French Open 2023: Rafael Nadal absence could ‘spark’ Novak Djokovic in Grand Slam battle

French Open 2023: Rafael Nadal absence could ‘spark’ Novak Djokovic in Grand Slam battle

The build-up to this year’s French Open has been more about those left behind than those taking part.

Most notably, there is an injured Rafael Nadal missing Roland Garros for the first time since 2004, leaving Parisians and the wider tennis world wondering whether he will make it back again.

As Nadal put it when announcing his withdrawal: “I don’t know if I can be competitive to win a Grand Slam. I’m not an irritational person. I am aware of the difficulty of the situation, but I’m not a negative person, either. I want to give myself the opportunity to come back and compete.”

He says he wants 2024 to be a final competitive season on tour, but one wonders if he can aspire to much more than the sort of glorified return and farewell enjoyed by Roger Federer at the Laver Cup in London last year.

From a British perspective on the sidelines, Emma Raducanu has begun her own slow rebuild following operations on both her wrists and an ankle. And Andy Murray has opted to forego the French Open in the hope of an Indian summer on grass, starting at Surbiton the week after next.

Major battle: Can Novak Djokovic move clear of the absent Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros? (PA)
Major battle: Can Novak Djokovic move clear of the absent Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros? (PA)

Britain has no players in the women’s singles — the first time at a Grand Slam since 2009 — despite half a dozen players trying to make their way through qualifying. But in the men’s, Cameron Norrie has the greatest potential of a long run into the second week, although arrives late in the French capital as he is competing at the Lyon Open, nearly 300 miles away, on Friday afternoon.

The biggest question is who will fill the void left by the absence of 14-time French Open winner Nadal? The last player to beat him at Roland Garros and the player level with him in the record books on 22 Grand Slams is Novak Djokovic. The Serbian will surely be in the mix come the second week, and yet has not made it past the quarter-final stage of any of his three clay-court warm-up tournaments.

Former French Open finalist John McEnroe argued Nadal’s absence was potentially the spark Djokovic needed. He said: “It’s his quest to win the most Majors. He’s tied with Rafa, so this is his opening. Novak’s always looking for some inspiration, some fuel, and he’s got some now and he’s got a great chance.”

His major stumbling block if he can get there is the fact that he is on course to face tournament favourite and the player long earmarked as Nadal’s Paris successor, Carlos Alcaraz, a winner in Barcelona and Madrid prior to injury problems of his own. Others in contention are occasional on-court villian Holger Rune, who has beaten Djokovic in their last two meetings, as well as Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

In the women’s draw, defending champion Iga Swiatek is the overwhelming favourite for the title, but has lost out to two rivals breathing down her neck at her last two tournaments: Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka.