Nadal, Djokovic and an unfamiliar tag at the French Open | Tennis News - Hindustan Times

Nadal, Djokovic and an unfamiliar tag at the French Open

ByRutvick Mehta
May 24, 2024 08:24 AM IST

The two ageing giants, with 46 Grand Slam triumphs between them, have zero titles this season.

When was the last time Rafael Nadal entered the French Open with an air of uncertainty around his first-round victory, no matter the form and ranking of his opponent (which, in this case, is world No. 4 Italian Open champion Alexander Zverev)?

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic(Reuters)
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic(Reuters)

Not in the 18 years he has stepped foot at Roland Garros.

When was the last time Novak Djokovic entered any Grand Slam with his aura of indomitability breached to the extent that it has brought him down to among the pack of contenders rather than a potentially title-winning ace?

Not in the last few years at the Slams he was allowed to set foot in.

The two ageing giants, with 46 Grand Slam triumphs between them yet zero titles this season, find themselves with an unfamiliar tag in this Parisian summer — far from the favourites for the French Open.

Which, for a 14-time Roland Garros champion who has held an unshakable grip on the clay-court Slam he first won in 2005 and lost just three matches in, is unheard-of. Which, for the record 24-time Slam champion who has won three of the previous five majors besides reaching a final and a semi-final, is unwonted.

We’ll get to Nadal first, because this may well be his last sighting at the French Open. The 37-year-old hasn’t explicitly conveyed it yet, but everything he has done this season, which he'd said could be his last on the tour, has a farewell ring to it. Swansong or not, things haven’t gone per script for the Spaniard. Out injured for most of 2023 and the first three months of 2024 due to a muscle injury post his return, Nadal threw all his eggs in the clay basket.

Barcelona (second round exit) was an early gentle tester, Madrid (Round of 16) was a slightly more feel-good outing but Rome, where he was given a three-set scare by unheralded Zizou Bergs before a straight-sets hiding by 8th-ranked Hubert Hurkacz, was a wake-up call. One that confined him to the reality that his current physical shape and level of play, though good enough to still test the best on clay, isn't nearly enough to trouble them.

It made Nadal doubt whether turning up for the French Open, a tournament he’s played every year since 2005 except the last, was even worth it. “If I feel ready, I’m going to try to be there and fight for the things that I have been fighting the last 15 years; (even) if now (it) seems impossible," he said in Rome.

Nadal will have to summon every bit of that fight while taking on Rome champion Zverev first up in a brutal draw for the bruised beast. If not, the fourth (and likely final) defeat on the red dirt of Paris could bring a speedy end to a surreal record that may last for an eternity.

Djokovic's 24 majors tally too will stand the test of time, although times right now are shaky for the Serb. Not in six years, since his injury-hit 2018 season, has Djokovic entered the French Open without a title to his name in the season. If the Australian Open semi-final defeat to Jannik Sinner was hard to take, the subsequent shock losses to 123rd-ranked Lucas Nardi (Indian Wells) and 32nd-ranked Alejandro Tabilo (Rome) were hard to explain.

There's been an abrupt and alarming drop in the world No. 1's form, taking down his coach Goran Ivanisevic and fitness trainer along with it as Djokovic desperately searches for a spark to light things up again.

He celebrated his 37th birthday on Wednesday playing (and winning) at the Geneva Open, a rare instance of Djokovic competing the week before a Slam. “I need more matches, even if it's just one or two...I hope there are more," he said.

Come the French Open, he’d hope for the same.

Tough opener for Nagal

Sumit Nagal has been handed a stiff opening-round test for his French Open main draw debut, facing Russian world No. 18 Karen Khachanov. The 94th-ranked Indian will need a good outing at the French Open to make the automatic singles rankings cut for the Paris Olympics.

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