You can be forgiven for forgetting what the French Open was like two years ago. The change in structure of the night session gave a new lease to life to the least talked about major of the year. One key alteration which stands in contrast to the later editions was the jarring nature of empty stands brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Notably, the 2021 edition was also Roger Federer’s last trip to Roland Garros as a competitor, with the veteran walking out in an apocalyptic- style face covering. However, that year it was also a major which became anybody’s ball game as soon as Novak had dumped Nadal out of the tournament. It was only the 3rd time in 16 years that Nadal had ever been dumped from the French Open before winning the final.
Fast forward 12 months later, and it was Novak Djokovic who was now on the back foot of the G.O.A.T (greatest of all-time) debate. Missing the first major of the year, and stumbling for months searching for a win, Rafael Nadal instead came out guns blazing to storm to his 22nd major title. This was despite managing an injury which required his personal doctor to fly to Paris and stay the length of the fortnight to attend to the Spanish maestro. Here we are in 2023- a world away from last year’s Roland Garros. Nadal has failed to participate in a single clay tournament leading up to to Roland Garros- the first time this has ever occurred in his career.
However, history is on his side- as he has did win Roland Garros in 2020 under some of the most extreme circumstances the tournament has ever seen. In that year’s edition, only 1 warm up masters event was was held prior to Roland Garros- with the Rome Masters being won by Novak Djokovic. Nonetheless, despite the curfews, mask and seating restrictions- as well as the tournament being played in less-than-ideal October night conditions, Rafael Nadal came out victorious to level Roger Federer’s 20 grand slam titles. It is why Roland Garros really is the biggest conundrum of them all. Djokovic will never really be the real favourite to win the French Open as long as the 13-time winner Rafael Nadal is in the draw. It is this mystique, the idea of Novak winning a major he is not supposed to win, which will be his crowning glory in 2023- if he manages to pull it off. At Wimbledon, he will likely come in as the favourite. At that point, you also have to start wondering if it is time to dream of a calendar slam again.
Nonetheless, the final hour in of one of the greatest rivalries in sport is upon us. Both athletes know that they are far closer to the end than the beginning. Nadal likely would have never caught Novak had he failed to win last year’s Australian Open. You do the math- there are 4 majors up for grabs in the year, 3 of which suit Novak more than Nadal. However, given Novak’s issues entering Australia and the US last year, it is very possible that this 2023 Roland Garros could be the fork in the road in the slam race which could favour Novak Djokovic taking command. At the very least, these next few years will be more even than it has ever been in history. Let’s not forget one thing though. Nadal is Nadal at Roland Garros, and Djokovic will hard to beat at Wimbledon. A healthy Nadal is next to the hardest feat in sport to contend with.
That leaves this year’s US Open, which could potentially serve as the major which splits hairs between these two all-time greats. Fighting tooth and nail, neck and neck, is a guarantee you can absolutely expect as the curtains start to close on perhaps the most extensive rivalry in men’s sport. Given both players are separated by less than 100 wins, it is also entirely plausible that both finish on a similar number of match wins by the end of the careers. With both having an eerily identical match win percentage and Masters 1000 tally- the race to the top may very well be the most interesting race of them all.
However, the biggest story of them all is what is at stake at this year’s Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic has the unbelievable opportunity of winning every major three times over if he manages to win this year’s Roland Garros. The double career grand slam was a feat that Nadal managed to consolidate at the 2022 Australian Open- but can Djokovic make history and complete a feat no man has ever achieved, nor likely will ever achieve again.
All in all, do you think Novak Djokovic can win the triple career grand slam at this year’s Roland Garros?