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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Rafael Nadal’s Enduring Legacy: Forever Intertwined with the French Open

This is the crucial from Rafael Nadal in case, in this distracted age, you only have time to read the first line on your phone: For the first time since 2004, he will not be competing in the French Open.

There is, however, much more to Nadal’s tale, especially in Roland Garros, the Grand Slam event he has controlled like no other player in tennis history.

Even for someone like me who has seen him create that presumably unbreakable record, red brick after red brick, the names of his 14 songs still appear like a misprint.

In spite of the fact that Nadal is Spanish, the organisers of the French Open eventually caved to the pressure and put up a glistening, life-size monument of Nadal just inside the main gate to the tournament grounds.

At a press conference held on Thursday in Manacor, his hometown, he announced his resignation from this year’s French Open at his eponymous school.

Nadal, who turns 37 on June 3, spoke quietly and at length about his latest setback, failing to recuperate in time from a core muscle injury he sustained in January at the Australian Open. He was dressed casually in pants and a white short-sleeved shirt.

Nadal, who will return to the court only if he is guaranteed a victory, will rest his injured knee for at least the next several months. He didn’t rule out playing again in 2023 (he specifically mentioned the Davis Cup Finals in Malaga, Spain in November), but his primary focus is on getting ready for what he called “probably” his last season in 2024.

John McEnroe, a more volatile tennis champion, utilised press conferences as a kind of therapy, using the question-and-answer format to work through his problems and disappointments. Unlike McEnroe, Nadal spoke in three languages on Thursday: Spanish, English, and Mallorcan, the dialect of Nadal’s native island and the lingua franca of the Nadal family.

Whatever the language, the message was clear: Nadal wants a happy conclusion to his training sessions and is sick of gritting his teeth through them.

Given the increasing pace at which his body is failing him, no promises can be made. His hip injury in 2023 and a broken rib in 2022 occurred midmatch during his second round Australian loses to Mackenzie McDonald, both of whom he had previously beaten in straight sets.

Maybe Nadal shouldn’t have played hurt, but he’s as tough as the red clay that makes his game shine. And although though he’s just married, has a newborn child, a boat, and an outstanding golf handicap, he’s not yet ready to retire in style like his buddy and former rival Roger Federer.

Moreover, he questioned, “I don’t know if I can be competitive to win a Grand Slam.” I’m not someone who acts irrationally. I understand how difficult this is. However, I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I’d want to give myself a second chance to compete.

There are dangers unique to farewell tours. Swedish tennis great and six-time Grand Slam singles winner Stefan Edberg regretted his decision to retire after the 1996 season, despite having previously declared that it would be his last. Edberg, Federer’s former coach, recommended him to end on a high note by playing doubles with Rafael Nadal in the Laver Cup team tournament in London last September, and Federer listened.

Both champions, as well as many spectators, were moved to tears by Federer’s retirement announcement. While Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras also had lengthy farewells, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams kept theirs brief. Sampras skipped the retirement tour and instead won the 2002 U.S. Open as his last event.

Nadal, on the other hand, is used to being the centre of attention and meeting the high standards of others. At the age of 18, he helped Spain defeat the United States and win the Davis Cup; at the age of 19, he made his debut at the French Open and won the tournament.

If he hadn’t been sidelined from Roland Garros in 2003 and 2004, he may have won the tournament sooner. Nonetheless, he has participated in his hallmark competition for 18 consecutive years, missing the 2016 edition with a wrist ailment.

That’s accurate and will appear even more so when the next winner is crowned in Paris a month from now wearing red-stained socks. Nadal and Roland Garros will forever be associated with one other, that much is certain.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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