French Open 2022: All eyes on Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek - but no Andy Murray and question marks over Emma Raducanu
As Wimbledon ponders its next move now that the ATP and WTA tours have stripped The Championships of ranking points so down grading it to the biggest and poshest exhibition tournament on the planet, the French Tennis Federation could be forgiven for feeling rather smug.
The French Open begins today. The French have ranking points aplenty to hand out, they have a more or less full complement of players, including Russians and Belarusians playing under a neutral flag, and, for the moment at least, they have no political or diplomatic fires to put out. Vive la République; vive la France, then.
And in the City of Lights two beacons shine brightest of all: Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek.
As the great and the good assemble in Paris and put the finishing touches to their preparations, all eyes are upon the duo who, aged just 19 and 20 respectively, have illuminated the tennis tour for much of this year.
From the moment Rafael Nadal developed a stress fracture in his rib in Indian Wells in March (and then suffered a recurrence of his chronic foot problem 10 days ago), Alcaraz has been all but unstoppable and has been the focus of attention on the men’s circuit. Nadal dominated the first two and half months of the season and Alcaraz took over from there.
True enough, Novak Djokovic won the title in Rome last week (and is the bookies’ favourite to retain his title in Paris) but the young Spaniard had opted to rest and train that week rather than compete. He had already won the silverware in Miami on a hard court and Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona and Madrid on clay by then and it was deemed that less was now definitely more – a week off would be better for his French Open chances than another week of graft on the regular tour.
Ranked No 6 in the world, Alcaraz’s first seeded opponent should be Sebastian Korda in the third round – and Korda is the only man to have beaten him on clay this year, the only blot on his otherwise pristine copy book.
“I’m not afraid to say that I’m ready to win a grand slam,” Alcaraz announced last week. “Physically I feel very well. I am mentally strong. I am a strong player and in the end that is what it takes to win a grand slam.”
Swiatek is a former champion at Roland Garros although her sudden rise to the top of the rankings two months ago took her by surprise. As the season began, she had imagined that she would spend the next few years slugging it out for bragging rights with Ash Barty. But then the Australian upped and retired in March leaving Swiatek one match away from securing her position as the top player in the world.
At the time, she was on an 11-match winning streak. After she extended that to 12 and ensured that no one could depose her as the No 1, she never looked back. Now her winning run stands at 28 matches. She has hoovered up five tournaments in a row and dropped only four sets in 11 weeks. And only one of those was on a clay court.
“At the beginning I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed and a little bit maybe scared of what's going to happen,” Swiatek said of her rise to greatness. “But then I thought that I still have one match to win in Miami to confirm that I'm going to be world No 1. So just focus on tennis and on a good start of the tournament, because when I kind of shifted from focusing on all the media fuss and I started focusing on tennis, it got much, much easier and I was in a comfortable zone.”
Emma Raducanu has not been in a “comfortable zone” for months. Her coaching set up remains not so much a work in progress as a revolving door policy (and that door keeps spinning ever faster) while her fitness, or lack of it, remains a problem. After her back seized up in Rome last week, she had to rest before she could get down to any serious preparations for Paris.
“I definitely had to slow down that week,” she said, “but this week I have been training and luckily being able to practice all of the shots. I have been preparing as normal the last few days.
“I think it's been really positive that the last few days maybe after the back, I have definitely been increasing my gym work and I have been doing a lot more in the gym, and it gives me confidence to be able to do that stuff and train, leading up to a tournament.”
Training is all that Andy Murray will be doing in the immediate future. Before a dose of food poisoning stopped his run in Madrid, he was looking very good on the clay but it was not enough to persuade him to try his luck at Roland Garros. Instead, he headed home and has been preparing for the grass court season – his first competitive outing will be at the Surbiton Challenger which begins a week on Monday.
That leaves Cameron Norrie and Dan Evans to fly the flag for Britain in the French capital. Norrie, fresh from his exploits in Lyon, opens his account against the French wildcard Manuel Guinard and could meet Alcaraz in the fourth round, while Evans starts against Francisco Cerundolo from Argentina and could face Stefanos Tsitsipas, last year’s finalist, in the third round.