Nadal will not compete at Roland Garros, which begins on May 28. The Spaniard, who will turn 37 in June, hasn’t played since the Australian Open, where he picked up an injury to the iliopsoas muscle in his left leg. Having missed the entire clay season, a sombre Nadal announced last week that he would miss Roland Garros and possibly the rest of the year.
“I need to stop for a while,” said Nadal, the 22-time major champion. “I don't know when I'm going to be able to come back to the practice court, but I'm going to stop for a while. Maybe two months…maybe four months. I am not the guy who likes to predict a lot the future, so I'm just following my personal feelings and just following what I really believe is the right thing to do for my body and for my personal happiness now.”
Nadal’s injury and eventual withdrawal from the French Open is another reminder that the super era of ‘Big 3’ men’s tennis is drawing to a close. Only last September, the tennis world bid a tearful farewell to Roger Federer. And while Novak Djokovic scripted possibly his greatest comeback by winning the Australian Open this January, he has struggled with an elbow injury since. The Serb played three tune-up events on clay, and his best result was a quarterfinal finish at the Rome Masters.
“Obviously, a new generation is here already,” the 36-year-old Djokovic said after his 2-6, 6-4, 2-6 defeat to Holger Rune in Rome. It was Djokovic’s second defeat in a row to the young Dane, who also beat him at the 2022 Paris Masters, played on an indoor hard court. “I think it's also good for our sport that we have new faces, new guys coming up. It's normal. We've been saying this for years, that we can expect it to come, that moment to come when you have [a] kind of shift of generations.”
A missing Nadal and an undercooked Djokovic means we are headed for the most open men’s draw at Roland Garros in almost two decades. Since 2005, only four men have won the Coupe des Mousquetaires (the trophy awarded to the men’s singles winners) – Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Stan Wawrinka. The 38-year-old Wawrinka has dropped to No 88 in the world and hasn’t won a title since 2017. Unless Djokovic holds the fort down, a new champion will be crowned at the French Open this year.
If the quick-changing tennis landscape was making you dizzy, consider this: Daniil Medvedev just won a title on clay. Not just any title, an ATP Masters 1000 title in Rome. The maverick Russian, who considers himself a hard-court specialist, has had several meltdowns on red dirt, including an entertaining one at the Rome Masters two years ago when he requested the tournament director to default him. “Gerry (Armstrong) please, disqualify me. I don’t want to be here,” he had said. During the 2-6, 4-6 defeat to Aslan Karatsev, Medvedev was heard muttering to himself, “It’s the worst surface in the world for me. But if you like to be in the dirt like a dog, I don’t judge.”
But this year Medvedev kept the tantrums to the minimum and used his new strings, which have helped him hit the ball deeper in the court, to maximum effect. The 2021 US Open champion had not won a single match at the Rome Masters previously. Last week, he beat World No 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of best clay courters from the new generation, in the semi-finals and fast-rising Rune in the final for possibly his most unlikely triumph.
“Honestly, I didn't believe I could win a Masters 1,000 on clay in my career," Medvedev, 27, said in his on-court interview. "Usually I hated it, I hated playing on it, I didn't feel good on it. Nothing was working. I don't think I love it. I love hard courts - my only love in tennis - but I definitely like clay courts much more now."
With the win in Rome, Medvedev has announced himself as a contender on clay and at the French Open. But World No 1 Carlos Alcaraz and Rune are far more dangerous propositions.
Alcaraz, the 2022 US Open champion, has won four titles already this season – Buenos Aires (clay), Indian Wells (hard), Barcelona (clay) and Madrid Masters (clay). The 20-year-old will be keen to continue Spain’s rich tradition at the clay-court Slam. Meanwhile Rune, also 20, is already the highest-ranked player from his country. He has built up some momentum on the red dirt by winning the title in Munich and reaching the final in Madrid and Rome.
The two players had announced their arrival last spring – Alcaraz by beating Nadal and Djokovic on successive days en route the Madrid Masters title and Rune by reaching the quarterfinal on his French Open debut. They are more mature, better-rounded players now and eager to wrench the baton from the older guard.
Iga Swiatek’s title defence also seems shaky after the Pole withdrew from the quarterfinal of the Rome Masters due to a thigh injury.
“For sure I feel tired. I think it was the right decision to stop playing because I felt pain when I was stretching, when I did harder movements," said Swiatek, who was a two-time defending champion in Rome. "I'm happy right now to have few days off because since [a previous tournament in] Stuttgart I wasn't really able to recover with that tight schedule that we have on the WTA."
Having taken over as World No 1 from the retired Ashleigh Barty last April, Swiatek scripted one of the most dominant phases in women’s tennis in recent history. She won six tournaments, including the French Open, and 37 matches in a row for the longest winning streak this century. During the European clay season, she won 16 out of the 16 matches she played. But Swiatek, who is still only 21, hasn’t quite been able to maintain the red-hot form this year. Still ranked No 1 in the world, she has won only two titles -- Doha and Stuttgart – so far this season.
Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina have emerged as the major challengers to her throne. The two players have finally realised their Grand Slam potential in the last 12 months: Rybakina won the Wimbledon title, and Sabalenka captured the 2023 Australian Open. They have also made a mark on clay, with Sabalenka beating Swiatek for the Madrid title and Rybakina taking the crown in Rome.
However, it may not amount to much as the French Open has sprung a few surprises in recent times. In the last seven years, the clay-court major has minted six first-time Grand Slam champions. Given the depth in the women’s field, that trend may well continue.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.