French Open 2023 men's preview: Rafael Nadal looms large despite absence

Rafael Nadal's absence will loom large at the 2023 French Open. He's played in every one since 2005, winning 14(!!) along the way. Will it even feel like Roland Garros without him?

It will, but it will be hard to deny that something is missing. Nadal is beloved the world over not just because of his tennis prowess, but because he's always been grateful, generous, and kind with his fans. The crowds at Roland Garros love him almost more than they love French players.

Nadal's absence is painful for another reason, too. It's a look at the future, when Nadal will be done playing for good. He announced that 2024 will likely be his final year on the tour, which at least gives him a chance to win his incredible 15th French Open trophy.

Tennis will be a little less bright without Nadal around. A little less happy. A little less fun. But he's picked an incredible time to bow out, since there are many young, exciting, and fun players ready to take the spotlight. There's no way to replace Nadal, but tennis would not look the way it does today without him. He's inspired so many of today's younger players to take up the sport and keep trying. He may be gone, but we'll still see parts of him on the court every time guys like Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, and Holger Rune play. That's the beauty of tennis: no one is ever really gone.

Who to watch at the French Open

Carlos Alcaraz

Last year at this time, Alcaraz was on a roll. He'd broken out in a big way, winning four tournaments (including his first ATP 500 and ATP 1000 trophies) over three months. He came into Roland Garros as the media darling and presumptive winner, before a single ball had been served. He made it to the quarterfinal, which was seen as a bit of a disappointment. But now Alcaraz is a year older (he just turned 20) and he's got another year of high-level experience under his belt, as well as his first Grand Slam trophy. He's also had the last two weeks off after crashing out of the Italian Open in the early rounds, so he's going to be very, very well rested at the start of Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic

What more can anyone say about Djokovic at this point? It seems inevitable that he'll end up breaking the tie between him and Nadal and win his 23rd Grand Slam, but right now people seem to be waiting for him to drop a stitch somewhere. It's hard to tell with him, but the wins haven't come as easy or frequently as they have in the past. He's won two tournaments this year (the Australian Open and an ATP 250 tourney in Adelaide), but both took place in January. Since then, he's played in four tournaments and exited in the early rounds in two of them. But Djokovic knows how to put on a show at the majors. He's always a threat, something none of his competitors ever forget.

Daniil Medvedev

With so much attention on Alcaraz and Djokovic, Medvedev might be the dark horse to win the French Open. That's a weird thing to say about the No. 2 men's tennis player in the world, but accurate. Medvedev has been a hard court specialist, but in May he won his first clay court trophy at the Italian Open. And that's in addition to the three consecutive tournaments he won in March. It's stunning that Medvedev only has one Grand Slam trophy, but improving on clay could help him win his second.

Casper Ruud

It was a breakout year for Ruud in 2022. He was on the losing end of Nadal's 14th French Open trophy, and was also the runner-up at the US Open a few months later. Two finals in one year is the breakout he was looking for — before 2022, Ruud had never been past the fourth round at any Grand Slam. But 2023 has been a little turbulent. He had a horrible hardcourt season, going 5-6, before bouncing back during the clay season. Ruud has won nine of his 10 ATP singles titles on clay, so it was just what he needed to get back on track. Unfortunately, he'll be heading into Roland Garros just days after failing to defend his title at the Geneva Open, losing in the quarterfinals to Nicolas Jarry.

Other notables

Frances Tiafoe tends to have better luck on hard courts (he's never made it past the second round at Roland Garros), but after his incredible breakout at the end of 2022, he should be viewed as a contender (or at least a spoiler) from here on.

Stefanos Tsitsipas has now lost two Grand Slam finals to Djokovic: the 2021 French Open and the 2023 Australian Open. With Nadal out, this could be the perfect time for Tsitsipas to exorcise his Djokovic demons.

Who won't be at Roland Garros

Rafael Nadal

No one, including Nadal, thought the hip injury he sustained at the Australian Open in January would still be bothering him five months later. Unfortunately, that's the world we live in. Nadal hasn't played since his second-round loss in Melbourne and recently acknowledged that 2024 is likely to be his final year on the tour. Playing at Roland Garros means so much to him, and it's genuinely disappointing that he won't be there.

Nick Kyrgios

Kyrgios is missing the French Open for the most Nick Kyrgios reason ever: he sustained a knee injury while chasing after a guy who had stolen his mother's Tesla.

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