The European clay season is in full swing, and the second Grand Slam of the year is now upon us: Roland-Garros. After Andrey Rublev took down the Monte-Carlo Masters in April, the respective ATP and WTA 1000-level events in Madrid and Rome followed up with more surprises.
With Rafael Nadal absent from this year’s event and Iga Świątek’s initial dominance on clay under closer examination from her competition, both the men’s and women’s singles draws are among the most open in recent memory.
So, who will win the French Open? What storylines and data are the most intriguing heading into this 127th edition of the event?
Is Medvedev a Contender?
Heading into this year’s Italian Open, Daniil Medvedev’s notorious animosity towards the heavier and slower clay surface was already easing. Before 2023, Medvedev had only made one ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final on clay – winning in three sets over Novak Djokovic in Monte-Carlo in 2019. After losing to Holger Rune this year in the Principality, Rome became the 27-year-old’s second Masters quarter-final on clay for the year, before eventually beating Stefanos Tsitsipas and Rune in straight sets for his first ever ATP tournament victory on the surface.
Medvedev’s last previous victory over a top-10 opponent came back in 2019 against Kei Nishikori (Barcelona semi-final). As if to solidify his newfound credentials for Roland-Garros this year, Medvedev had achieved two in a matter of days against two bonafide clay-courters. And in straight sets, for good measure.
What was also telling was the nature of Medvedev’s win over Rune in comparison to their Monte-Carlo matchup – the differential in points won on second serve for Rune and Medvedev’s ability to apply pressure from the back of the court being two of the more striking aspects. Notwithstanding his extraordinary win-loss record of 33-0 after claiming the first set in 2023, the world number two might finally have figured it out on the red stuff.
Djokovic and Alcaraz on the Same Side of the Draw. Will It Happen?
Medvedev’s tournament win in Rome – thus claiming the second seed at Roland-Garros – means one of the most anticipated matchups in men’s tennis has been pushed to the same side of the draw, with Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic holding the respective first and third seeds.
Irrespective of his shock loss to Fábián Marozsán, Carlos Alcaraz has been the standout player on clay this year, with his only other defeat on the surface coming while injured against Cameron Norrie in the Rio de Janeiro final. Alcaraz is the only player with a win percentage above 85% on the surface this year, with a record of 20-2 (90.9%), and looks set to make a deep run in Paris. The question is, however, will this year’s French Open even get a sequel to their three-set thriller in Madrid last year?
Also potentially waiting on the other side of the draw is Monte-Carlo and Rome finalist Holger Rune, having already defeated the 22-time Slam winner twice in the past nine months, at the Paris and Rome Masters respectively.
Seeking to take the baton from Djokovic and the absent Nadal, Rune and Alcaraz both sit on seven top-five wins before the age of 21, currently level with one other player since 2000 – Djokovic.
Can Rybakina and Sabalenka Get to Świątek?
Despite her triumph in Stuttgart, this year’s Madrid and Italian Opens showed that while Iga Świątek is the benchmark in women’s tennis on clay, there is not a lot separating the burgeoning big three of women’s tennis when they face each other. The irrepressible Świątek will rarely hit her opponent off the court. Instead, she transforms into a human version of pong on clay, with supreme mastery of angles, focus and court coverage, but the power Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina possess does arguably get to her.
On the other hand, despite the comparative ability to move opponents around the court, Rybakina and Sabalenka have had their hiccups at the respective WTA 1000 events in Madrid and Rome this year. Sabalenka is one of only three players to have hit over 300 or more winners on clay this year but holds a winner-unforced error differential of -16 on the surface, going -9 in her second-round exit in Rome against Sofia Kenin alone.
Among players to have played five or more matches on clay this year, Świątek is one of only three players with over 200 winners (233) and a positive winner-unforced error differential (+9).
Without the luxury of free points on serve, though, 22.2% of the matches where Świątek has hit unforced errors in double figures this season have come against Sabalenka and Rybakina. Meanwhile, 30% of the matches where Swiatek has faced break point five or more times this year have come against the two.
Świątek Dominance on Clay
Over the years, Roland-Garros has seen 30 different winners in the women’s category. The clay WTA 1000 events ahead of the French Open saw two different champions in Madrid and Rome this year – Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina respectively. Having looked at the season ahead of the French Open one would rationally back either Rybakina, Sabalenka or Świątek to come through. The world number one has won the tournament in two of the last three editions, boasting a win percentage of 91.3% – only two players in the Open Era have a better rate than the Polish superstar at the French Open (Margaret Court and Chris Evert).
Ahead of the French Open last year, Świątek had already won five tournaments – four of which were WTA 1000 events. Świątek has two ahead of this year’s tournament – Stuttgart and Doha, both of which are classified as WTA 500. Even though the world number one made the quarter-finals in six of the seven WTA tournaments she has appeared in during 2023, her form against top-10 during the business end of tournaments has been volatile.
Świątek is 4-4 against top-10 ranked opponents this year, having already lost twice the number of matches she had lost last year, while also matching her most losses in a calendar year against such opponents (2021). However, since the start of 2022, Swiatek has lost just three matches on clay with a win percentage of 91%.