MIKE DICKSON: This may be the most thrilling French Open in years

MIKE DICKSON: The bell’s tolling for Rafael Nadal but don’t despair… this may be the most thrilling French Open in years with Novak Djokovic and Iga Swiatek facing a host of contenders 

  • Record 14-time champion Nadal pulled out of French Open due to a hip injury
  • Djokovic will be tested by a host of younger contenders at Roland Garros
  • World No 1 Swiatek faces a tough test in women’s event amid injury doubts 

Roland Garros without Rafael Nadal might not be quite Paris without the Eiffel Tower, but it does constitute a significant change to the landscape.

The absence of the great Spaniard is a disappointment, and until last week he held out hope of being there.

There should not, however, be an asterisk against whoever goes on to win the men’s title. The victor will be worthy, because Nadal being unable to compete is merely a sign of the passage of time, part of the reality which dictates that nobody — not even one of the great warrior athletes — can go on for ever.

Essentially, saying that Nadal’s absence undermines the French Open is not much different from asserting that this summer’s Open golf is devalued by Jack Nicklaus not playing, or that the Ashes will be lesser because Glenn McGrath is no longer in the Australian ranks.

The fact is that Nadal, who turns 37 a week on Saturday, is already the oldest player among the world’s top 80 men. His achievements on clay have been phenomenal but they have come at a cost, never more so than last year. Knowingly, too.

Rafael Nadal pulled out of the French Open due to a hip injury he suffered in Australia 

Novak Djokovic will be tested by a host of younger contenders at Roland Garros

It is instructive to revisit how he won the title in 2022, which he was only able to do thanks to medical interventions, and what he said afterwards.

Having brushed aside Casper Ruud to claim his 14th Coupe des Mousquetaires, the Spaniard was quite open about what had been required to keep body and soul together over the fortnight.

Nadal admitted at the time: ‘I was able to play during these two weeks with extreme conditions. I have been playing with injections on the nerves to sleep the foot, and that’s why I was able to play during these two weeks. Because I have no feelings on my foot, because my doctor was able to put anaesthetic injections on the nerves.

‘At the same time, it’s a big risk in terms of less feelings, a little bit bigger risk of turning your ankle. Before every single match I had to do a couple of injections. There is a risk to have other problems when you play with a part of your body with no feelings, of course. It’s a risk that I wanted to take to play here.’

In recalling that, we should perhaps all be less surprised that the bell has tolled and he has not been the same player since. He went on to make the semi-finals at Wimbledon before withdrawing, and subsequently he has only managed to play 13 matches, losing eight of them.

You hope that the rest cure he is undertaking allows him a valedictory appearance in Paris next year, and of course he deserves nothing less.

Although tennis should reflect on why so much of this year has been taken up with reporting who is missing, rather than who is playing, there is still no shortage of worthy contenders in the coming 15 days in Paris.

As has already been pointed out, this will be the most open, and arguably interesting, men’s event for decades. Novak Djokovic’s towering expertise in navigating best-of-five-set matches will be tested by a host of younger contenders, and Iga Swiatek is perhaps less of a racing certainty to win the women’s event than might have been the case.

There is still much to look forward to at Roland Garros: the sleek show courts thronged by the most knowledgeable fans in the world; the Parisian elan; the demanding mix of muscle and nous required when constructing points on clay.

Nadal’s absence might yet mean the end of an era, but it is not the end of the world.

Stellar cast for US Open return 

Sky have been busy assembling their team for the US Open, which is set to be the precursor to a return of tennis to the stable, with a dedicated channel launching in 2024. According to sources, former players Martina Navratilova, Tim Henman and Marion Bartoli and broadcaster Gigi Salmon are among those lined up for prominent roles in the Flushing Meadows coverage, which will see the team split between London and New York.

In the shorter term fans can look forward to a glut of tennis programming in the next couple of months, extending beyond the regular coverage of the French Open and the grass-court season.

Former players Martina Navratilova, Tim Henman and Marion Bartoli are being lined up by Sky

Whetting the appetite for Wimbledon will be season two of Netflix’s Break Point, following on from the first batch of episodes in January. It is believed the second part will be more spicy than its predecessor, which veered on the side of being inoffensive and bland.

The BBC will also supplement their live coverage of the grass with a three-part documentary series entitled Gods of Tennis which will look at the more innocent, and perhaps sexier, era of the 1970s and 80s, featuring interviews with Navratilova, Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert.

Amazon Prime may be quitting the sport at the end of the season, but they are also getting involved, screening a fictional drama based on life on the professional circuit.

Entitled Fifteen Love, it will come out just after Wimbledon and explore the relationship between a tennis prodigy and her maverick coach, played by Poldark star Aidan Turner. The central character reaches the semi-final of the French Open as a teenager, only to then suffer a wrist injury which forces her into retirement.

Hopefully that is not the fate which awaits Emma Raducanu, whose busy social media feed shows she has been in Mexico with Dior as she recuperates from the two operations to that part of the body.

The BBC have not yet unveiled their Wimbledon line-up, but it would not be a surprise if Raducanu made the odd cameo appearance as she is ruled out of The Championships.

Rome farce raises more questions

Announcers mixed up the names of Rome finalists, Elena Rybakina and Anhelina Kalinina

After the controversy over the trophy ceremony at the women’s doubles final in Madrid it was unfortunate, to say the least, that the same occasion for the women’s singles final in Rome degenerated into a farce. 

Among the mishaps at the very late-night presentation — following rain delays — were the announcers getting not just the trophies mixed up but the names of the two finalists, Elena Rybakina and Anhelina Kalinina.

Stand by for the next vexatious debate in the sensitive area of how the women’s tour sits alongside the men’s. That will be the question of how many of the designated night matches at Roland Garros are allocated to those from the WTA Tour. Last year just one women’s match was scheduled in the separately ticketed slot under floodlights out of the 10 available.

The often chilly temperatures, and transport issues, already cast doubt on the wisdom of that enterprise.

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