Rafael Nadal is not ready to say goodbye

Rafael Nadal waves to the crowd after losing to Alexander Zverev at the French Open. (AFP)
Rafael Nadal waves to the crowd after losing to Alexander Zverev at the French Open. (AFP)


In defeat, the French Open master leaves open the possibility of a Paris return. Why would anyone count him out?

Rafael Nadal says he might not be done. He’s left the door open to a French Open return, to the point he asked Roland Garros officials to cancel plans for an elaborate on-court farewell. One imagines a scrambled call to a Saint-Germain-des-Prés pâtissier, scuttling a 14-foot macaron pyramid: “Désolé, il ne veut pas de gâteau. Give it to PSG for Mbappé’s goodbye party."

If this was Nadal’s feint to avoid an awkward party, and it’s really over, he is not saying. He says he’d like to be back on the Roland Garros clay all over again, in eight weeks, for the Paris Summer Olympics, so all these Rafa soliloquies and encomiums may be premature.

Whatever the case, the 14-time champion, age 37, is out of this year’s French Open—his earliest departure ever, an occasionally tantalizing but ultimately deflating first-round exit to Alexander Zverev, 3-6, 6-7(5), 3-6, before an emotional packed house at Court Philippe-Chatrier.

It’s not the sort of finish anyone wants, for perhaps the greatest warrior tennis has ever seen.

Has there ever been a tenant-landlord relationship in sports quite like Rafael Nadal and the French Open? Sports legends have been tied to stadia—Bill Russell to Boston Garden; Lionel Messi to Camp Nou; Cal Ripken to Camden Yards, even if The Streak started at Memorial—but those were permanent homes. Nadal settled in Paris just one fortnight per year. 

And yet this tournament became home, to the point Nadal’s French became robust, because why not, he had to give a victory speech every year.

Before Monday, he was lifetime 112-3 at Roland Garros. Mull on that for a minute. The losses were as indelible as the championships—a fourth-round stunner to Robin Soderling in 2009; defeats to Novak Djokovic in the 2015 quarterfinals and the semis in 2021. Otherwise: near perfection. 

Nadal was seldom pushed to the limit at this tournament. He won them in cascades, dominantly, four times not dropping a single set en route.

He had a whole other tennis life, of course—four titles at the U.S. Open; two at Wimbledon; two in Australia; a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Nadal’s twilight title on grass over Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2008 still stands as one of the greatest matches ever; his 2022 hard-court triumph in Melbourne was an old man classic, a comeback from two sets down to Daniil Medvedev.

Paris was his kingdom, however. When Nadal debuted there, at age 18, in 2005, with a straight-sets victory over (win yourself a Kronenbourg) Lars Burgmuller, he expressed dismay about his performance. 

“My game was so full of approximations and hesitations," he said. He quickly grew confident over those two weeks, beating (win another Kronenbourg) Mariano Puerta in four sets on his way to hoisting Coupe des Mousquetaires No. 1.

So much for approximations and hesitations.

He won 13 more. Phew. Nadal winning the French became as predictable as the April rain. He beat Federer four times, Djokovic three times, Dominic Thiem twice, then Soderling, David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka and Casper Ruud once apiece. 

His finals felt more like coronations than competitions. Our late Journal colleague, Tom Perrotta, loved to tell the story of running into the coach of a French Open finalist the day before the match and asking if his pupil stood a chance against Nadal.

No, no, no, the coach said dismissively, walking away.

There’s a case that Nadal’s status as an all-timer—and his 22 majors overall, second only to Djokovic’s 24—shrinks a little because of his trophy-hoarding at Roland Garros. I don’t agree. Mostly I disagree because winning 22 majors is completely insane. I also disagree because Nadal was a tough out anywhere, as his other titles attest. 

Nadal wasn’t strictly a clay court specialist, like Guga Kuerten, and besides, clay ceased being such an outlier in recent years, as every surface was groomed to accommodate the back and forth of starry baseliners.

It is true Nadal grew up on clay, as Spaniards do, and his game was especially suited to the terre battue, those lasso topspin forehands collecting grit and fresh life on the bounce. He started parking himself halfway to Versailles to return serve, neutralizing heavy hitters. 

Nadal could run all day at Philippe-Chatrier, a spacious den, and his endurance was comical. Many brought their best tennis against him. He’d simply wait you out.

Early on, Nadal was sold as a style—a noisy, muscled strongman to compete against Federer’s lean Swiss grace. Nike packaged him as a teen swashbuckler in sleeveless shirts and capri pants, but the look sort of missed the point, which was always his heart. 

Nadal’s career was pockmarked by injury—he missed significant stretches of time, to the point we wondered if he would return, and he always did, triumphantly. He did that in matches, too. From the depths, he found ways to dig himself out. That’s heart.

You could feel his heart against Zverev, when he won breaks in the second and third sets and briefly spun the momentum. Zverev was a brutal draw for the unseeded Nadal, but the crowd, which included Djokovic and Spanish tennis heir Carlos Alcaraz, tried to push the grand champion through. With Zverev facing an upcoming trial on domestic abuse charges (he maintains his innocence), the energy was as one-sided as it could be.

Could it happen for Rafa? Yes. It briefly felt it could.

Did it happen? No. It wasn’t really close.

That’s tennis, cruel to the end. The solace is we got more from Nadal than we should have. A player who played tennis like he did should never have played for as long as he did, all that torque and physicality and tumbling around. Instead he delivered a complete second act. He elevated from youthful tornado to wizened warrior.

In defeat, Nadal congratulated Zverev and accepted a turn at the microphone, repeating what he’d already said, that he isn’t 100% sure he’s through. He confirmed he wants to return for the Olympics. He said he was feeling better about his tennis, and being on tour with his family, which is the sort of stuff you say if you are having second thoughts about retirement.

This might not be the end. I don’t think anyone can be certain. Not in France or anywhere. Rafael Nadal’s heart will tell him.

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