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Opportunity knocks as Nadal misses French Open for first time since 2005
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Eleanor Crooks
Press Association
Rafael Nadal announces his withdrawal from the French Open (Francisco Ubilla/AP)
Rafael Nadal announces his withdrawal from the French Open (Francisco Ubilla/AP)

Tony Blair was in Downing Street, Carlos Alcaraz a baby and Twitter and Instagram non-existent the last time the French Open took place without Rafael Nadal.

But the Spaniard will be at Roland Garros in statue form only this year after giving notice that the end of one of the great sporting careers is looming.

Nadal’s record on the Parisian clay is absurd – since winning on his debut in 2005, he has lifted the title 14 times, lost three matches and withdrawn mid-tournament once.

Novak Djokovic takes over favourite status given his history at the tournament – two titles and four more finals – and the 22 slam titles he has already won.

The Serbian turned 36 this week and, although he has shown many times – including at the Australian Open this year – that he can fight through physical issues to win slams, there are major question marks about the state of his right elbow.

Djokovic has suffered defeats to Lorenzo Musetti, Dusan Lajovic and Holger Rune on clay this season but still spoke bullishly about his chances in Paris.

“I know I can always play better,” he said in Rome. “Definitely I am looking forward to working on various aspects of my game, of my body, hopefully getting myself in 100 per cent shape. That’s the goal.

“I always like my chances in grand slams against anybody on any surface, best-of-five (sets).”

Djokovic is increasingly mounting a one-man defence against the younger generation, and 20-year-old Alcaraz reclaimed the world number one ranking from him this week.

Rune, also 20, has established himself as a big-time talent over the past six months while 21-year-old Jannik Sinner is having the best season of his career.

Only Rome champion Daniil Medvedev is within a decade of Djokovic in the top 10, and the Serbian said: “A new generation is here already. Alcaraz is number one in the world. Obviously he’s playing amazing tennis. I think it’s also good for our sport that we have new faces, new guys coming up. It’s normal.

On the women’s side, a top three has emerged this season, with Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka and Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina closing the gap to world number one Iga Swiatek.

The Pole remains a class act on clay in particular but is certainly not as clear a favourite as 12 months ago, when her second French Open title came as part of a 37-match winning run.

The best hope for a strong British run once again is Cameron Norrie, whose top-16 ranking ensures he will avoid other top players in the early rounds.

The withdrawals of Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu are a blow but 21-year-old Jack Draper has recovered from an abdominal problem in time and will look to show his potential on the big stage again.

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