In a wide-open field, who’s going to win the men’s French Open title?

Sports

PARIS — Novak Djokovic has performed miracles before when staring at defeat. In 20 of his 369 wins at Grand Slams, he has come back from 2-1 down to win in five sets. But behind two sets to one, and a break down against Francisco Cerundolo in the fourth on Monday, it looked like this comeback would be too much even for him.

Having powered through the first set 6-1, Djokovic’s right knee buckled at the start of the second set. He called for a medical timeout, then the physio at the next two changeovers.

But whatever they did, it didn’t seem like he trusted his knee would hold. Those drop shots we’ve seen him flee for were left. A shot in the corner to his backhand was let through, with Djokovic unwilling to push off his right leg to chase it.

It wasn’t the player we’ve come to see over the past 16 or so years, the one who has 24 Grand Slam titles and last exited the French Open at this stage in 2009.

But then at the end of the fourth set, Djokovic’s backhands started landing, the right knee seemingly strengthened and then back he came to win his second five-setter in 40 hours. It took him 4 hours and 39 minutes to get past Cerundolo.

He was bruised and caked in clay, having endured his longest-ever match at the French Open. It was remarkable, but the question is, can he keep it going? And will his knee hold up?

We already have one foot tentatively in the post-Rafa Nadal era. The 14-time French Open winner lost in straight sets of this tournament to Alexander Zverev. This promises to be the most open competition in Paris since Nadal started building his legacy in 2005. Who will win? We rank the top contenders left.


1. Carlos Alcaraz

Since Carlos Alcaraz broke onto the scene, it has felt like he would be the heir apparent to Nadal’s French Open throne. But his first two Slams would come elsewhere: at the US Open in 2022 and then that epic triumph over Djokovic at Wimbledon last year, where he won the title in only his fourth grass-court tournament.

This year, Alcaraz reached the quarterfinal of the Australian Open, where he lost to Zverev, but then won at Indian Wells. His clay-court swing has been far from straightforward, though. He was forced to withdraw from the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open with a forearm injury. He then lost in Madrid to Andrey Rublev and withdrew from Rome with the same injury.

Here at Roland Garros, he has worn a protective sleeve on his right arm and said, “I’m a little bit scared about hitting every forehand 100%.”

He said the same after his straightforward first-round win over J.J. Wolf. If he gets to full power, then that’s surely a worrying sign for the other contenders — and he might be impossible to stop.

Alcaraz was pushed hard by Dutch qualifier Jesper de Jong in the second round and again by Sebastian Korda in the third round. But it was in his conclusive victory over Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round that he looked like he was comfortable again.

Up next is Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals, and Alcaraz is in a confident mood, saying on-court that he has the “key” to beating him, having won all five of their previous matchups.

“I know that Stefanos is playing great, but I know tactically what I have to do in the match, which I’m not going to say, obviously, but I know what I have to do [to win] the match,” Alcaraz said.


2. Novak Djokovic

It hasn’t been easy for the 24-time Grand Slam winner at Roland Garros. He came into it in uncharacteristically mediocre form — by his incredibly high standards. After he reached the semifinal of the Australian Open in January, his next best finish was a semifinal finish in Monte Carlo, which sat alongside defeats to Luca Nardi, Alejandro Tabilo and Tomas Machac on tour — the last one coming after a spectator accidentally dropped a water bottle on his head in Geneva.

He came into the tournament saying he had “low expectations, high hopes.” Despite a couple of exasperated looks at his box in the crowd, he made it through the opening two rounds against Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Roberto Carballes Baena in straight sets.

“There is always that kind of conviction and belief inside of me I can win a Slam,” he said after the win over Carballes Baena. “That’s the reason why I’m still competing at this level. That’s why I’m here.”

But then came the brutally long match against Lorenzo Musetti in the third round. The five-set epic started at 10:27 p.m. local, and finished at 3:06 a.m., hugging two days — and left Djokovic triumphant but also exhausted.

“I really physically pushed myself to the very limit to win this match,” he said afterward.

He played for even longer in the fourth round. On Monday, if it had been a heavyweight boxing bout, they’d have called it in the fourth set and awarded Cerundolo a technical knockout. But somehow Djokovic rallied and did what only he can do, clawing himself back from the precipice when so many mere mortals would have admitted defeat.

If his knee is healthy enough, it feels like Djokovic is building here, and that’s ominous for the rest of the field. He has 21 more Slams than the rest of the field put together, and that experience alone sets him apart.

Djokovic will get an extra scan on his knee on Tuesday, but is hopeful it won’t harm his bid for yet another Grand Slam.


3. Jannik Sinner

After winning his first Grand Slam in January, Jannik Sinner was one of the favorites to make it two out of two in Paris. But like so many of his contemporaries, Sinner came to Roland Garros with questions over his fitness. He withdrew from his quarterfinal at the Madrid Open with a hip injury and then also withdrew from the Italian Open. He told the media before the tournament that he was feeling okay, and he backed that up with a commanding opening round win over Chris Eubanks.

“The hip is good. I’m very happy. I’m glad that my team and myself, we were working very hard to be on court as soon as possible,” Sinner said afterward. “For sure, the general shape is not at 100% yet, so we try to build every day.”

He had to cope with playing against a partisan crowd for his second-round match with Richard Gasquet, but came through that in straight sets. Afterward, the vastly experienced Gasquet was complimentary of Sinner.

“Apart from Djokovic, he hits a hard backhand, a hard forehand,” Gasquet said. “He has a good serve, as well. So with Alcaraz they will be No. 1 and 2 I think for quite a few years to come, because they are both very good players. He plays really very, very well. His timing is extraordinary. He’s a very big player.”

Sinner backed up that win over Gasquet with a comfortable triumph over Pavel Kotov in Round 3. “Tennis-wise I felt quite good today on court,” Sinner said postmatch. “Physically I feel like I still have to improve a couple of things.”

Though he dropped the first set in the fourth round against Corentin Moutet, he navigated that tricky tie well and will now face Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals.


4. Casper Ruud

The clay-court specialist reached the past two French Open finals. In 2022, he had the misfortune of running into a resurgent Nadal, while last year, it was Djokovic who toppled him.

After that defeat to Djokovic, Ruud set out his aspirations. “Hopefully I can build on that, and one day I’m going to try to obviously aim for a Slam title,” he said. “It’s been close, but close but no cigar, so I’m going to keep working and try to get it one day.”

He hasn’t found life straightforward at Roland Garros. He eased through the first round in straight sets against Felipe Meligeni Alves, then needed five sets to get past Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

Tomas Martin Etcheverry pushed him hard in the third round, with Ruud coming through 6-4, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2. And Taylor Fritz was a tough test in the fourth round — the American renaming himself “Claylor” on account of his new love of clay. Ruud had a dodgy second set, but came through in four, powering past Fritz to further emphasize his title credentials.


Best of the rest

Alexander Zverev has mixed memories at the French Open. Two years ago, he was going toe-to-toe with Nadal in the 2022 semifinals, only to slip awkwardly and rupture his ankle ligaments. The last time out, he reached the semifinal stage for the third year running, only to lose in straight sets to Ruud.

But this year, he came in to Roland Garros as one of the favorites after winning the Italian Open. He defeated Nadal in straight sets in the first round and then survived a huge scare to edge past Tallon Griekspoor in a fifth-set tiebreak in the third round. As he plays in Paris, he remains the focus of domestic abuse allegations in Germany. His trial, which he doesn’t have to be present for, began on May 31 in Berlin.

Holger Rune has been the up-and-coming man on the tour, reaching the quarterfinal stage of the French Open and Wimbledon last year. At Roland Garros he has reached the final eight in both 2022 and 2023, only to run into a Ruud-sized wall.

He came in to the tournament in mixed form, yet to reach a tour final this year, and No. 13 in the rankings. But after a tricky start, he has found more calm on and off the court by working with Patrick Mouratoglou on mindfulness and improving his resilience.

“I feel like I’m kind of back on track, have stability in my team, which is nice in my life,” Rune said last week.

Alex de Minaur was outstanding against Daniil Medvedev in their fourth-round match. The Aussie has never reached this stage of the tournament before, but the variety in his game against Medvedev was impressive, as was his pace to the net. Just seconds after winning the match, he was shouting to the crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen: “I love the clay. I love it here. I can’t get enough.”

He will go into the quarterfinal quietly confident of making the semifinal.

Stefanos Tsitsipas would’ve made the top contenders for the title but for the fact he has Alcaraz in his way. Tsitsipas is loving life at Roland Garros, playing in the men’s doubles with his brother, Petros, and mixed doubles with partner Paula Badosa.

But he has maintained his intensity in the singles, coming through his first three rounds dropping just one set, and then needing four to get past Matteo Arnaldi, after losing the opening set.

Grigor Dimitrov is flying under the radar nicely but was brilliant in his fourth-round match against Hubert Hurkacz. He came through in straight sets and even had to navigate Hurkacz’s bizarre decision to ask him whether he was keen on requesting a change of umpire. This is Dimitrov’s best run at the French Open, as he looks to win a first Grand Slam.

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