Alcaraz drawing plenty of buzz
PARIS — For the first time in a year, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are both entered in a major tournament — and, somehow, most of the buzz heading into the French Open is about Carlos Alcaraz, a teenager without one Grand Slam title to his name.
There’s plenty of reasons to keep tabs on Djokovic and Nadal when play begins Sunday. They’re two greats of the game who have played each other more than any other two men in the Open era, including nine times at Roland Garros.
Thanks to Thursday’s draw, they would meet in the quarterfinals this year, if at all, with a possible matchup against Alcaraz awaiting in the semifinals.
Nadal is a 13-time champion in Paris, owner of a men’s-record 21 Slam trophies overall and only recently returned from a rib injury while also dealing with chronic pain in his left foot that kept him out of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year.
“All of a sudden,” No. 3-seed Alexander Zverev said Friday after watching Nadal practice on-site, “his forehand is just 20 mph (30 kph) faster. He moves lighter on his feet. There is something about this court that makes him play 30% better.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, is ranked No. 1, is the defending champion on France’s red clay, is tied with Roger Federer at 20 majors, and, notably, sat out January’s Australian Open (which Nadal won) because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19. The French Open and Wimbledon are allowing him to compete.
“Tennis fans and the biggest tournaments in sport always want to have the best players in the world participating,” Djokovic said. “From that point of view, there is significance to that.”
Yet it’s Alcaraz — 28-3 with a tour-leading four titles in 2022, and already ranked No. 6 — who has generated so much fascination.
“He definitely is special,” Djokovic said. “So far, he’s the best player in the world, no question, this year. … He’s a really complete player. Can play equally well, offensively and defensively.”
That’s been building for a while now, reaching a crescendo after Alcaraz beat Nadal, then top-seeded Djokovic, then Zverev to win the Madrid Open in early May. No one ever had eliminated Djokovic and Nadal at the same clay tournament.
Yes, there are other story lines worthy of examination over the coming weeks.
Above all, it seems, comes Alcaraz, he of the seven consecutive wins against top-10 opponents, the big serve and smooth groundstrokes, the dancer’s footwork, the drop shots delivered via forehands and backhands.
As Djokovic put it: “He’s the talk of the sport.”