Rafael Nadal’s absence at French Open will be major shift for men’s singles draw

AP photo by Michel Euler / Rafael Nadal shouts as he plays Diego Schwartzman during a French Open quarterfinal in June 2021. The 2023 edition of the clay court Grand Slam tournament begins Sunday in Paris, but 14-time champion Nadal announced last week that he would not compete due to injury.

There's a reason a statue of Rafael Nadal stands outside Court Philippe Chatrier on the southwest outskirts of Paris.

No player ever lorded over any Grand Slam tennis tournament the way Nadal has ruled the French Open, winning it year after year after year so many times — 14 — it forces one to check the total again just to be certain. It is impossible to overstate what a monumental development it is that Nadal's name will be absent from the bracket when play begins Sunday at Roland Garros.

The last time they held the clay-court major without him? Back in 2004 — before women and men received equal prize money there, before the main stadium was reconstructed with a retractable roof, before night sessions were added to the schedule.

"Him and Roland Garros is something special," said Coco Gauff, the 19-year-old Floridian who was the runner-up to Iga Swiatek for the 2022 women's singles title in Paris. "I remember last year ... I made the mistake of doubting him. Next thing you know, he pretty much stormed his way to the final and won in straight sets."

Then, using the now-familiar acronym for "Greatest of All-Time," Gauff continued: "He's just a 'GOAT' in that way. A 'GOAT' on clay. Someone you can't underestimate."

Every man in the field — well, every realistic and honest man — knew there was one player to avoid in the draw. And they all knew it was almost certain that Nadal would leave France with yet another Coupe des Mousquetaires. His career record at Roland Garros: 112-3.

"He's obviously always going to be the favorite," said Casper Ruud, the Norwegian who was the runner-up to Nadal last year, "if he plays."

This time he won't. Nadal, who turns 37 on June 3, ruled himself out last week due to the hip flexor injury that has sidelined him since January. His aim is to return to Paris in 2024 for what probably would be his last French Open because he expects it to be his final season.

"Roland Garros will always be Roland Garros, with or without me," Nadal said, "without a doubt."

Perhaps. Really, though, no tennis tournament player are linked quite the way this tournament and this player are.

So the question becomes: Who takes advantage of his absence over the next two weeks?

Will it be the wunderkind considered an heir apparent, fellow Spanish player Carlos Alcaraz, who won the U.S. Open in September at age 19, finished last season ranked No. 1 and just returned to that spot? What about Novak Djokovic, who owns two victories against Nadal at the French Open and two titles of his own in the event? Or Daniil Medvedev, coming off his first clay title? Or Holger Rune, who has beaten Djokovic twice in a row?

"I see it maybe more open this year than the other years," Rune said. "It's interesting. It makes it more fun."

The stakes for Djokovic are obvious: A championship would be his 23rd at a Grand Slam, breaking a tie with Nadal for the men's singles record. As it is, the 36-year-old from Serbia has won 10 of the past 19 major trophies in men's singles.

Nadal collected a half-dozen in that span, while three men won one apiece, all at the U.S. Open: Alcaraz, Medvedev and Dominic Thiem.

For quite a while, folks have been wondering when the Big Three would give way to the next group. Roger Federer retired last year. Nadal appears close to joining him. Djokovic is still thriving, although he did deal with discomfort in his surgically repaired right elbow lately.

"A new generation is here already. I mean, Alcaraz is No. 1 in the world. ... Obviously, he's playing amazing tennis. I think it's also good for our sport that we have new faces, new guys coming up. It's normal. We've been saying this for years — that we can expect it to come, that moment to come, when you have kind of a shift of generations," Djokovic said.

"I'm personally still trying to hang in there with all of them. I'm happy with — of course, very happy with — my career so far," he said. "I still have the hunger to keep going."

That sort of desire exists for Nadal, too. He just could not will his hip to heal quickly enough.

It will be odd to hold a French Open without him. Odd for the tournament itself, for other players, for spectators.

And odd for him.

"With everything that the tournament means to me, you can imagine how difficult this is for me," Nadal said. "It is not a decision I make; it is a decision that my body has made."