PARIS, May 27 (Xinhua) -- With Rafael Nadal announcing his withdrawal from the French Open due to injury, this is the first time since 2005 that the Spaniard will not feature at Roland Garros. This year's clay-court major is thus destined to become a turning point in tournament history.
But for Chinese tennis fans, it is more like a milestone to be remembered - for the first time in the Open era, three Chinese men will be competing in the main draw. Additionally, Zheng Qinwen, who returned here as the 19th seed after a stunning run into the round of 16 last year, will lead a group of five Chinese players in the women's singles competition.
For the women's singles, there is no doubt Iga Swiatek, Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka will feature as title favourites, with some observers considering them the new Big Three of women's tennis.
CHINESE MEN'S SINGLES TRIO MAKE HISTORY
No men's singles player from mainland China has appeared on the red clay at Roland Garros since the Open era, and that history will be changed in 2023. With Shang Juncheng bagging three consecutive victories in the qualifying rounds, the 18-year-old joined Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen, who had already qualified directly through the rankings, to compete in the main draw.
In a couple of months, Chinese men's tennis has been making breakthroughs. 23-year-old Wu won five matches in a row from the qualifiers at the US Open last year, becoming the first mainland Chinese male player to win a match at a Grand Slam singles main draw and reach the last 32 in the Open era. This year, he continued to soar, winning the title in Dallas in February to become the first Chinese man to capture an ATP Tour singles title.
At the Geneva Open, just a week before the start of this year's French Open, Wu again reached the last eight, showing good competitive form. He will land in Paris with a world ranking of 59th, the highest among the three Chinese competitors.
Zhang and Shang have also shown good recent form. At the Madrid Masters, Zhang saw off a number of seeded players in succession, reaching the quarterfinals to become the first Chinese player to achieve this feat in the ATP 1000 event. Shang, the youngest of the three, had an impressive performance at the Australian Open earlier this year, reaching the second round.
Moreover, a potential Chinese derby is in sight if both Wu and Shang go through in the first round.
On the women's side, 20-year-old Zheng, who made a big splash at the French Open last season when she made it all the way to the round of 16 before losing to world No. 1 Swiatek, will be the focus again. The 19th seed will face a qualifier in the first round, while another seeded Chinese player, Zhang Shuai, will take on Poland's Magdalena Frech.
In addition, Wang Xinyu, Wang Xiyu and Zhu Lin will also participate in this year's women's main draw. This year at Roland Garros, China has an unprecedentedly strong lineup, and their performance is worth looking forward to.
ROLAND GARROS WITHOUT NADAL - AN END OF THE ERA
The absence of Nadal at Roland Garros for the first time since 2005 is the most regrettable news of this year's French Open. The Spaniard has made a deep mark on the tournament with his extraordinary achievements over the past 18 years - 112 victories in 115 matches, 14 finals and 14 titles - no player in men's tennis has ever been so dominant in a single tournament.
Since participating in this year's Australian Open, the 37-year-old has not been able to play any tournaments, and earlier this month, Nadal officially announced that he would not play in the French Open and other tournaments in the coming months in order to make a better recovery. He also revealed that "2024 will be his last season", meaning his fans may still have an official farewell to him at Roland Garros next year.
While Nadal is missing, his old rival Novak Djokovic has also fallen into a worrying run since winning his 22nd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open earlier this year, as the Serbian has not won any title since. Coming to the clay swing, the two-time French Open champion has played in three tournaments with a best result of reaching the last eight in Rome.
The older greats are nearing the end of their careers, while the new generation, represented by Carlos Alcaraz, are taking up the mantle left by their predecessors. Last season, at 19, Alcaraz took the French Open by storm, and after winning the US Open last year, he also became the youngest men's singles world number one in history.
Another Spaniard, also building his reputation at the beginning of his career on clay, Alcaraz has been seen as the next Nadal. In this year's French Open, he will be the top seed in the same half with third seed Djokovic, and the two may meet in the semifinals, but before that, Alcaraz is likely to encounter 2021 French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Over the past few years, the end of the "Big Three" era has been discussed over and over again. But in the 20 Grand Slam tournaments prior to this year's French Open, only Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have managed to win the US Open in the past three years. For the other 17, Djokovic won 10 titles, Nadal took six, and Roger Federer also got his last and 20th Grand Slam at the 2018 Australian Open.
But this year, the discussion to this question seems to come to an end. The French Open may be marked as a turning point.
WOMEN'S SINGLES "BIG THREE" IS COMING?
The men's "Big Three" era is coming to an end, but there is already plenty of chatter about the "new Big Three" in the women's singles - in 21-year-old Swiatek, 25-year-old Sabalenka and 23-year-old Rybakina.
Since Serena Williams faded away from the sport, women's tennis had entered into a time of fairly open competition. Naomi Osaka won four Grand Slams, but her form has slipped in the past two years. Three-time Grand Slam champion Ash Barty was hopeful of becoming the new queen, but chose to retire from the world No. 1 position just after winning the Australian Open last year.
After Barty's retirement, Poland's Swiatek, Sabalenka of Belarus and Kazakhstan's Rybakina have become the new leaders in women's tennis, and the three have shared the last four Grand Slam titles.
"They've kind of separated themselves a little bit from the rest of the pack," said Jessica Pegula, the 29-year-old American who is ranked No. 3, losing to Swiatek in the quarterfinals last year at both the French Open and US Open.
Barbora Krejcikova, the 2021 French Open champion, put it simply on Friday: "They are the best three players that we have right now."
The three have met each other several times so far this year, mostly on the final stage. In the tune-up tournaments before the French Open, Swiatek defeated Sabalenka in the final in Stuttgart, but lost in the final at the Madrid Open two weeks later. Rybakina was the champion in the most recent Rome Open.
Of course, compared with the achievements of the men's "Big Three", the three women still have a very long way to go. But this year at Roland Garros, anything can happen.