A potential Nadal vs. Djokovic showdown and the rise of Alcaraz and Swiatek -- the storylines to watch at the French Open

Novak Djokovic is the defending French Open champ -- and has regained his momentum after the deportation debacle at the Australian Open. Tim Clayton/Getty Images

It's springtime in Paris so that can only mean one thing: The French Open is upon us!

The start of the season has been eventful, to say the least. With Novak Djokovic's deportation from Australia, Rafael Nadal's record-breaking 21st Slam victory, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty's shocking retirement and the rise of young superstars Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz, it's almost hard to believe we're at just the second major of the year.

But we've made it to the red clay and there is a lot worth watching at Roland Garros.

Djokovic, the defending champion, is ready to play in his first Slam of 2022 and Barbora Krejcikova makes her return from a lengthy injury layoff just in time to defend her titles in both singles and doubles. While Serena and Venus Williams and Roger Federer are still not back in action, most of the sport's big names, and soon-to-to-be big names, will be there.

So what are the biggest storylines going into this year's tournament? Which players do you have to keep your eyes on? Is it too early to print out "Iga Swiatek vs. Everybody" shirts? We try to answer all that and more ahead of Sunday's opening-round matches.

No. 1 is far from done

For the first time in a long time, we have a clear favorite on the women's side -- and even saying that doesn't do justice to what Iga Swiatek has been able to do over the past three months. To recap: Swiatek, 20, has won five titles since February, including four Masters 1000-level events, and has taken over the world No. 1 ranking. Even more impressive? She hasn't lost since Feb. 16 and is riding a 27-match win streak.

It's the longest such streak since Serena Williams in 2014-15.

So, yeah, suddenly the WTA has become Swiatek's world and everyone else is just living in it. She has won two titles on clay this season, and, as the 2020 French Open champion, it is still considered her best surface. In fact, she's dropped just one set on the red clay this year -- and rolled past former Slam champions like Victoria Azarenka, Bianca Andreescu and Emma Raducanu and top-10 players Aryna Sabalenka (twice) and Ons Jabeur.

Swiatek defeated Jabeur, the only other woman to win a 1000-level tournament this season, in the Italian Open final, 6-2, 6-2, for her second-straight victory in Rome in her final tune-up before Paris.

"Iga is Iga," Jabeur said after the match. "She deserves to be here. She deserves to win matches like that."

While many of her peers have openly talked about their struggles in the sport and how hard the expectations can be, especially after achieving such success, Swiatek has perhaps never seemed more comfortable.

"I already know that I did some great stuff this season, so I feel like I can just play freely and not think I have to win some tournaments or I have to win some matches or I have to save some points," Swiatek said in Rome earlier this month. "This year, the pressure that I always put on myself, it's a little bit lower. For sure the expectations around are higher, but I never had a problem to cut it off and not to think about it."

Nadal: Feeling 22?

After winning his first three tournaments of the year, including the Australian Open for his record-breaking 21st major title, Nadal was sidelined with a rib injury following his loss in the Indian Wells final to Taylor Fritz.

But, in perhaps the least surprising news in tennis, the "King of Clay" was determined to return in time for his favorite surface. He did just that in Madrid, but he ultimately fell to Alcaraz in the quarterfinals. He then lost to Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16 in Rome as he struggled with a chronic foot injury that nearly ended his career in 2021.

Despite this, he quelled any doubt about his participation at the French Open with an Instagram post on Tuesday. Alongside two pictures of himself training, he wrote: "Tomorrow, Paris."

In order to ensure he is as healthy as possible, Nadal told reporters in Rome he would be bringing his doctor with him to Paris. And while the status of his foot is unclear, if there's one thing we know for sure about the 13-time Roland Garros champion, it's that he can never be counted out. (Just ask Daniil Medvedev.)

Nadal's quest for a fifth-straight French Open title was spoiled in 2021 by Djokovic in the semifinals, and wouldn't you know it? The two are on a collision course to meet again this year in the quarterfinals. So, you know, preparez votre popcorn.

Speaking of ...

Novak is back

It's been quite a year for Novak Djokovic. But somehow, despite that deportation debacle in Australia and missing multiple tournaments due to his vaccination status, things have suddenly turned around for the 20-time major champion. He played in just his second tournament of 2022 in Monte Carlo last month and slowly but surely has returned to form -- winning last week's Italian Open with a straight-set victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas.

While briefly dethroned from his spot atop the world rankings, Djokovic reclaimed the No. 1 status in March from Medvedev and he now returns to Paris as the defending champion, ready to do whatever he can to tie Nadal's record of 21 Grand Slam titles. After hoisting the trophy in Rome, he was more than optimistic about his chances to do just that.

"I think with rankings and the way I've been playing in the last few weeks, I would rate myself as one of the favorites," Djokovic said. "I go there with the highest ambitions, particularly of the way I played here. I really like my chances."

At this point, you likely either love or hate him, but you can't deny that he always keeps it interesting.

Don't call it a comeback

After her divisive withdrawal ahead of the second round at Roland Garros in 2021, Naomi Osaka is back in Paris and ready to play on the clay. The four-time major champion had a challenging 2021 following her exit in Paris, but reached the final in Miami earlier this spring and has talked openly about her happier and healthier attitude on the court.

She has never advanced past the third round at the French Open and recorded just one win on clay at Madrid before withdrawing from Rome due to a lingering left Achilles injury. But with low expectations and Swiatek perhaps fielding much of the attention, this could be a perfect opportunity for Osaka to make the second week at the tournament. That is, of course, if she's able to get past Amanda Anisimova -- who defeated her in the third round at the Australian Open earlier this year -- in the opening round.

Osaka isn't the only former Slam winner riding a recent upswing. Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, made her return to competition in April after a six-month break in which she did volunteer work and went to a wellness retreat in Costa Rica.

"Just having that break made me appreciate the game even more and made me really realize that I'm very passionate and I want to continue to play," Andreescu said earlier this month.

That passion was on full display in her return. In her first three tournaments of the season, at Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome, she won six matches and reached the quarterfinals at the Italian Open. Her ranking had dropped to No. 121 in her absence from the tour, and she rose a whopping 49 spots to her current spot at No. 72. This will be just her third appearance at Roland Garros and she's never made it past the second round, but her surging momentum and refreshed attitude show no signs of slowing down.

Raducanu, the 2021 US Open winner, has struggled since her surprise victory in New York, but reached the quarters in Stuttgart and the round of 16 in Madrid. She had to retire during her opener in Rome (against Andreescu) with a lower back injury. It's unclear if she's back to full health, but Raducanu is currently scheduled to face a qualifier in her first-ever match at Roland Garros.

The two most recent men's US Open champions, Medvedev (2021) and Dominic Thiem (2020) have also returned to play following injury layoffs but momentum does not appear to be on their side. Medvedev, the current world No. 2, lost his lone clay match on Tuesday in Geneva and Thiem, a two-time finalist in Paris, has yet to win a match in 2022 -- losing in his openers in all six tournaments he has entered since coming back in March.

The heir apparent

Sure, there's a lot of focus on Nadal and Djokovic in Paris, and deservedly so, but Carlos Alcaraz will undoubtedly be getting a fair share of attention as well -- especially if his stretch of mind-blowing play continues.

The 19-year-old has gone from the future to very much the present in the last several months, with titles in Miami, Barcelona and Madrid. And as if that trifecta of trophies wasn't impressive enough, in Madrid he defeated Nadal and Djokovic on back-to-back days (in the quarters and semis, respectively) and became the first man ever to defeat the two legends at the same clay event.

Alcaraz reached the third round during his debut at Roland Garros in 2021, but now he enters the French Open ranked a career-high No. 6 and poised to contend for his first major title.

It won't be easy.

He is set to first take on a qualifier in his opener, and could potentially face Sebastian Korda (who defeated him in Monte Carlo) in the third round, Cameron Norrie in the fourth, Alexander Zverev in the quarters and Djokovic or Nadal in the semis.

Alcaraz has a challenging road in Paris, but Zverev left no doubt about how he felt about the rising star after falling to him, 6-3, 6-1, in the Madrid final. "He's a great player," Zverev told reporters. "He's the best in the world right now."

Will that translate into a maiden Grand Slam title victory for Alcaraz in Paris? Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have won all but one of the previous 17 French Open trophies but, hey, all streaks eventually come to an end. Stay tuned.

First time for everything

Alcaraz isn't the only player who could take home their first major trophy in Paris. Tsitsipas nearly achieved that last year at the tournament, before squandering a two-set lead in the final to Djokovic. He will look to redeem himself on his best surface and earn the elusive hardware.

Tsitsipas won the title last month in Monte Carlo and reached the final in Rome (and lost, again, to Djokovic). He also has one of the more favorable draws among the top players, with Djokovic, Nadal, Alcaraz and Zverev all in the other half.

While Nadal and Djokovic have been dominant in the men's game at the event, the women's side has been significantly more democratic. In fact, the past six champions at Roland Garros have all been first-time Slam winners. So who could follow in the footsteps of players like Swiatek and Krejcikova?

Ons Jabeur won the biggest title of her burgeoning career in Madrid and immediately followed it up with a trip to the finals in Rome. She comes to Paris with a career-high ranking of No. 6. Already the highest-ranked Arab player of all time and the first African player to win a 1000-level event, Jabeur could further cement her spot in the history books if she were to collect the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup.

Jessica Pegula, Jabeur's opponent in the Madrid final, is also riding a new career-high ranking of No. 11 and is coming off of her second-straight quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open. She seems to be gaining confidence and perspective with every tournament she plays so another deep run would hardly be a surprise.

And of course, lest we forget, Coco Gauff recorded the best major result of her young career at the 2021 French Open with a trip to the quarters. The 18-year-old has a 4-3 record this season on clay but nabbed a dominant victory over three-time major champion Angelique Kerber in Rome and reached the doubles final in Stuttgart.

Of note

Simona Halep, the two-time major champion, is playing in her first Grand Slam tournament since teaming up with Serena Williams' longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Halep, who won the title at Roland Garros in 2018, already seems to be enjoying her new partnership. "Patrick has brought me a lot of motivation and helped me to find my love for this sport again," she told Eurosport this week.

Taylor Townsend, the former junior Grand Slam champion, US Open doubles semifinalist and Cardi B's personal coach, is slated to make her return to the tour at the tournament following maternity leave. Townsend, who memorably upset Halep in the third round of the 2019 US Open, gave birth to her son Adyn in March of 2021. She has played three ITF events since returning to competition last month -- and won the last one in Charleston.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the former Australian Open finalist and world No. 5, will be retiring following the French Open. Tsonga, 37, has played sparingly since the start of the 2020 season due to the pandemic and a string of injuries but remains beloved in his native France. While he's won just three matches on the year, he's a two-time semifinalist in Paris and will undoubtedly have the support of the crowd on his side.

Stan Wawrinka, the last man not named Nadal or Djokovic to win the French Open, is expected to play in his first Grand Slam since the 2021 Australian Open. The three-time major champion, including the 2015 title in Roland Garros, made his return to the tour last month after being sidelined for over a year due to a left foot injury and two subsequent surgeries.

Notable absences: As mentioned before, the Williams sisters and Federer won't be playing. Also missing from the draw: Sofia Kenin, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Jennifer Brady, soon-to-be parents Elina Svitolina and Gael Monfils, Roberto Bautista Agut and 2021 finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Can't-miss first-round matches


No. 10 Garbine Muguruza vs. Kaia Kanepi

No. 17 Leylah Fernandez vs. Kristina Mladenovic

No. 27 Amanda Anisimova vs. Naomi Osaka

Caroline Garcia vs. Taylor Townsend


No. 8 Casper Ruud vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

No. 14 Denis Shapovalov vs. Holger Rune

No. 17 Reilly Opelka vs. Filip Krajinovic