14-time French Open champ handed tough draw in swan song

The next, and perhaps final, stop on Rafael Nadal’s unofficial retirement tour has reaches its apex next week at the French Open, the Grand Slam where he’s won 14 titles and owns an unthinkable 112-3 overall record.  

But this is a different Nadal than the one who has shown up in Paris ready to destroy everything in his wake for nearly two decades. He’s days away from turning 38, ranked No. 276 in the world and hasn’t reached the semifinal of any tournament since Wimbledon in 2022. 

A lifetime of grinding for every point has left his body in what seems like a constant state of disrepair. When Nadal is healthy enough to play, he looks slow out of the corners and can’t get enough power on his serve to win easy points. 

And yet… it’s Nadal on clay. Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal willing to leave it all out there for one more run at the most important tournament in his career. 

That possibility of capturing glory one last time, faint as it might be, made Nadal’s placement in the draw one of the more intriguing storylines of the tournament.

Thursday, we got the answer, and it wasn’t good news for Nadal fans. 

The random draw placed Nadal opposite No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, who just won the Italian Open last week and is unquestionably one of the favorites to win the title. This matchup is stunning for Zverev as well: In the 2022 French semifinals, they were locked in an air-tight battle for more than three hours when Zverev suffered a devastating ankle injury that would require surgery and took him out of action for the rest of the year. Nadal went on to win his 22nd Grand Slam title. 

Despite everything Nadal has accomplished in Paris and his 7-3 head-to-head record against Zverev, he goes into this match as a huge underdog. If he loses, it will likely be his last time ever playing at Roland Garros, bringing an end to the most dominant run at a major tournament  in tennis history. And it may be the last time we ever see him in competition. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the French Open draw:

No clear favorite for men’s title 

This has been a strange year in men’s tennis. Beyond his mediocre results, No. 1 Novak Djokovic isn’t passing the eye test lately and has fired several longtime members of his coaching team since losing to Jannik Sinner in the Australian Open semifinals. 

How do you know he’s searching for something? Djokovic is playing right now in a small tournament in Geneva, which is highly unusual preparation for him the week before a Grand Slam. Djokovic has been candid in interviews that motivation, after setting the men’s all-time record with his 24th Grand Slam last year, has been an issue. Can he turn things around in Paris? 

But Djokovic isn’t the only contender with question marks.

Carlos Alcaraz, who seemed poised to win everything last year after beating Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, is dealing with a forearm injury and hasn’t looked right when he’s been on the court in recent weeks. Sinner, unquestionably the best player in the world this year, hurt his hip in the gym during the Madrid tournament and pulled out of Rome in his home country. There were questions whether he would even be healthy enough to play in Paris. 

This may be an opportunity for someone like Zverev, Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev or Stefanos Tsitsipas — all of whom have a good track record on clay — to win their first Grand Slam title. 

Iga Świątek looms over the women’s field

On the cusp of her 23rd birthday, Świątek enters as the heavy favorite to win her fourth French Open title. Though some players have been able to chip away a little bit at her dominance on other surfaces, she’s still almost unbeatable on clay and comes into Roland Garros off winning titles in Madrid and Rome − beating No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the final both times.

Another Świątek-Sabalenka finał meeting in Paris seems likely. They have separated from the field this year, with Elena Rybakina able to sometimes make it a trio at the top when she’s healthy. 

Having said that, Świątek’s path to the final looks like a pretty tough one on paper. Former No. 1 Naomi Osaka, who has been steadily improving since her return to the tour after childbirth, is a possible opponent in the second round. Former French Open winner Barbora Krejcikova looms as a possible fourth-round opponent. And in the quarterfinals, Świątek could face either American Danielle Collins (32-9 this year with two titles) or reigning Wimbledon champ and former French finalist Marketa Vondrousova. 

If Świątek can get it done once again in Paris, Chris Evert’s record of seven women’s titles will officially be in jeopardy. 

Is Coco Gauff ascending or leveling off?

It’s been difficult to assess where last year’s US Open champion stacks up this year. Gauff is ranked No. 3, but she hasn’t reached a final since opening the season with a win in a warm-up tournament for the Australian Open. Her forehand is clearly more consistent than it was last year, but her serve has fallen apart under pressure lately. Gauff isn’t playing her best tennis, but she’s still putting up a lot of good results including a semifinal last week in Rome. 

Though Gauff loves the red clay and made the French final in 2022, Swiatek is her biggest impediment to winning a second major. 

After losing to her once again in Rome, Gauff is now just 1-10 against Swiatek and will likely have to face her again in the semifinals here. Having said that, Gauff got a decent draw and should be able to cruise through the first three rounds before her first big challenge against No. 13 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia if the seeds advance. 

Gauff’s projected quarterfinal opponent would either be Ons Jabeur, who hasn’t been in good form this year, or the hot-and-cold Jelena Ostapenko. Overall, Gauff looks like a good bet to reach the semifinals just as she did in Australia. But can she turn around the rivalry with Swiatek?

Other storylines worth watching 

With so many questions around Djokovic, Nadal, Alcaraz and Sinner, this is one of the most wide-open Grand Slams we’ve seen in years. Are there any American men capable of taking advantage? 

Taylor Fritz has posted some good clay results this season, reaching the final in Munich, the semis in Madrid and the quarters in Rome. He’ll have a challenge right off the bat with Federico Coria, an Argentinian who plays well on clay. 

Tommy Paul, who won the junior French Open in 2015, is dangerous because of how much this surface highlights his movement and athletic ability. He just reached the semis in Rome and got a pretty favorable path to the round of 16, where he’d be projected to play Djokovic. Unless Djokovic significantly improves his recent form, Paul would have a real shot to win that match. 

This is going to be a big year for retirements in tennis, and two great champions likely in their final season − Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray − will meet in the first round. Murray is a former French finalist, while Wawrinka managed to beat Djokovic for the title in 2015. Alizé Cornet, one of the more popular French players, will be a sentimental favorite after announcing that Roland Garros would be her final tournament. She’ll face No. 7 seed Qinwen Zheng in the first round. 

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