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A French Open without Rafael Nadal can still be record-breaking

French Open

PARIS, FRANCE June 5. The shadow of Rafael Nadal of Spain on the clay court surface as he prepares to serve against Cameron Norrie of Great Britain on Court Suzanne Lenglen during the third round of the singles competition at the 2021 French Open Tennis Tournament at Roland Garros on June 5th 2021 in Paris, France. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Corbis via Getty Images

Rafael Nadal will not have the last word at this year’s French Open, but his comments in withdrawing last week set the stage for the tournament.

“Roland Garros will be always Roland Garros with or without me, without a doubt,” the record 14-time Roland Garros champion said. “Going to be one Roland Garros champion. Not going to be me. Going to be another one, and that’s life.”

At the first Nadal-less French Open since 2004, Novak Djokovic can break the record for career men’s Grand Slam singles titles. Iga Swiatek can enter Serena Williams territory. And young American men and women can build on recent strides at majors, looking to end the nation’s longest Slam singles title drought in history.

Main draw play starts Sunday, live on Peacock.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

The tournament marks Djokovic’s second attempt to take sole possession of the men’s Grand Slam singles titles record. In 2021, Djokovic entered the U.S. Open with a chance to win all four majors in the same year and break his then-tie with Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Slams. Djokovic lost that U.S. Open final to Daniil Medvedev, then saw Nadal win the next two majors to get to 22.

Djokovic then won a seventh Wimbledon last July followed by a 10th Australian Open in January to level up with Nadal again. In Melbourne, the Serb said he didn’t like to compare himself to others, but that he also liked his chances going forward.

“Of course I am motivated to win as many Slams as possible,” he said. “At this stage of my career, these trophies are the biggest motivational factor of why I still compete.”

Djokovic, French Open champ in 2016 and 2021, hasn’t won a tournament since Australia and didn’t make it past the quarterfinals of his three clay events so far this spring.

He ceded the No. 1 ranking to Carlos Alcaraz, who won last year’s U.S. Open to become the youngest men’s major champ since Nadal’s first French Open title in 2005. Alcaraz, 20, is now the youngest man to be the No. 1 seed at a major since Boris Becker at 1987 Wimbledon.

Alcaraz missed the Australian Open due to a right leg injury, but since went 30-3 with four titles. He hasn’t faced Djokovic this year, but they could meet in the semifinals in Paris.

“I’m the same player than last year,” he said. “Only change that I would say is that I’m more mature. Mentally I’m better.”

As men’s tennis exits its Big Three era, that’s exactly the dynamic that has developed for the women.

Though Poland’s Swiatek is a clearer favorite than Alcaraz, she has gone a collective 1-4 this year against Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan.

Swiatek, who went 16-0 on clay last year, retired from her most recent match with a right thigh injury last week. She said Friday that she’s still recovering, but will “be good” for her opening match.

“Luckily nothing serious happened, so I had couple of days off,” she said Friday.

Swiatek has held the No. 1 ranking since Australian Ash Barty‘s sudden retirement in March 2022, but Sabalenka could dethrone her at this tournament. Swiatek, 21, can become the youngest woman to win three French Opens since Monica Seles in 1992 and the youngest woman to win four Slams overall since Williams in 2002.

Last year, American Coco Gauff went from celebrating her high school graduation in front of the Eiffel Tower to becoming the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova won her first major at Wimbledon in 2004. She fell to Swiatek in the final, 6-1, 6-3. She returns this year as the No. 6 seed, but with a 4-4 record in her last four tournaments and without a full-time coach. Patrick Mouratoglou, the longtime coach of Williams, has been helping her out.

The highest-seeded American man or woman is No. 3 Jessica Pegula, the lone U.S. woman to make it past the quarterfinals of a high-level clay event this season. She lost in the quarters of four of the last five majors.

An American man made the semifinals of back-to-back majors for the first time in 16 years (Frances Tiafoe at the U.S. Open, Tommy Paul at the Australian Open), but no U.S. man has made the French Open quarterfinals since Andre Agassi in 2003.

Either Gauff, Pegula or a totally unexpected American makes a title run in Paris, or, for the first time, the most successful nation in tennis history will go 12 majors without a men’s or women’s singles title.

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