PARIS, May 21, 2022 (AFP) – Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, with 41 Grand Slam titles between them, will attempt to derail the growing hype surrounding teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz at the French Open from Sunday.
All three have been placed in the top-half of the draw, meaning only one will make the Roland Garros final.
Defending champion Djokovic is seeded to face 13-time winner Nadal in the quarter-finals. Alcaraz is a potential semi-final opponent.
“I feel I am always in contention to fight for any Grand Slam trophy,” said Djokovic who arrives in Paris fired up by his inability to defend his Australian Open title in January when he was deported over his vaccination status.
“Reliving the memories from last year is something that obviously gives me goose bumps and motivation to try to replicate that.”
Djokovic, who turns 35 on Sunday, captured a second French Open title in 2021.
He did it the hard way, coming from two sets down to beat Lorenzo Musetti in the last-16, winning an epic four-set semi-final against Nadal before needing to overturn another two-set deficit to see off Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.
Djokovic has played only five tournaments in 2022 but arrives in Paris buoyed by a sixth Italian Open title, becoming just the fifth man to win 1,000 career matches in the process.
It was his 38th Masters triumph, two more than Nadal at the top of the all-time list.
– Nadal ‘feels better’ –
Djokovic starts his French Open against 94th-ranked Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan.
Nadal has played down concerns over the chronic foot issue that resurfaced in Rome last week.
On Wednesday, he practiced in front of thousands of fans at Roland Garros without any obvious discomfort.
“There is nothing to recover,” Nadal told reporters Friday. “What happened in Rome is something that happened very often in my practices.”
“I was suffering after that for a couple of days, but I feel better. That’s why I’m here.”
Nadal began the year with a 20-match winning run, capturing a second Australian Open title to claim a record 21st Grand Slam and move ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer.
The 35-year-old’s record at the French Open stands at a staggering 105 wins and just three losses since his 2005 title-winning debut.
Djokovic has been responsible for two of those defeats. One of those came in the bruising semi-final 12 months ago, the most recent clash of the pair’s epic 58-match rivalry.
“I just watched Rafa practice and it’s funny because all of a sudden his forehand is just 20 miles an hour faster. He moves lighter on his feet,” said world number three Alexander Zverevn on Friday.
“There is something about this court that makes him play 30% better, just being on this court.”
Nadal takes on Australia’s Jordan Thompson in the first round.
Alcaraz, just 19, has rocketed to six in the world on the back of four titles — three on clay — in 2022.
– ‘Special’ Alcaraz –
He won a second Masters title in Madrid, sweeping Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev on the way.
“He definitely is special,” admitted Djokovic of Alcaraz who also claimed the prestigious Miami Masters earlier in the year.
Alcaraz was ranked 97 this time last year.
He was only two when Nadal won the first of his 13 French Opens in 2005 but he made his mark at the 2021 tournament where he came through qualifying to reach the third round.
Alcaraz, who has 28 wins and just three defeats this year, opens his campaign on Sunday against Argentine lucky loser Juan Ignacio Londero, ranked at 141 but who made the last 16 in 2019.
Russian world number two Daniil Medvedev, who gave up a two-sets lead to lose to Nadal in the Australian Open final, only returned to action in Geneva this week after undergoing a hernia operation.
The US Open champion has 13 titles to his name but has yet to master the draining demands of clay.
At Roland Garros, he was winless in his first four visits before managing to stop the rot with a quarter-final run in 2021.
Greek world number four Tsitsipas has enjoyed a solid clay season.
He defended his Monte Carlo title before making the last-eight in Barcelona, semi-finals in Madrid and final in Rome.