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Djokovic faces stiff opposition

‘I felt bad when I hear that Rafa was not able to play here in Roland Garros.’

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Novak Djokovic will be challenged by a bevy of solid contenders in the French Open.

Novak Djokovic will bid for a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam title at a French Open without his old rival Rafael Nadal for the first time since 2004, while Iga Swiatek attempts to become the first woman to defend the title in 16 years.

Serbian veteran Djokovic will not be the favorite for the title, though, after struggling with an elbow injury and failing to get past the quarterfinals in any of his three clay-court events so far this season.

Carlos Alcaraz won the Barcelona and Madrid Opens en route to taking over from Djokovic as world No. 1, while Daniil Medvedev is seeded second for Roland Garros after his maiden clay triumph in Rome.

But Djokovic will know this is a massive opportunity to break out of his tie with 14-time French Open winner Nadal at the top of the all-time list of most men’s Slam singles titles.

The two-time champion has lost eight of his 10 French Open meetings with Nadal who is missing this year’s edition due to a hip injury he suffered at the Australian Open.

Djokovic and Alcaraz are seeded to meet in the semi-finals after being placed in the same half of the draw.

“I felt bad when I hear that Rafa was not able to play here in Roland Garros,” said Alcaraz on Friday.

“I always want to watch the best players in the world playing the tournaments.”

The 36-year-old Djokovic may also have to get past Monte Carlo Masters champion Andrey Rublev in the quarters.

The other side of the draw appears wide open, with in-form Medvedev the highest seed despite never having previously got past the quarter-finals on the Paris clay.

The Russian lost in the first round on each of his first four visits before making the quarters in 2021.

“I also don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, in a way,” Medvedev said.

“But what happened in Rome was amazing, especially beating a lot of good players.”

Danish youngster Holger Rune, who made a surprise run to last year’s quarter-finals, could face Casper Ruud in the last eight in a rematch of a bad-tempered meeting 12 months ago.

Ruud went on to be thrashed in the final by Nadal and also lost the US Open showpiece match to Alcaraz.

But the Norwegian world No. 4 has struggled for form this year, only reaching the quarters in two of the 10 tournaments he has played.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost the 2021 final to Djokovic after being two sets up, will be among the likely contenders but has not won a title yet this term — the longest he has had to wait for a trophy in a season since 2018.

The winner of the women’s singles is expected to be one of the trio of reigning champion Swiatek, Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina.

They have won the last four Grand Slam titles between them and at least one of them has featured in every WTA 1000 final this season.

Swiatek, who turns 22 during the tournament, will be the favorite as she chases a third Roland Garros triumph and a first successful women’s title defense since Justine Henin won her third French Open in a row in 2007.

The Polish star retired from her Italian Open quarter-final against Rybakina with a thigh injury but trained at Roland Garros on Wednesday.

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

“I’m still recovering from the thigh injury, but I’ll be good for my first round.”

Wimbledon champion Rybakina, ranked fourth, has already won the Rome and Indian Wells titles in 2023 and could face Swiatek in the Roland Garros semis.

“If I play my best, which it’s impossible to play every time good and feel great, but I feel for sure no matter the surface, if I play my best, I can beat anyone,” she said.

Other title hopefuls include last year’s runner-up Coco Gauff, Tunisian Ons Jabeur and world No. 3 Jessica Pegula.

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