Both schools of thought have built momentum after the withdrawal of 14-time champion Rafael Nadal last week, with Novak Djokovic now staring at an opportunity to take hold of the record by winning a 23rd major in Paris.
Djokovic has been patchy during this clay court season, losing three times along the way to Holger Rune (who has now won their last two meetings), Dusan Lajovic and Lorenzo Musetti.
That form line might raise eyebrows but it isn’t out of the ordinary for Djokovic, who lost three matches in the lead up to the French Open in each of the previous two years as well.
The Djokovic factor is always whether the emerging talent on tour can beat him in a best of five-set match at a major.
Since 2011, outside of Nadal, Djokovic has only been beaten by three active players in Paris. Those three men were Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka and Marco Cecchinato.
Inside the top 10 players in the world, only Daniil Medvedev has beaten Novak at a slam.
Medvedev is an interesting watch. The “master of the hard courts” has generally produced much inferior results on clay, and didn’t win a match at the French Open in his first four visits.
He does however hold a 10-2 record on clay this season, ranked second only to Carlos Alcaraz, and he has certainly found his confidence again after a challenging 2022 season.
Alcaraz is of course the logical elect to follow in the giant Spanish footsteps of the ageing Nadal, and he does own wins over just about everyone on clay, including Djokovic.
His US Open win was memorable, albeit in the absence of the big three and this surface shapes as his best chance to run the table. His body has at times failed him, but if it doesn’t, he is a definite threat.
Holger Rune has won his last two against Djokovic and has re-established himself after a patchy start to the year.
Rune made all three finals in the lead up, but did lose two of them (to Rublev and Medvedev).
Andrey Rublev recently won his first 1000 level event when he took the title in Monte Carlo, but he has lost seven consecutive grand slam quarter-finals and lost to a qualifier in Rome last week.
He has the talent, but can he conquer his mental demons?
Stefanos Tsitsipas is in a similar boat, having reached two grand slam finals and an additional five semi-finals. He is always a considerably better player in the first half of the year, and the court profile does suit him.
Jannik Sinner and Casper Ruud will also be fascinating watches, with the former seemingly destined to touch the top echelon.
Taking a look at the Australian contingent doesn’t read all that well. Australia’s highest ranked male Alex de Minaur will face world No. 86 Ilya Ivashka but could then face either Dominic Thiem or 15th seed Borna Coric in the third round.
The resurgent Max Purcell and the tenacious Jordan Thompson will face each other, meaning one will definitely progress, there is a winnable second round match against either Halys of France or Pella of Argentina. A likely Medvedev would await in the third round.
Chris O’Connell is a chance to get through the first round against Japan's Taro Daniel but would likely face Alcaraz in the second if he does.
Thanasi Kokkinakis begins his campaign against 20th seed Dan Evans, in a tricky yet winnable game for a player who does enjoy the clay.
Alexei Popyrin plays Aslan Karatsev (Q) first up, the former Australian Open semi finalist and Jason Kubler plays a lucky loser to open his campaign, Argentine Facundo Diaz Acosta but could face tricky match ups after that.
Popyrin would likely face 12th seed Francis Tiafoe, while Kubler would likely take on 10th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Ranking the Men overall:
Looking at the women’s side of the draw is also a fascinating exercise. The loss of Paula Badosa to injury this week is a blow for the draw, but plenty of intrigue remains.
12-months ago Iga Swiatek had a stranglehold on clay, and was undeniably the best player in the world.
Fast forwarding to the present and she deserves to still hold the mantle of the world’s best based on her body of work, but the gap has certainly closed with Australian Open champion
Aryna Sabalenka and 2022 Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina staking a claim.
Rybakina has beaten Swiatek in their last three meetings, albeit one of those was a withdrawal in the third set.
The world No.6 from Kazakhstan also won the Rome title last week, her first clay court crown since 2019.
Sabalenka’s game continues to develop, and she has faced Swiatek in back-to-back finals
during this clay court season, with both players winning one each.
Swiatek, whilst not appearing as dominant as last year, still has two titles and four appearances in finals so far this season, and has gone 24-4 since the Australian Open with another mountain of bagels along the way.
The key for her will be her health, with a thigh injury forcing a withdrawal in Rome. Reports are she has come through that setback ok ahead of next week.
Iga’s dominance can often be taken for granted, and the simple fact is you have to be right at the top of your game to defeat her on any surface, and particularly on clay.
Others to watch include Coco Gauff, who reached the quarters in 2021 in just her second appearance at Roland Garros, and franked that form by reaching the final last year.
She is a confidence player and has the weaponry to defeat anyone on her day.
Jessica Pegula is yet to progress beyond the quarter-final stage of a major, but has been remarkably consistent at slam and 1000 level over the last three years. Does she have a huge run in her after the early exit at Rome?
Ons Jabeur will also be a fascinating watch. After a sluggish start to 2023 the Tunisian might be on the road back. Having claimed a title in Stuttgart she reached the semi-finals in Stuttgart and has victories over Ostapenko, Bencic, Kasatkina and Haddad Maia in the last fortnight.
Sakkari and Garcia are players who must also be respected, with Sakkari always a strong chance on the dirt.
It is a grim tale for the Australian women in Paris this year with the withdrawal of Ajla Tomljanovic creating unwanted history.
There will be just two Australian representatives in the women’s singles draw, wildcard Kim Birrell who has been steadily building throughout the year, and the popular and talented Storm Hunter who qualified for the main draw this week.
This will be the first time in 55 years that Australia will not have a direct entrant into the women’s singles draw at Roland Garros.
Hunter will take on Nuria Parrizas-Dias of Spain in the first round, whilst Birrell will play last year’s surprise packet Leolia Jeanjean.
Ranking the Women overall: