Rafael Nadal
The story of the French Open hasn't changed: it's still Rafael Nadal and everyone else. But in a new twist, the Coupe des Mousquetaires is totally up for grabs.

Rafael Nadal’s last stand.

The only story that really matters at this year’s French Open.

Can he summon one more magical run despite his fragile physical state?

Every player in both draws will be asked about Rafa. How has he inspired you? What does Rafa mean to the sport? What do you think this tennis will be like after he retires? Do you think he can win? Do you want to play him here?

If he makes a deep run, it will take over the international news cycle. If he wins the dang thing, it will be proof that miracles are real.

Underneath all that, the wider story of this year’s men’s draw is that it is wide open. There isn’t a clear favorite heading in.

Even in previous “down” years for Rafa, he was still the favorite, and he usually still won the tournament. This year doesn’t look like that, though.

It also doesn’t look like any of the presumed “next favorites” are favored either. Djokovic, Sinner, Alcaraz—all moderately injured or out-of-form. The winner is likely to come from the top sixteen, for sure, but it’s anyone’s guess who emerges.

It’s the most available Coupe des Mousquetaires in the last two decades.

Expect plenty of twists and turns, and probably a first-time champion.

In that spirit, we’ll break down the top eight seeds followed by the next group of contenders in this year’s French Open preview. And Rafa.

Rafael Nadal

Alexander Zverev.

In the first round.

Brutal.

In what is likely to be Rafael Nadal’s final appearance at the French Open, a tournament he has dominated like no other athlete or team has dominated a single event in the history of sport, the Master of Clay drew one of the best players in the game in the first round.

It is not a stretch to foresee Rafa’s swan song stopping before it even gets started. Zverev is that good, and will actually be the favorite in this matchup.

He just won the Italian Open in Rome, his first Masters 1000 level trophy since injuring his ankle so gruesomely against Nadal in the semis of Roland Garros in 2022.

Meanwhile, Rafa has barely played in the last year and is not competing at near the level we are accustomed to. He has been losing matches in ways that are difficult to watch.

This will be their first meeting since that day when Zverev walked off the court in crutches, and Rafa went on to win his 14th French Open by defeating Casper Ruud in the finals.

It is a cruel cosmic bookend to that match to pair them in the first round here, on this particular occasion. Yes, fate owes Zverev another opportunity to play Rafa. But no one wanted it to be like this. Later stages—Round of 16 or beyond—sure, have at it tennis gods. But first round, no.

Embed from Getty Images

This is how it is, though. Rafa is unseeded, rules are rules, and random draws deal tough cards sometimes.

It would be unwise to rule Rafa out.

Again, he has won this tournament fourteen times.

Fourteen.

He’s the best clay courter to have ever lived, by a factor of a zillion. He knows how to win on this surface, and especially on this court.

He will have the ENTIRE crowd behind him. That is a huge factor. He will raise his game more than he would have against a journeyman, and the fact that it is his first match may actually help him because he will be as fresh as possible physically.

Everyone on the planet aside from Zverev’s camp will be rooting for Rafa. Fans worldwide will schedule their calendars around this match.

No, Rafa is not retiring here. He will go on to play Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and Laver Cup and other tournaments in between.

This is the one that counts, though. This is his home. This is where he already has a statue.

The best fighter tennis has ever seen is facing one of the toughest tests of his career. If anyone can rise to the occasion, Nadal can.

(1) Novak Djokovic

Tomas Machac.

Alejandro Tabilo.

Casper Ruud.

Luca Nardi.

Jannik Sinner.

Alex de Minaur.

Each of those men defeated uber-machine Novak Djokovic in the first six months of 2024. Those are not the type of names that beat Novak.

The only loss that wasn’t a major surprise was Jannik Sinner. All the rest…Novak wins every time. Including Ruud, who beat Djokovic for the first time in his career. Check that…these were the first sets Ruud ever won against Djokovic, period.

Nole is 12-5 on the year, and a meager 7-4 since Australia.

He recently parted ways with his coach Goran Ivanisavic and his fitness coach Marco Panichi.

Everything in his typically fastidious world is upside-down right now. He looks downright pedestrian. Like a middling Top 50 player.

Embed from Getty Images

To think he hasn’t been flustered by the departure of Federer and pending departure of Nadal and Murray would be a mistake. He forged his path to the greatest heights in the sport’s history by transmuting their success into his own unwavering motivation to overcome their accomplishments.

Now that he has reached the summit and his peers are all but gone, how much motivational juice does he have left in the tank?

It isn’t a question of skill or physical fitness. He has those attributes in spades.

It’s motivation. It’s entirely motivation. It went on a walkabout precisely when Sinner stepped firmly onto the stage and handed Novak loss after loss after loss last fall, and it seems that those losses deflated his desire more than anything else.

They didn’t sting or hurt or inspire a need for improvement. Novak has nothing left to prove. He proved himself against the best generation of all time, and now he’s trying to figure out if he wants to remain motivated at all.

He wants to keep playing, of course. It’s in his DNA. But everything from here on out is gravy for him.

He will probably summon the will to win at least one more major so that he reaches 25 and stands alone above Margaret Court on the all-time majors list, but suddenly the 28-30 majors that once seemed well within reach seem like a forgotten cause.

Jannik Sinner is poised to take over the No. 1 ranking unless Novak can make a deep run and Sinner falters.

It’s not obituary time for Djokovic, but it doesn’t look like title time for him, either.

(2) Jannik Sinner

It’s hard to say what to expect of Sinner entering the French Open.

At the moment, he is probably the best player in the world when he’s in form. We just don’t know if he’s in form or not.

He hasn’t played since withdrawing in Madrid, even skipping his home tournament in Rome where he would have received an emperor’s welcome in his first appearance since ascending the sport’s cathedral.

He isn’t a natural clay-courter to begin with, so this would have been a tall order for him regardless.

Still, he has a real chance to take over the world’s top ranking. He has spoken about how that does not motivate him, that he knows it will arrive eventually as long as he continues to follow his process. Nonetheless, it will be a motivator.

He should be able to play himself into form within the first three matches, and if he gets going, he’ll become the man to beat.

Another interesting sidenote here is that this will be Sinner’s first major since winning his first Grand Slam title in Australia, which already feels like a lifetime ago.

(3) Carlos Alcaraz

Carlos Alcaraz arrives in the same boat as Sinner: the “Coming off of Injury.”

Like Sinner, he also skipped Rome, so we don’t know much about his form at the moment.

He could go deep or flame out early against the right opponent.

He might even fly under the radar for a while given the other storylines around him.

Whatever happens, we’re sure to get some gratuitous Alcaraz highlights. He always delivers those.

Embed from Getty Images

(4) Alexander Zverev

No one wants to be the bad guy. No one wants to beat Nadal here this year. But realistically we know that someone will probably do it. We just didn’t think it would be in the first round. But here we are.

Zverev arrives in top form after winning Rome.

He also has demons to slay from his retirement against Nadal here two years ago when he was pushing Rafa to the limit in the semis.

Zverev must be entering this tournament believing he can win it. His recent results say so.

He must have been gutted to see his first-round matchup against Rafa. One, because it’s freaking Rafa at Roland Garros…can you get a worse draw than that? But two, because of the sentimentality of the moment. Does he really want to beat the legend in the first round here? Phew, that’s a tough situation to summon a fighting spirit in. He cannot win either way. It’s a lose-lose.

Win and you’re the bad guy. Lose and, well, you’re out of a major in the first round that you could have legitimately won.

(5) Daniil Medvedev

Don’t hold out too much hope for Daniil Medvedev to win this thing.

Of course he could do it if he catches some breaks, but of the players in the Top 8, he probably has the slimmest chance. His game just doesn’t translate to clay.

He’ll deliver some great quotes and on-court gestures at some point, though. One of the most entertaining guys on tour.

(6) Andrey Rublev

This one is intriguing.

Andrey Rublev recently won Madrid while suffering incredible throat pain and barely being able to eat, drink, or breathe.

He had a throat infection that caused his throat to double in size and forced him to eat baby food.

And yet…

…he won the tournament.

Oh, and he entered that tournament on a four-match losing streak.

How one makes sense of that accomplishment is anyone’s guess. That’s sport. Sometimes the unlikely becomes reality.

He followed that up with a respectable showing in Rome, and probably arrives in Paris well-rested and confident. A semifinal showing or better would not be a big surprise at all. His doorstep is open and has been swept of debris.

(7) Casper Ruud

Two-time finalist here and Rafael Nadal student and aficionado, Casper Ruud is a horse to keep your eye on.

Clay is his favorite surface, and he has had arguably the best clay season of anyone on tour, with a 17-4 record that includes two titles (Barcelona 500 and Geneva 250) and one runner-up (Monte Carlo).

Embed from Getty Images

His first-round loss in Rome took the spotlight off of him a smidge, but it was burning bright when that tournament began.

The question is whether or not that first-round loss hurt his confidence at all.

The answer is probably not. He followed that loss with a title run in Geneva, plus he accomplished so much in the lead-up to the French Open that he has more than enough self-belief to carry through.

And notably, he installed a new mindset at the start of the clay season. The mindset of a winner. He has decided that he is no longer content with good results. He wants great results now. That’s the path to major victories.

(8) Hubert Hurkacz

Hubert Hurkacz was the last man to beat Rafa. It was a merciless 6-1, 6-3 beatdown in Rome. Rafa has probably never been so summarily defeated on clay. It was hard for the tennis world to watch.

It is also a testament to how good Hurkacz is. He is undoubtedly the nicest guy on tour, even on the court. But that wasn’t a very nice way to dispatch the great Nadal. Bad Hubie.

He, too, has proven he can win on clay, winning the title in Estoril last month.

On the whole, he is a dependable quarterfinalist before bowing out in a valiant match against a better player.

This probably isn’t the setting where he disrupts that pattern.

The Next Eight

The next eight men in the draw are as follows:

(9) Stefanos Tsitsipas

Winner in Monte Carlo, finalist in Madrid—and possibly back together with Paula Badosa? That might do the trick.

(10) Grigor Dmitrov

Surfing a late-career surge, Dmitrov remains a dark horse that no one wants to play. He won’t dominate anyone in the top ten, but he can beat any of them on any given day. He’ll need a few breaks in the draw to give him a chance to win it.

(11) Alex de Minaur

Always has a puncher’s chance. Tough first-round matchup against young American Alex Michelsen who just had a huge win against compatriot Taylor Fritz…

(12) Taylor Fritz

…who cracked his racket over his knee after the loss, a la Bo Jackson. Possibly one of the best things he could have done. Fire is a good ingredient for his game.

(13) Holger Rune

It has been a slippery slide down to number thirteen in the rankings for Rune, who was number four less than a year ago. Rune has the game to win big matches and big events. He’s still looking to add the mental side, and until he does, he won’t win the big one.

(14) Tommy Paul

Tommy Paul has proven that his ascent to the top fifteen was no accident. He has held steady up here for a while now, and has gathered some notable wins lately, including Ruud, Medvedev, and Hurkacz. He can easily make a surprise semifinal run here, especially as his game has proven to be surprisingly well-suited to clay.

(15) Ben Shelton

Shelton won on clay earlier this year in Houston, but winning on American clay is a far cry from winning on the European dirt. His results overseas have not met his expectations, but his draw at Roland Garros looks favorable for a Round of 16 run.

(16) Nicolas Jarry

The big Chilean had a great result as the runner-up in Rome, losing to a better Alexander Zverev. He’s up to a career-high ranking right now, and surely feeling good about his game. Anything less than the Round of 16 would be a disappointment.

Best First-Round Matchups

(4) Alexander Zverev vs. Rafael Nadal

Andy Murray vs. Stan Wawrinka

(13) Holger Rune vs. Daniel Evans

(11) Alex de Minaur vs. Alex Michelsen

(3) Carlos Alcaraz vs. J.J. Wolf

Extra Topspin’s Prediction

Casper Ruud bites the Coupe des Mousquetaires in tribute to his idol and Rafael Nadal smiles from a fishing boat in Mallorca.