Not too long ago it was taken for granted that Rafael Nadal would win the French Open and all the others were there just to make up the numbers. He just had to turn up to win. Out of the Spaniard’s 22 Grand Slam titles 14 were notched up at Roland Garros. It was easily the most number of titles won by a player at any Grand Slam event – well ahead of the 10 won by Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open.

These days the former world No 1 who turns 38 next month is in semi-retirement, has dropped to 276 in the ATP rankings and is but a shadow of his former self. He has already announced that 2024 will be his last year on the circuit but if one expected that Nadal would leave the stage with a bang it certainly doesn’t look like happening.

On his favourite surface, clay, he has suffered early losses in the lead up to the French Open which commences on Monday. Age catches up with the greatest of sportsmen and Nadal is no exception.

For all the skill and stamina, fitness and agility he displayed after more than two decades on the ATP circuit he is clearly at the end of his glorious career which also saw him win two Wimbledons, two Australian Opens and four US Opens. With 22 Grand Slam titles he is second only to Djokovic’s 24 and two ahead of his great friend and rival Roger Federer.

All the same one has to admire Nadal’s never-say-die attitude. Even when it was not sure whether he would play at Roland Garros he kept up his practice schedule. A few days before the tournament started he was at Philippe Chatrier court with a couple of sparring partners.

Significantly there were around 6000 spectators at the French Open’s main stadium cheering loudly as he stepped on court. After practice that lasted about an hour and a half Nadal signed several autographs before making his way out.

The session gave Nadal the chance to reacquaint himself with the red clay at his favourite venue – he hasn’t played a match there in two years – and test his fitness. He is in the process of regaining match readiness after missing almost all of 2023 with a hip injury that required surgery and much of this season because of problems with a hip muscle and an abdominal muscle.

Also his loss in the second round at the Italian Open left Nadal unsure about whether he would be ready for the French Open. Now of course it is confirmed that he is playing though he has a tough first round opponent in fourth seed Alexander Zverev.

But what makes this year’s tournament a really open one is the unimpressive performance of Djokovic. The defending champion has won three titles at Roland Garros so he is anything but a novice on clay.

But if 2023 was his best year with three Grand Slam titles under his belt and a fourth just eluding him – he finished runner-up to Carlos Alcaraz at Wimbledon - this year he has hardly won anything. For a start he went down to Jannick Sinner in the Australian Open semifinals.

Thereafter around the ATP circuit he has done nothing of note losing to players ranked well below him. He is still ranked No 1 but the others are narrowing the gap notably Sinner, Alcaraz and Zverev who have just won the Italian Open.

In addition Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud have come up with impressive performances on clay in the past month at tournaments at Barcelona, Madrid and Monte Carlo.

So has age finally caught up even with the supremely fit Djokovic who has just turned 37? Certainly he has never looked as vulnerable during his long reign at the top.

And yet when it comes to Grand Slams the Serb is able to lift his game. He wouldn’t have won a record 24 such events without possessing this quality.

So will he continue his record extended run as the year ending world No 1 for a ninth time or will one of the GenNext players replace him? The French Open could well provide the answer.

If the men’s event is really open in the women’s it does appear that one does not have to look beyond Iga Swiatek. Even with a few tough competitors around there are too many factors in the Polish player’s favour.

The undisputed world No 1 has been playing some of her best tennis this year having won four WTA 1000 titles. She has been particularly proficient on clay and the manner in which she demolished world No 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the Italian Open final underlined the form she is in.

Swiatek who turns 23 on May 31 is the defending champion at Roland Garros and has totally won the title three times, the other two coming as recent as 2020 and 2022. No other active player has a record to match this.

It will be a major surprise if she doesn’t notch up title No 4 at the end of it all to join the select group of Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Justin Henin the only women to have won four titles at Roland Garros in the Open era.