For years, people have wondered who could possibly replace tennis’ superstars once they inevitably moved on. Now, with Serena Williams and Roger Federer officially retired, and with injuries currently plaguing Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, it seems we’re getting a clearer picture of those ready to accept the mantle.
On Sunday, Iga Swiatek, Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune all successfully defended their titles at Stuttgart, Barcelona and Munich, respectively, and showed — yet again — that the future may have already arrived.
The much-hyped repeat Stuttgart final between Swiatek and reigning Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, was, remarkably, the first title match between the top-two-ranked women in the world since 2018. Swiatek, 21, proved her continued dominance on clay with an impressive 6-3, 6-4 victory for her 13th career title. No matter what Sabalenka did, Swiatek continued to raise her level and leave no doubt about her status as the favorite for next month’s French Open.
Meanwhile, some 788 miles away in Barcelona, Spain, Alcaraz was giving himself an early birthday present in his final tournament before turning 20 with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas. He now has nine career titles, the most by a teenager since — who else? — Nadal. Despite being more than four years older than Alcaraz, Tsitsipas said he couldn’t help but be inspired by his younger peer after the match.
“I think it’s fair enough to say that we see you as an example even though we are slightly older than you,” Tsitsipas said on court. “We see your achievements as something that will hopefully push us to do better.”
Alcaraz celebrated with the tournament’s traditional jump, or dive in his case, into the pool.
3, 2, 1…
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) April 23, 2023
In Munich, the 19-year-old Rune needed everything he had to stave off Botic van de Zandschulp for his fourth ATP trophy. Struggling with a right arm injury and trailing 5-2, 40-15 in the decider, Rune had a comeback for the ages, ultimately saving four match points for a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (3) win. With a win like that, he is now brimming with confidence on the clay.
While things can change in an instant in tennis, it certainly seems as if the future and present are very bright with these three in it. Now Swiatek and Rune join Alcaraz in Spain for the 1000-level Madrid Open. The women’s main draw gets underway Tuesday, and the men begin on Wednesday. Here’s more from this week in tennis:
Sabalenka still wins
Despite her loss Sunday to Swiatek, it has been an incredible year for Sabalenka. The 24-year-old has won two titles, including her first major, and reached four finals. And aside from her on-court prowess, she has a hilarious sense of humor. It was on display during the Stuttgart on-court trophy presentation, which included a Porsche to the victor.
When addressing the crowd, Sabalenka — who had just lost her third straight final at Stuttgart — posed a question to the tournament organizers.
“Can I make a deal?” she asked with a smile on her face. “If I make another final, I’ll just get an extra car?”
— wta (@WTA) April 23, 2023
She also said she would continue to play at the event until she got a car of her own and jokingly pretended to smash her runner-up trophy into one of the car’s windows, much to the delight of the internet.
Rafa and Novak watch
As previously mentioned, both Nadal and Djokovic are currently sidelined and neither will be playing in this week’s Madrid Open.
For Nadal, it’s looking increasingly unlikely he will be able to play at the French Open when it gets underway next month. The 36-year-old has yet to play since bowing out in the second round of the Australian Open, as he recovers from an injury to his psoas muscle near his left hip. On Thursday, he announced he would be missing Madrid.
“[This injury] was supposed to keep me out six to eight weeks, but I have been out 14,” Nadal said in Spanish in a video posted to social media. “We have followed all the medical advice, but my recovery has not gone as they said it would, and now we find ourselves in a difficult situation.”
The 14-time French Open champion added that he had been training, but because the injury has not healed, he and his team decided to seek alternative treatments instead.
While Nadal has been absent from other Grand Slam tournaments over the years, he has played in every French Open since 2005. The event will not be the same without him if he is ultimately unable to participate. There is an actual, larger-than-life statue of him on the grounds after all. To quote Ben Stiller, who didn’t have a blue checkmark when he wrote this but now does, “Sending Rafael Nadal good vibes and a steady speedy recovery.”
As for Djokovic, the 22-time major champion returned to action earlier this month in Monte Carlo after missing the Sunshine Double, but it’s safe to say his clay-court season hasn’t exactly gone to plan so far. He fell in the round of 16 in Monte Carlo and followed that up with a shocking quarterfinal loss to fellow Serbian Dusan Lajovic, 6-4, 7-6 (6), at the Banja Luka Open. Djokovic admitted he was dealing with a right elbow injury ahead of the upset to Lajovic but did not offer a formal explanation for his withdrawal from Madrid.
There is no word yet from either about their status for Rome, the final 1000-level tournament ahead of Roland Garros, but with neither currently at peak form we have to start wondering: Could someone else win the title at the French Open? Stan Wawrinka, in 2015, was the last man not named Nadal or Djokovic to do so, and there are more than a few players who would like to become the latest to do so. (See: Alcaraz, Carlos)
What a week for Lajovic
On the other side of that surprising Djokovic quarterfinal loss was Lajovic, who rode his first career victory over Djokovic (in three tries) all the way to the trophy. On Sunday, the 32-year-old pulled off another upset with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory over world No. 6 Andrey Rublev for the second title of his career.
In doing so, he recorded two top-10 wins for the first time at the same tournament, and jumped 30 spots in this week’s rankings to No. 40.
Acts of sportsmanship
Having been mentioned (by Rune anyway) as part of the “next big three” alongside Alcaraz and Rune, Jannik Sinner is another bright star on the ATP Tour. And last week he showed that not only is he supremely talented, but also someone who plays the game fairly and graciously. In his first round doubles match in Barcelona with partner Alex de Minaur against Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Santiago Gonzalez, Roger-Vasselin was called for a double touch during a critical point in a second-set tiebreak. Roger-Vasselin was arguing with the chair umpire about the call when Sinner conceded the point.
Sinner and de Minaur lost the match shortly after, but Sinner later drew praise from Roger-Vasselin on social media.
👏👏Amazing sportsmanship from @janniksin today who gave us the point at 5/3 in the tie break when the chair empire called my volley “double touch”#fairplay 🙌🏼
@atptour @TennisTV pic.twitter.com/dCrLg30l58
— EdouardRogerVasselin (@ERogerVasselin) April 18, 2023
And in another nice on-court moment, when Ons Jabeur tearfully retired after just three games after sustaining a calf injury during her semifinal clash at Stuttgart, it was Swiatek, her opponent, who went over to comfort her and offer some encouraging words.
“I told her we’re probably going to play the Roland Garros final, so we’ll see each other there,” Swiatek told the crowd moments later. “She’s a fighter, so she’s going to be back quick. I just hope it’s nothing serious.”
Iga Swiatek advances to the final after Ons Jabeur retires due to injury.
— wta (@WTA) April 22, 2023
Jabeur announced on Monday she had a small tear in her calf and would be missing Madrid, in which she’s the defending champion.
Marathon woman, part 2
Another week, another marathon for former world No. 27 Monica Puig. The 2016 Olympic gold medalist, who retired last year, has turned her focus to running — specifically of the 26.2-mile variety — and just six (!) days after completing the Boston Marathon, Puig crossed the finish line at the London event. Recording a time of 3 hours and 42 minutes — 7 minutes faster than what she did in Boston — she’s now halfway to her goal of running all six of the world’s major marathons.
This week’s events:
ATP and WTA:
Madrid Open (1000)
The week in tennis — With Djokovic and Nadal out, the younger generation steps up again