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Tuesday July 23, 2024

Fringe players sense golden opportunity at Roland Garros

By Reuters
May 24, 2024
General view during the final between Greeces Stefanos Tsitsipas and Serbias Novak Djokovic.— Reuters/file
 General view during the final between Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas and Serbia's Novak Djokovic.— Reuters/file

PARIS: Defending champion Novak Djokovic’s erratic form, Rafa Nadal’s fitness woes and untimely injuries to top-ranked youngsters have set up an uncertain French Open men’s tournament with players on the fringe of Grand Slam success sensing a golden opportunity.

Single-handedly carrying the flag for the “Big Three” last year following Roger Federer’s retirement and in Rafa Nadal’s prolonged absence due to a hip issue, Djokovic mowed down all challengers to nearly complete a sweep of the four majors.

But the sparkling form that helped the 37-year-old go level with Margaret Court on 24 Grand Slam trophies has evaporated in the first five months of 2024 and tame defeats have hurt his rhythm ahead of his bid for a fourth Paris crown.

Perhaps the biggest blow came in Rome earlier this month as Djokovic was thrashed by Alejandro Tabilo two days after a freak accident in which he was hit on the head by a fan’s water bottle while signing autographs.

“Everything needs to be better in order for me to have at least a chance to win (the French Open),” said Djokovic, who has failed to win a tournament in the first 4-1/2 months of the season for the first time since 2018.

Adding to the minor crisis at the top of the men’s game in recent weeks is a hip injury to Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner that threatens to hamper the 22-year-old Italian’s hopes of winning a second major and becoming the world number one.

Spain’s Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz joined Sinner in skipping Rome and the 21-year-old is working his way back from a right forearm issue that also forced him out of Monte Carlo and derailed his Madrid title defence.

His compatriot Nadal enjoyed a run to the fourth round in the Spanish capital but the 14-times Paris champion missed his favourite major in 2023 with a hip injury and faces a challenge to win the title again if he continues to play within himself.

The 22-times Grand Slam winner returned to the tour after nearly a year out in January but suffered another muscle problem and will hope for the best in what is likely to be his final French Open appearance in his farewell season.

With former champions far from peak form and the rigours of a busy tour taking its toll, talented players including Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev have emerged as worthy contenders for a maiden Grand Slam title.

Now in their mid-twenties, the group have largely struggled in their attempts to see off the most successful triumvirate in men’s tennis and also allowed Alcaraz and Sinner to overtake them in recent years.

Tsitsipas, who lost to Djokovic in the 2021 French Open final, has rediscovered his level in an up-and-down season and beat fellow former Roland Garros runner-up Casper Ruud to win the Monte Carlo title last month.

The duo met again in the Barcelona title clash where Ruud avenged his defeat and the Norwegian will now bid to reach his third French Open final in as many years. Russian Rublev overcame an ailing Alcaraz en route to his second Masters crown in Madrid and German Zverev is also poised to pounce after beating Nicolas Jarry in the Rome final.

Daniil Medvedev has made no secret of his dislike for clay but last year’s Rome champion will also be in the mix and unlike many of his peers, the Russian has had a taste of Grand Slam success after winning the 2021 U.S. Open. “If Djokovic and Alcaraz play, they’re the two big favourites. They like the surface. They can win Grand Slams,” world number four Medvedev said.