Rafael Nadal, the supremely athletic Spaniard has competed at Roland Garros every year since 2005 and has an unbelievable win-loss record of 112-3. This includes 14 singles titles, the most by any player at any Grand Slam event. Not for nothing has he earned the sobriquet Emperor of Clay, even as he has proved his efficiency on other surfaces too as eight other Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon, Australian Open and US Open testify.

But it is with clay and Roland Garos that Nadal’s name is indissolubly linked. As many as 63 of his 92 ATP singles titles have come on this surface and his 81 consecutive wins on clay is the longest single surface win streak in the Open era.

Unfortunately this year Nadal has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, principally because of an injury he sustained at the Australian Open in January. He started the year as defending champion but lost in the second round after being severely hampered by a hip injury for which he received treatment throughout the match.

Since then little has gone right for Nadal who turns 37 in about ten days time. In February he announced his withdrawal from the Indian Wells and Miami Masters to recuperate from the injury. As a result he was out of the top 10 for the first time in 18 years and after 912 consecutive weeks ending the longest Top 10 streak in ATP ranking history. With the injury persisting Nadal also withdrew from Monte Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open, Madrid Open and the Italian Open.

Given his astounding record at the French Open there was considerable speculation whether he would recover in time to defend his crown. His uncle and former coach Toni Nadal always maintained that he was making good progress and would play at Roland Garros. That triggered a debate as to how successful he would be after such a long absence from the circuit.

On the other hand Toni was of the view that he had taken this extended break to recover completely to be more than ready to make a serious bid to win the title for a record extending 15th time.

Nadal himself ended all such speculation last week when he announced that he would not be playing at the French Open. Knowing what the tournament means to him it could not have been an easy decision to take.

He obviously worked very hard on getting fit and as he put it, “I have been working as much as possible every single day for the last four months. But it has been very difficult months because we are not able to find the solution to the problem I had in Australia. I am not the guy that is going to be at Roland Garros and just try to be there and put myself in a position that I don’t like to be in.”

This is a candid self-assessment coming from a man who has set very high standards in the sport. And as he knows his body better than anyone else Nadal also indicated that 2024 could well be his last year on the circuit. So it is only a matter of time before he rides off into the sunset joining his great friend and rival Roger Federer who retired last year.

That leaves only Novak Djokovic among the Big Three to be the standard-bearer in the face of the GenNext set of players. Initially the younger group consisted of Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. But in the last year or so even as Thiem has gone rapidly downhill (the latest rankings have him at 96) and there is a palpable decline in Zverev’s game (his current ranking is 22) Tsitsipas and Medvedev are still very much around.

But Djokovic also has to beat back the challenge from a whole lot of young players headed by Carlos Alcaraz. Not very far behind are Casper Ruud, Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner, Andrey Rublev and Taylor Fritz all of whom are in the top ten.

Djokovic who has just turned 36 actually welcomes the challenge. The Serb who holds the record along with Nadal of 22 Grand Slam singles titles is almost glad that the long awaited shift of generations has finally come about.

According to him the emergence of the next generation led by Alcaraz is like a whiff of fresh air for the sport. “A new generation is here. Already Alcaraz has been No 1 and he is playing some amazing tennis. I think it is good for our sport that new guys are coming up.’’

That, however, doesn’t mean that Djokovic, who went down to Rune in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open last week, is adopting a defeatist attitude. After all he now appears to have a clear path to Grand Slam title No 23 and a place on the pedestal all by himself so he is determined to carry on.

“We have been saying it for some years that the moment will come when you will have a shift of generations. But I hope to hang in there with the rest of them. I still have the hunger to keep going. Let’s see how long I can go on,’’ said Djokovic. his form will be the subject of much focus. But then so also will be the progress made by the Alcaraz-led young brigade. Interesting times lay ahead as the players prepare for a French Open sans Nadal.