Move aside Rafael Nadal, there is a new King of Clay in town.
That’s not a dig at the 14-time champion, the best clay-court player of time, who misses Roland-Garros though injury. It’s more of an indication of a power shift, with the Spaniard confirming next year is set to be his last before retirement.
Nadal’s French Open legacy may never be matched. His name is forever etched into the history of the Grand Slam tournament, no matter the players who will follow him, but that will not stop the new generation of stars looking to replicate his success.
There is one player in particular that is constantly compared to Nadal. World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz could well dominate on all surfaces in years to come and he is undoubtedly strongest on the red dirt as he looks to take the throne in Paris.
The 20-year-old has already proven he has what it takes to win a Grand Slam, registering his first major title at the US Open last year, but his suitability to clay can be traced all the way back to his early training at the Real Sociedad Club de Campo de Murcia. It’s the club, and surface, where it all started for Alcaraz.
Being a young, successful tennis player from Spain was always going to draw comparisons to Nadal. Alcaraz’s key skills – including his masterful drop shot, strong forehand, impressive movement, kick serve and topspin – make him an almost unstoppable force on clay, just as Nadal has been for well over a decade.
It became apparent that Alcaraz was a clay-court beast before he stepped up to the ATP Tour, winning five of seven titles on the surface at ATP Challenger and ITF Futures level, and he continued that reputation after stepping up to the top level.
After registering his first ATP Tour title on clay at the Croatia Open in 2021, Alcaraz reached five finals on the surface last year – winning titles in Rio, Barcelona and Madrid. This year, he has played on clay 22 times and has lost just twice, defending his Spanish titles and lifting another clay trophy in Argentina.
At last year’s Madrid Open, he defeated Nadal and Novak Djokovic in successive rounds – becoming the first player to beat both players in the same tournament on clay – and the youngest man to beat a world No.1 on the surface since Nadal himself all the way back in 2005.
Alcaraz is almost unstoppable on clay, but he has by no means reached Nadal’s levels of near invincibility. He suffered a shock defeat to a qualifier in Rome in his last match, arguably the biggest surprise result of year so far.
Who knows what kind of psychological impact that will have on Alcaraz heading into Roland-Garros. It is undoubtedly a boost for players like Djokovic, currently ranked world No.3 and one of seven men who could possibly steal the crown.
This is arguably the most important Grand Slam of Djokovic’s career. While his form on clay this year has been mixed, we are talking about one of the greatest tennis players of all time, who equalled Nadal for the most major men’s singles titles at the Australian Open in January and could move ahead of him in Paris.
Only two of Djokovic’s 22 Grand Slam trophies have come at the French Open but the opportunity to become the first man in history to get to 23 may be all the motivation he needs as he looks to place himself above Nadal and Roger Federer.
At the age of 36, though, Djokovic’s dominance may be starting to soften, and a potential combination of that plus a repeat of Alcaraz’s shock exit in Rome could open the door for six other players at this year’s French Open.
World No.2 Daniil Medvedev will certainly fancy his chances. Despite being best suited to hard courts, the Russian recently proved that he can get the job done on the red dirt, winning the biggest clay title of his career at this year’s Italian Open. Like Alcaraz, Medvedev is already a Grand Slam champion and is hungry for more.
Then you have got world No.4 Casper Ruud. The Norwegian is undoubtedly a clay-court specialist and was the French Open runner-up last year, only losing to Nadal. He has won nine ATP Tour titles on the surface, including at this year’s Estoril Open and is seeking revenge on Alcaraz for losing the 2022 US Open final.
Stefanos Tsitsipas cannot be ruled out, either. The world No.5 has long been tipped to register his first Grand Slam trophy and was a French Open finalist two years ago. He has already been in a major final this year in Australia – losing to Djokovic – and finished runner-up at the clay-court Barcelona Open in April.
After that, you have Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner and Andrey Rublev, ranked World No.6, No.7 and No.8. All three have never won a major but will back themselves to go all the way. Rune, 20, beat Djokovic in a Masters event for the second time in Rome and impressively reached finals both there and in Monte-Carlo in 2023.
Meanwhile, there is a lot of hype around Sinner, who won a clay title in Croatia last year and reached a Masters final in Miami two months ago. Rublev, the seventh player capable of toppling Alcaraz, lifted this year’s trophy in Monte-Carlo and cannot be discounted in the most open Roland-Garros in around 20 years.
Will Alcaraz establish himself as the new King of Clay? Will Djokovic surpass Nadal for the most Grand Slam men’s singles titles? Will Medvedev become a two-time major champion? Or will we see a new winner? Let the games begin in Paris…