Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz will be the brightest stars at French Open

Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz will be the brightest stars at French Open

If the French Open set to hatch Sunday feels like a fresh era even with Novak Djokovic still around and still great at 36, the utmost evidence might come with the utmost seeds. The two players atop the two main singles lists have lived barely more than 42 years combined.

Yes, Iga Swiatek starts her fifth straight Grand Slam tournament from the No. 1 seeding, having wrung two titles out of the first four, but it’s the other top seed who makes it seem as if tennis has boomeranged in earnest toward its days of crowning youth. Here’s Carlos Alcaraz, Spain’s latest wonder, who told reporters Friday at Roland Garros: “Well, for me, it’s still crazy to see myself in top one seed in a Grand Slam. But for me, at same time, is great.”

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Swiatek, the dynasty who has won the French twice and caused the nickname “Poland Garros” to appear, will turn 22 during this event. Alcaraz just this month bothered to turn 20. He is only the second No. 1 men’s seed from outside the famed “big four” — Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — since Andy Roddick at the 2004 Australian Open, and the first, Daniil Medvedev at the 2022 U.S. Open, at least had arrived at 26 by then.

If anything, Swiatek and Alcaraz have reinforced the impression of the stunning durations of the careers of Serena Williams, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Both spoke of injury upon arriving in Paris, reminding everyone it’s such a normal byproduct of the grind that a highbrow consistency can seem unrealistic.

“Well, luckily nothing serious happened,” Swiatek said Friday, “so I had couple of days off. You know, I’m still recovering from the thigh injury, but I’ll be good for my first round.”

A right leg injury already cost Alcaraz a Grand Slam appearance, the 2023 Australian, turning this into his 2023 Slam debut and his first Slam since September, when he became the youngest U.S. Open men’s singles champion since Pete Sampras in 1990.

“For me was really, really tough, because talking about Australia, it was a tournament that I really wanted to play,” he said. “I thought that I had the opportunity to do a good result in Australia, and, yeah, got injured and had, let’s say, yeah, four, five weeks to recover that injury. It was tough. But at the same time, I’m a guy who looks the positive things about everything. It was a good time for me to prepare, you know, the rest of the season, you know, and being more prepared about everything what was coming in that time.”

His improvement since the 2022 French Open, where he reached the quarterfinals and won the crowds, has come in the head, according to him. “Talking about tennis, I would say I’m the same player than last year, only change that I would say is I’m more mature,” he said. “Mentally, I’m better. And I can read what happened on court better than last year. For me, it’s really, really important, and I would say it’s the most different than last year.”

Both relish elusive practice time. Both got it lately.

Swiatek snagged some after she retired amid the third set of an Italian Open quarterfinal against Elena Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion who became one of the finalists at the 2023 Australian Open. The other finalist in Melbourne was Aryna Sabalenka, the champion, and Swiatek already notices the vagaries of repeated bouts with No. 2 Sabalenka and No. 4 Rybakina.

“We played so many matches against each other that tactically we know our game pretty well,” Swiatek said. “But we also have to kind of come up with some different solutions sometimes, which is pretty exciting, because I never had that yet in my career. I think this is what the big three [men] had to do, for sure, when they played like, I don’t know, 30 matches against each other or even more. So I’m happy to learn some new stuff.”

Djokovic and Nadal have played 59 times (Djokovic leads 30-29), Djokovic and Federer played 50 times (Djokovic, 27-23), and Federer and Nadal 40 times (Nadal, 24-16). Just getting going here, Swiatek holds a 5-3 record against Sabalenka, 25, and a 1-3 record against Rybakina, 23, and the Slam meetings are building, with Swiatek winning a 2022 U.S. Open semifinal with Sabalenka on her way to a third Grand Slam title and losing a 2023 Australian Open fourth-rounder against Rybakina.

“The thing is during the season we don’t have much time to practice at all,” Swiatek said. “So I’m really using this time right now, because it’s my first week since I would say even Indian Wells [in March, when she lost a semifinal to Rybakina], when I have time to take everything slowly and just focus on my technique a little bit more. And, yeah, I think it’s going to give me a lot of confidence going to the tournament.”

She already became the youngest French Open women’s singles champion since Monica Seles in 1992 when she won in the autumn French Open of 2020 at age 19, then won the 2022 French and U.S. at 21. She has had some 2023 success already even if it isn’t her 2022 with its implausible 37-match winning streak — winning Qatar and Stuttgart and reaching finals in Dubai, Indian Wells and Madrid (where Sabalenka defeated her in three sets). Alcaraz has had some 2023 success already even if he did miss Australia — winning in Buenos Aires, Indian Wells, Barcelona and Madrid.

By the time he lost in the round of 32 in Rome this month against Fabian Marozsan, it counted as odd, and he had barely reached 20. So he practiced, too, ahead of his turn as a sensation during Nadal’s first absence from his 14-title kingdom since 2004.

“Yeah,” Alcaraz said. “I try, and I had like five days practicing in the academy at home that is really helpful for me, you know, to be away from tournaments a little bit, have more intensity practice, you know, physical … because I didn’t have more than four days to practice [most weeks this year], just to play matches and matches. And for me to have time to prepare for Roland Garros as good as I did these past days, it was great.”

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