|Venue: Roland Garros, Paris Date: 28 May-11 June|
|Scope: Live text and radio commentary of selected matches on BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra, the BBC Sport website and app|
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the French Open kicks off this weekend with an extra layer of intrigue.
With 14-time men’s champion Rafael Nadal missing due to injury and two-time women’s champion Every Swiatek not as dominant as last year, the identities of the two singles winners are extremely difficult to predict with any sense of certainty.
Nadal’s absence for the first time in 19 years will be felt by organizers and fans alike, but his withdrawal has opened up the men’s draw and given many players more motivation to win.
And an injury scare for Swiatek, whose position as WTA world number one is being challenged by Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, also the leaves drawn open.
Cameron Norrie, seeded 14th, leading the British charge in an area where the country’s players have had limited success this century. It’s not Andy Murray of Emma Raducanu will appear at Roland Garros and no British women have qualified for singles.
The clay-court tournament starts on 28 May, ending with the finals on 10 and 11 June.
Alcaraz to take Nadal’s crown? Or Djokovic to win the 23rd title?
Although nothing is certain in the sport, Nadal lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires is as close as anything.
Not this year. Nadal, who has lost just three of his 115 career matches at Roland Garros and is known as the ‘King of Clay’, has not been sidelined for long with a hip injury.
Before last week’s announcement that the 36-year-old can’t play, Nadal has slipped behind the Spanish world number one Carlos Alcaraz and 22-time major champion of Serbia Novak Djokovic as a favorite in the eyes of many observers.
After a dominant start to the season, Alcaraz is very likely to become only the fifth man since 2005 to claim the title.
After missing the Australian Open due to injury, the 20-year-old US Open champion bounced back to win four of his next six tournaments – Buenos Aires, Indian Wells, Barcelona and Madrid, while also reaching the Rio de Janeiro final and Miami semi-finals.
Back-to-back titles in Barcelona and Madrid helped extend Alcaraz’s record to 20 wins from his 21 matches on clay this season. Then came an unexpected twist in Rome.
Alcaraz lost to Hungarian qualifier Fabian Marozsan at the Italian Open in the last 32 and showed a resilience not seen in recent weeks.
Djokovic has won five of the last seven Grand Slam tournaments he has played in and knows that a third win at Roland Garros will put him ahead of Nadal in terms of most major men’s singles titles.
But his preparation was far from smooth.
The 36-year-old, who celebrates his birthday this week, missed the Madrid Open with an elbow injury and was not fully comfortable in Rome before losing in the quarter-finals.
However, Djokovic has the pedigree, experience and history of winning the biggest titles – despite the odds.
Who can challenge Alcaraz and Djokovic?
in Russia Daniel Medvedev jumped over Djokovic to become seeded second after winning the first clay-court title of his career in Rome.
Medvedev, 27, has long been seen as a hard-court specialist and few thought he would enjoy success on a surface he once described as fit only for “dogs playing in the dirt”.
Danish child Holger Rune, who beat Djokovic in Rome before losing to Medvedev, further showed his talent with an impressive clay-court season and the 20-year-old world number six is tipped to go far in Paris.
in Norway Casper Ruud, who lost to Nadal in last year’s final, put a poor start to the season behind him to reach the semi-finals in Rome, while the 2021 runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas is also expected to challenge again.
Norrie, 27, has never made it past the third round, while being the 24th seed Dan Evans and Jack Draper are the other Britons in the draw.
Murray, 36, withdrew at the end of the week to prioritize the grass-court era in the construction of Wimbledon.
Are we seeing the start of a new ‘Big Three’?
Over the years, since Serena Williams was in her prime, the women’s game has seen a revolving door of major champions.
Last year, Swiatek emerged as a dominant force, taking over as world number one when Australian Ashleigh Barty retired, then winning the Roland Garros and US Open titles.
The 21-year-old from Poland is enjoying another successful season while – understandably – not reaching the same heights as last year when he won 37 matches in a row.
Swiatek has won two titles so far in 2023 – Doha and Stuttgart – but is under increased pressure from Belarus’ Sabalenka and Kazakhstan’s Rybakina.
With Sabalenka claiming her first major title at the Australian Open in January, and Rybakina winning the Wimbledon title between Swiatek’s two major victories last year, the trio is fast becoming the new ‘Big Three’ of WTA.
Sabalenka, who has supplemented her natural power with improvements in her movement, has won more titles (three) and reached more finals (five) than anyone else during this period.
On clay, the world number two lost in the Stuttgart final to Swiatek before avenging that loss by defeating him to win the Madrid trophy.
However, he suffered a shock early exit in Rome which led to him saying he was “tired”.
Meanwhile, Rybakina elevated herself to third favorite behind Swiatek and Sabalenka after winning the biggest clay-court title of her career in Rome.
The victory came in unusual circumstances, however, which saw three of his six opponents retire due to injury.
That included Swiatek when the deciding set in their quarter-final was on serve and Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina when Rybakina led 6-4 1-0 in Saturday’s final.
Rybakina was not previously considered a force on red clay, but insisted she always felt she could “play better on clay” and put her success in Rome down to “experience and better preparation”.
The victory lifts her to fourth in the world – although she is in the top three with Swiatek and Sabalenka when ranking points are awarded at Wimbledon – and means she cannot face one of the top two until the semi- Roland Garros finals.
Who else can challenge?
While Swiatek, Sabalenka and Rybakina have each won one of the three biggest clay-court tournaments heading into Roland Garros, as well as the past four Grand Slams between them, several French Open champions have emerged from the shadows of recent years.
in Latvia Jelena Ostapenko was one of them in 2017 as an unseeded 20-year-old and his run to the semi-finals in Rome was a reminder of just how successful his game was at the top.
American teenager Coco Gauff lost to Swiatek in last year’s final but the sixth seed was unable to string together back-to-back wins on European clay, while the third seed Jessica Pegula – also with Gauff in doubles – has maintained his consistency this year.
Fifth seed Caroline Garcia sought to become the first French singles champion since Mary Pierce in 2000, but reached the quarter-finals only once, in 2017, and also lost in the last 32 in Madrid and Rome.
From the British point of view, Raducanu injured after operations on his wrists and ankles, and seven other women failed to qualify, leaving the country without representation in women’s singles at a Grand Slam for the first time since the 2009 US Open.