Contenders remain in the shadow of Nadal, the French Open's mightiest warrior

By Paul Myers - RFI
Europe AP - Jean-Francois Badias
AP - Jean-Francois Badias

Moments after collecting the French Open men's singles trophy for the 14th time in 2022, Rafael Nadal soaked up the ovation from the 14,000 spectators on Court Philippe Chatrier. "It's difficult to describe the feeling," Nadal said. "At 36, playing in the most important court of my career and still competitive. I just want to say thank you to everyone here in Paris."

The fifth seed had seen off the world number one and defending champion Novak Djokovic in a four-hourquarter-final epic, ridden his luck in the semis against the third seedAlexander Zverev and outmuscled the eighth seed Casper Ruud in the final to prevail in 2022, 17 years after winning his first Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Injury prevented him from defending his crown in 2023, the year that Iga Swiatek picked up her third French Open singles title.

Less than a week after her success, Swiatek travelled to Spain to give the keynote address as guest of honour at the graduation ceremony at the Rafa Nadal Academy.

"For the last few weeks, I've been looking at one quote at Roland Garros in Paris," Swiatek told the audience. "On Court Philippe Chatrier it's written: 'The victory belongs to the most tenacious'." 

Nadal, said the women's world number one, defined the epithet. 

"I often have the feeling that sometimes when I'm playing or when I'm doing things off court, that I should do them better or I should seek perfection," Swiatek added.

"But this shouldn't be the sense. We should all focus on the process and giving 100 percent, no matter what you can give, because every day is different."

It was no surprise that Swiatek, an avowed Nadal fan, posted a message on social media of her sitting near the man who has embodied grit since bursting onto the scene in pirate shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt and a bandana around his flowing teen locks.

A year on, of the two, it is Swiatek who is more likely to be holding a French Open singles trophy.

The 22-year-old grew up watching Nadal effectively annex theCoupe des Mousquetaires. 

Between 2005 and 2022, only Roger Federer (2009), Stan Wawrinka (2015) and Djokovic (2016 and 2021) claimed the title as Nadal battered and bludgeoned the circuit's best on his way to a record 14 titles. No player has won so many at a single Grand Slam event.

But, cut down by injuries and diminished by age, Nadal, who will be 38 on 3 June, is unlikely to dominate a 15th time during what he says will be his last visit to the tournament as a player.

Ranked at 276 in the world, he has been drawn in the first round against the fourth seed Zverev who was leading Nadal a merry dance in the 2022 semi-final before rolling his ankle and damaging the ligaments. The German left the court in a wheelchair.


That injury removed him from the circuit for the rest of the year. The 27-year-old has not only recovered his health but also his status. He enters the 2024 French Open in fine fettle after capturing the Italian Open in Rome.

"I was on court practising and my brother told me about the draw," said Zverev on Friday. "I actually thought he was joking.

"But then it is what it is. To be very honest, I wanted to play Rafa again in my career – in his career. I didn't want my last memory of me playing against Rafa to be me leaving the court in a wheelchair.

"So ideally, I would have liked to play him in the later stages of the tournament. But he is unseeded this year. I am seeded. It's tough for both of us."

The clash will add some spice to the men's draw which appears unusually open this year.


Defending champion and world number one Djokovic whirls in a slump – by his standards. No tournament wins, not even a final.

He lost to Jannik Sinner in the semi-finals at theAustralian Open in January, was dispatched in the third round at Indian Wells in March and then skipped the Miami Masters.

A semi-final on clay at the Monaco Masters in April suggested something of a return towards normality but after opting out of the Madrid Masters at the start of May to focus on the Italian Open in Rome, he fell there inthe third round.

A loss on 24 May to the world number 44 Tomas Machac, in the semis at the Geneva Open, will hardly have improved his humour.

But with three wins In Paris as part of his record haul of 24 Grand Slam tournament victories, the Serb – who has just turned 37 – cannot be discounted, especially when young pretenders such as Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz carry their own health issues.

"Jannik is having an unbelievable season," said Alcaraz of the Australian Open champion.

"It doesn't matter if he's coming back from an injury. Jannik has the capacity to come here and play at such a high level and win.

"I think it is the same for Rafa and the same for Djokovic. Probably we don't see them playing their best tennis, but it's a Grand Slam, it's Roland Garros. I think they have chances to raise their levels and win the tournament."


Were Swiatek to increase her powers on clay, she might well, just like her idol, hit double figures at the French Open.

The defending champion will start her campaign for a fourth title against a qualifier.

Swiatek arrived in Paris as the first woman since Serena Williams in 2013 to win back-to-back trophies on the clay courts in Madrid and Rome.

"There is a lot of pressure, especially when you play well and you already know that you can win the tournament," said Swiatek.

"People are expecting it to happen again and again and again. So there is pressure, but I wouldn't say I'm more nervous than usual. You need that stress to get you on the right level of motivation and readiness.

"But I'm also pretty confident with how I'm playing right now and with the work we have been doing. So I feel good."


Swiatek in such a mood could bode ill for the rest of the draw. She claimed her first French Open in 2020 without dropping a set.

In 2022, Qinwen Zheng took the first set off her in the tiebreak in last-16 but was immediately slapped down 6-0, 6-2 for the impertinence. From then it was a straight sets roll in the quarters and semis through to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Last year, only Karolina Muchovaduring the final won a set. And Swiatek has been working on her serve.

"I would say I'm not expecting a lot from the changes but it's fine," she said. "My serve was pretty bad before and I could win many tournaments. I always have a plan B. I don't need to win points only by serving."

In the finals in Madrid and Rome, Swiatek overcame the world number two Aryna Sabalenka. The showdown in Spain went to three sets while Swiatek prevailed 6-2, 6-3 in Rome.

"Iga has achieved incredible results here at Roland Garros," said Sabalenka who has twice won the Australian Open.

"And I take her success as a challenge as I like to accept tough challenges. That's what actually motivates me and brings me more energy to keep going, to keep fighting for what I think I can achieve."

For all the progress of third seed Coco Gauff and fourth seed Elena Rybakina, who have won the US Open and Wimbledon respectively, it is difficult to foresee anything else than a Swiatek v Sabalenka showdown on Philippe Chatrier Stadium on Saturday 8 June.

It would be otherworldly were Nadal to be on the same court on 9 June for the men's final.

But then absolutely no one mentioned 14 titles back in 2005.