In the opening set of his match against Denis Shapovalov at the Italian Open on Thursday night, Rafael Nadal looked quick and powerful. However, in the latter sets of the match, Nadal was the complete opposite.
A little late to the party. Even throughout the transitions, he was gritting his teeth and wincing. Even the Canadian fans sitting high in the centre court stands were offering up sympathetic applause for Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov put the finishing touches on his victory, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2 in the round of 16. His distress was so visible as the double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the final set that even the Canadian fans sitting high in the centre court stands were offering up applause for Nadal.
Shapovalov, a left-handed player who is rated number 16, is elastic and explosive, and he has the abilities to challenge Nadal even when Nadal is well. He won their first match against each other in 2017, when Shapovalov was still a youngster. He should have won their second match against each other in the round of 16 at the Italian Open in 2018, but he failed to convert both of his match point opportunities. Additionally, he was able to take Nadal to five sets in this year’s Australian Open.
But despite playing on the surface he prefers, Nadal was in no way healthy throughout this match as he continued to struggle with the Müller-Weiss illness that affects his left foot. In the aftermath of the match, his disposition was as glum and reflective as I can remember it being in the almost 20 years that I’ve been watching his career. The French Open was drawing close.
He concluded with 34 unforced mistakes and only 13 winners on Thursday, and the issue now is if the most successful clay-courter in the history of the sport will even be able to compete in the French Open, which is the Grand Slam event that he has won a record 13 times.
The French Open will begin in nine days on May 22, but it’s possible that Rafael Nadal won’t have to play until May 24. This is because the first round of the French Open is spread out over three days since the tournament begins on a Sunday.
Even though Nadal, who will be 36 the following month, has often shown astounding fighting spirit and recuperative skills, this will be a task for him in Paris in the springtime that is unlike any other one he has faced before.
The only time Rafael Nadal has won Roland Garros without also having won a clay-court tournament earlier in the year was in the year 2020, which was a pandemic-shortened season. At that time, the beginning of the French Open was moved to October, and nearly the entire clay-court season was cancelled. Nadal won Roland Garros in that year.
This year, the schedule has returned to its regular pattern; however, this does not apply to Nadal. His clay-court campaign was delayed because of a stress fracture in his ribs, which prevented him from competing or practising normally for a period of six weeks. Prior to this, he had a torrid start to the season, winning 20 straight matches and setting a record for winning the most Grand Slam singles titles at the Australian Open.
He returned for the Madrid Open this month and was defeated by the 19-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals. He has now experienced his earliest defeat at the Italian Open since 2008, when Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former No. 1 who is now Alcaraz’s coach, surprised Nadal in the second round. Alcaraz’s coach is Juan Carlos Ferrero.
In spite of this, Nadal was able to prevail in the 2008 French Open and defeat his longtime adversary Roger Federer in the championship match. Prior to this, however, Nadal had already triumphed in the tournaments held in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Hamburg.
This season, he does not have as many matches or wins on clay as he would like, while other players, such as Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, as well as newer players like as Alcaraz, have established themselves on a more stable footing.
This is a reference to the poem “If,” from which an extract is shown on a board at the entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon for the players.
After seen Nadal almost often emerge victorious at Roland Garros in spite of challenges and competition for the last 15 years, it is tough to assume that he won’t find some way to put up a fight there in some capacity.
His larger list included names like Djokovic, the reigning champion; Tsitsipas, the other finalist from last year; Alcaraz; Alexander Zverev; Casper Ruud; and the young Italian Jannik Sinner.
Since losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open last June in four sets, Nadal has only played five matches on clay, and he has lost two of those matches.
Seeing him struggle and then stagger on Thursday was a sobering reminder that nothing is permanent, not even Nadal on the surface that he has carved out for himself as his own.