MIKE DICKSON: No Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic would cast a cloud over the French Open… but there is a silver lining with more genuine contenders going for the Paris crown
- Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal both pulled out of the Madrid Open due to injury
- The wait goes on in 2023 for a tournament with all the leading men in one place
- Thankfully young star Carlos Alcaraz is stepping up to ease organisers’ concerns
There is a new phrase in tennis which is fast gaining the same currency as ‘Game, Set and Match’.
‘Wishing you a speedy recovery’ is becoming the favoured way of events to announce their latest withdrawals, through social media and the gritted teeth of tournament directors.
The men’s field at the Madrid Open has been particularly affected this week, with the best wishes etcetera being sent to the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
The continuing participation of the remarkable Carlos Alcaraz will have been met with a sigh of relief by the latest of the ATP and WTA’s new 13-day, 96-player events that attempt to bridge the gap with the Grand Slams.
Still we await a tournament in 2023 which has all the leading men in one place, though, and it will not necessarily happen soon. If Alcaraz continues his brilliant form and does well in the Spanish capital, will he play in Rome or skip it, as he did last year, to make sure he is fully ready for the French Open in Paris?
There are doubts over Rafa Nadal (left) and Novak Djokovic (right) for the French Open in Paris
The pair pulled out of Madrid due to injury, but organisers have Carlos Alcaraz flying the flag
The overarching anxiety concerns Nadal, amid much speculation over whether he will be fit for Roland Garros.
His video announcing his latest pull-out made for gloomy viewing, as he admitted his medical team have yet to reach the root of his problems around the hip.
As for Djokovic, there was no explanation for his non-appearance. Into the vacuum will flow plenty of hypothesising about whether his elbow is a significant problem, or whether he is just trying to pace himself.
Either way, it is hardly satisfactory for fans, sponsors and broadcast rights holders that no information is given about a no-show.
In fairness to the Serb, he is not the only one who does not accompany a withdrawal with some sort of elaboration about why it has happened.
What is clear enough is that neither Nadal nor Djokovic are where they want to be at this stage of the clay court season, and there is an upside to this slew of absences.
It has made this clay season among the men more interesting than for many years, because you can see a greater variety of genuine contenders than for more than 15 years as it winds towards the business end.
The top three have little between them in terms of the odds on winning the French, and notably there are four younger players — Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jannik Sinner, Casper Ruud and Holger Rune — given realistic chances of being in the mix.
The French is shaping up to be a lot more interesting than the procession which was this year’s men’s Australian Open.
Djokovic was barely challenged at the venue where he is at his peerless best, curiously aided by the tournament giving him his preferred evening slot for seven rounds out of seven.
Nadal confirmed he will miss the Madrid Open this year after suffering a setback in recovery
It is certainly a complete switch around from Paris Slams of recent vintage in terms of expecting who will win compared to the women.
Nobody could argue against Iga Swiatek being anything other than a Nadal-style huge favourite on the clay. She is even money or odds-on to win the tournament, with Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and the perpetually under-rated Barbora Krejcikova a long way back.
As for Nadal and Djokovic, any inclination to bet against their chances should come with a health (or wealth) warning. Little detail is known about the true state of Nadal’s body, and he has a habit of talking up injury woes going into Roland Garros.
Similar with Djokovic in the big events. He also has a history of inviting speculation about his fitness as a pressure-relieving mechanism, and assessing his fitness can be like trying to predict the stock market.
Both men are masters of bringing themselves to the boil with perfect timing.
A guesstimate is that Djokovic will be ready to go, but Nadal’s bid for a 15th Roland Garros title is in big trouble. It feels different this time, and that is not a wholly unhealthy state of affairs.
While Djokovic may make it, there is growing pessimism that this time it is different for Nadal
Along with Roger Federer (left, now retired), the pair have dominated men’s singles tennis
BORG BOY WINS TO TAKE STEP UP THE LADDER
A lesser-spotted title win at the weekend was that of Leo Borg – son of Bjorn – at the $25K ITF event in Jakarta.
This first trophy on the lower rungs of the pro tour should see the 19-year-old, who is sometimes accompanied around the circuit by his father, gain enough points to be right on track for a move inside the world’s top 500.
The highest-ranked player he beat was in the 400s, and it is no sure-fire thing that Leo – who very convincingly played his young dad in the Borg vs McEnroe movie of 2017 – can replicate the family’s history in the game.
Good luck to him in bearing the burden of his surname. He is certainly focused on his career and prepared to put in the miles to build it, having spent all of April playing smaller tournaments around the Far East.
Leo Borg (left, at Wimbledon last summer), son of iconic former player Bjorn (right), won the $25k ITF event in Jakarta in a men’s singles title win that has been going under the radar
SERVICES WITH A SMILE
An under-appreciated strength of Wimbledon is the stewarding job done at the Championships by the men and women of the Services.
Their marshalling of the crowd is calm, courteous and efficient and gives off the air that, if trouble were afoot, they would be more than equipped to handle it.
The stewarding for spectators encountered at the four Grand Slams varies quite considerably and speaks to the wider feel of the events.
The French have upped their game in this regard and the staff win hands down for stylish attire. Melbourne stewards are super-officious and tend to lend weight to the old adage that Australians are nice people unless you stick a uniform on them. Those managing the US Open crowds at Flushing Meadows live in a state of being overwhelmed by the chaos.
A Just Stop Oil protester tossed orange paint over a snooker table during the World Championship before being dragged away. It is hoped Wimbledon’s security could combat this
This summer the UK’s sports events – even last weekend’s life-affirming London Marathon – face the threat of being disrupted by those who consider the rest of us not militant enough in approving of their cause.
Never mind that their acts, such as at the World Snooker Championship last week, may ruin the day for ordinary citizens who come to watch or, for that matter, participate.
Stopping determined protesters is not easy, but at least when it comes to Wimbledon you can hope these unelected Trustafarians will be no match for the good men and women of the Services.
POSTCARD FROM A LIFE ON TOUR
Great city, Madrid, but the airport can be so complex to navigate that trying to escape it could make for a TV reality show. A friend claims that recently he got so lost there that, eventually, he found himself going down some stairs that led directly to the street, unintentionally missing passport control.
Recent visits, and there have been a few, have meant standing in line for an hour, Miami airport-style, to have your papers stamped. The queue consists of fellow non-EU members from all parts and is a painful (but understandable enough) aspect of our punishment beating for leaving the club.
Yet, glory be, something seems to have happened, and this week the whole exit process took barely 15 minutes. Perhaps the trick is to take a more obscure airline, as I did, and end up in one of the airport’s smaller terminals.
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