Tennis: A fitting end to Rafael Nadal’s French Open fairy tale?

Spain's Rafael Nadal during a practice session ahead of the French Open on 21 May. (Reuters)
Spain's Rafael Nadal during a practice session ahead of the French Open on 21 May. (Reuters)


Rafael Nadal will once again be the biggest drawcard at Roland Garros, though he may not be the favourite to lift the title anymore

In the Parisian spring, there hasn’t been a more dazzling love affair than Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. In tennis, there hasn’t been a more certain lock-in for a major title. Even when Nadal removed the element of uncertainty - the lifeblood of sport - from the tournament when he participated, he managed to turn the French Open into a spectacle. A show of strength, and of character. Roland Garros was where his career was born, and reborn several times.

Having won his first title, on tournament debut, in 2005, Nadal has gone on to win 13 more times, claiming 14 of his 22 majors at the clay-court major. There is no greater physical and mental challenge than the French Open in tennis, and Nadal aced it almost every year. His craft was exquisite, mastery absolute. In his 18 visits to the Grand Slam so far, the Spaniard has lost only thrice, twice to his nemesis and World No 1 Novak Djokovic.

But Nadal will enter the 2024 French Open, which begins on May 26, in search for something else. A fitting end, a final hurrah at the place his legend is built upon. He is 37 now and trying to shake-off injuries that have kept him out of the game for almost two years. Last year Nadal declared that 2024 could well be his last season on the tour. His joints have been savaged by time and the pounding on tennis courts. His body weathered and skin baked to a hue not dissimilar to the dusty courts he favours.

He missed most of last year, including the French Open, due to a hip injury that required surgery. Nadal’s 2024 comeback, after almost a year-long absence, has been everything one would have expected and nothing his fans would have hoped for. In the mere four tournaments this season, Nadal has won zero titles and compiled a 6-3 win-loss record. During the high noon of his career, he would build momentum for Roland Garros by steamrolling rivals from one clay tournament to another – Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome. Nadal was the king of all he surveyed.

Farewell rally

This year, even on clay, the former World No 1 has looked fallible. Circumspect even. In a nod to the vintage battling ‘Vamos Rafa’, Nadal pulled off two encouraging wins at the Madrid Masters – a straight-sets win over 11th seed Alex de Minaur and a 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3 victory over Argentina’s Pedro Cachin. The rousing double piston celebration was back. It was enough to send his ‘home’ crowd in a frenzy and inject some belief into his comeback.

A day later reality set in. World No. 31 Jiri Lehečka became the lowest-ranked player to beat Nadal at a Masters 1000 event on clay. Eleven days later, at the Rome Masters, he lost 1-6, 3-6 to Hubert Hurkacz, the man who sent Roger Federer into retirement, for his most lopsided defeat on clay in 21 years.

“I am little bit more unpredictable today, not playing enough for the last two years," he said after the match. “Too many doubts."

Until a few days ago, Nadal was not even certain of playing the French Open. After the defeat to Hurkacz, he said: “If I feel ready, I going to try to be there and fight for the things that I have been fighting the last 15 years, if now seems impossible." But Nadal will play the French Open, not because he believes he has another shot at the title, but because he may not get another shot at bidding farewell to his tribe, at his tournament.

Also read: Neeraj Chopra in competition mode as Paris beckons

Before the Nadal era kicked off in in 2005, Roland Garros was exotic and confounding. It was the domain of the dirtballers, who sprung to life every year on the European clay season before fading into obscurity. It was where reputation and artistry of champions like Pete Sampras and John McEnroe was ground to dust. Nadal taught the modern tennis fan to embrace the struggle. To appreciate the tactical brilliance of a long rally, and the brutality of the finish – in Nadal’s case usually a forceful lefty forehand. His intensity was enough to energise even the most mundane of matches.

Nadal will once again be the biggest drawcard at the 2024 French Open, though he may not be the favourite. That tag rests with defending champion Djokovic, who is searching for a record-breaking 25th Grand Slam title. The Serb, who has a history with the hostile French crowd, is tied with Margaret Court for the most number of singles majors (24). The 37-year-old is going through a career wobble of his own after being knocked out in the semi-final of the Australian Open by Jannik Sinner. His run-up to the French Open has been scratchy. After a second-round exit at the Rome Masters, Djokovic took a last-minute wildcard to the Geneva Open this week.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic serves to Chile's Alejandro Tabilo during the Men's ATP Rome Open tennis tournament at Foro Italico in Rome on May 12, 2024.
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Serbia's Novak Djokovic serves to Chile's Alejandro Tabilo during the Men's ATP Rome Open tennis tournament at Foro Italico in Rome on May 12, 2024. (AFP)

A new champion?

Just like Wimbledon and Australian Open, the French Open may also see a new champion this time around. Since 2005, only Nadal, Federer (2009), Djokovic (2016, 2021, 2023) and Wawrinka (2015) have won the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

While Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz may eventually take over the men’s tennis world, they come to Paris with some injury concerns. Australian Open champion Sinner missed the Rome Masters with a right hip injury and his flatter hitting style may not be the perfect fit on for the surface. Meanwhile, though Alcaraz has been deemed as the most logical successor on clay to Nadal, he has proved a lot more successful on hard and grass courts, capturing the 2022 US Open and the 2023 Wimbledon. Laid low by a muscle issue in the right forearm during the clay season, Alcaraz is in a race to get fit for Roland Garros.

The biggest challenge to Djokovic’s title defence may yet come from the original ‘Next Genners’ Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Madrid champion Andrey Rublev. A resurgent Zverev has played himself into form to win the Rome Masters, while Tsitsipas is always a threat on clay. The two-time finalist Casper Ruud and Daniil Medvedev, despite his legendary disregard for the surface, are also in the mix.

For years, Nadal had used the five sets on clay, the slowest, most tiring surface in tennis to separate himself from the rest of the field. Nadal would wait deep in the court, strangle his opponents to slow death with his fizzing groundstrokes and relentless retrievals. But will his beaten body take the workload this time around?

“He comes from a long way away, with various injuries during these months. It’s clear that he lacks some competitive rhythm," his coach Carlos Moya told Spanish media last week. “Since Barcelona, there has been an evolution on a physical and mental level, but above all in having certain guarantees of being able to withstand a five-set match."

If the 2022 campaign, when he picked up the last of his French Opens, was turbulent and teary, this season promises to be more emotionally charged. The only guarantee Nadal comes into Paris with is that he will fight for every ball, every point. As much as his mind can stretch and body will allow. Like he has done for nearly 20 years. He may not be looking for a career revival anymore, but Nadal will not go gentle into that good night.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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