Body slammed – Nadal faces uncertain future after Roland Garros withdrawal

Body slammed – Nadal faces uncertain future after Roland Garros withdrawal
A pensive Rafa Nadal during the announcement of his withdrawal from the 2023 French Open at Roland Garros. Nadal has not fully recovered from a hip injury sustained at the Australian Open earlier this year. (Photo: Cristian Trujillo / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images)

Rafa Nadal’s quest for his 23rd singles Grand Slam title suffered a major setback when he was forced to withdraw from the 2023 French Open at Roland Garros.

Age and injury are opponents that not even the world’s greatest clay court player could overcome. At 36, Rafa Nadal, winner of 14 men’s singles titles at Roland Garros, was this week forced to admit that his body was not ready for the rigours of five-set Grand Slam tennis on the most demanding of surfaces.

He therefore formally withdrew from the French Open on Thursday, making the disappointing, but not unexpected, announcement from his academy in Majorca, where it all began for him three decades earlier.

A hip injury sustained at the Australian Open in January has kept him off the court since, and no amount of physio, hard work and hope could get Nadal into the right shape to defend his title.

It’s a huge disappointment for Nadal personally, for tennis more broadly, and, of course, for the season’s second Grand Slam. No one in the history of sport has dominated an event like Nadal has dominated the French Open.


Rafa Nadal will miss the French Open due to a hip injury. He won’t be able to defend the title he won in 2022 for a 14th time. (Photo: John Berry / Getty Images)

His record at Roland Garros is a scarcely believable 112 wins and three losses. In semifinals and finals, he is 28-0. His decision to withdraw from the 2023 event couldn’t have been an easy one, given how synonymous Nadal and the French Open are, but he would’ve known that his chances were almost non-existent.

Even with his brilliance on clay and his warrior spirit that might have got him through the first few rounds – even playing well below 100% – he wasn’t in shape to face the arsenal of young talent hungry for his title in the second week.

“The evolution of the injury I sustained in Australia has not gone as I would have liked. I have lost goals along the way, and Roland Garros becomes impossible,” Nadal told reporters.

“At this moment, I won’t be able to be at Roland Garros. With what that tournament is for me, you can imagine how difficult it is. I have no intention of continuing to play for the next few months.

“If I keep playing at this moment, I don’t think I can be there next year… to be able to play the tournaments that I want to say goodbye to those who have supported me.”

It’s a clear hint that, for once, Nadal was aware of legacy. He wants to go out on his terms and the likelihood of limping out of Paris, unable to finish a match, was unpalatable to the ultimate competitor.

That means he will try to make 2024 his swansong, but at this stage, even that is unclear.

“It (2024) is probably going to be my last year,” Nadal said. “My idea and my motivation is to try to enjoy the Tour and say goodbye to all the tournaments that I enjoyed playing. The Olympic Games (played in Roland Garros), are one of them, but I can’t say yet if it will be my last tournament or not.”

Future is here

It was also an inevitable and horrible moment of staring into the future and seeing something other than success and titles. That vision is mostly consigned to the past.

The end for Nadal and even his great rival Novak Djokovic is close. They no longer have endless plains of possibility in front of them. But, like old bulls on the savannah, they will fight for professional survival.

No player dominates forever and no career lasts forever. Nadal might not quite be at the end of his tennis journey, but he is much closer to it now. The spirit is willing; the body less so.

In the same week that Nadal reluctantly accepted his looming fate, world No 1 Djokovic lost a three-set thriller to the 20-year-old rising star from Denmark, Holger Rune, at the Italian Open.

The portents are clear – this really does feel like a changing of the guard.

The manner of Djokovic’s defeat was more telling than the loss itself, as Rune stormed into a 4-0 lead in the deciding set. It was the type of pressure Djokovic and Nadal once piled on their opponents.

After the match, the Serb – who will lose the top ranking to Carlos Alcaraz when the latest rankings are published – admitted the next generation had arrived.

“A new generation is here already,” Djokovic told reporters after his defeat to the Dane.

“Alcaraz is number one in the world from Monday… obviously, he’s playing amazing tennis. I think it’s also good for our sport that we have new faces, new guys coming up.

“We’ve been saying this for years, that we can expect that moment to come when you have a kind of shift of generations.

“I’m personally still trying to hang in there with all of them. I still have the hunger to keep going. Let’s see how far I’m going to play.”

Open French Open

Nadal’s absence makes the French Open more, well, open than ever since Nadal first slid across Court Philippe-Chatrier in the 2005 final.

Djokovic, of course, will be a threat, especially over five sets. The youngsters that have recently beaten him over three sets will have to find another gear to break the great Serb mentally over five.

Rune, Alcaraz and last year’s runner-up, Casper Ruud, are sure to be around in the second week. Throw in Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jannik Sinner, and even in Nadal’s absence, the potential match-ups are salivating.

The women’s draw is equally open, especially given that the nature of women’s tennis shows how competitive it is.

french open swiatek

Iga Swiatek of Poland celebrates her victory at the 2022 French Open after beating Coco Gauff. (Photo: Richard Callis ATPImages / Getty Images)

Poland’s Iga Swiatek is the marginal favourite having won two of the last three titles at Roland Garros, while the in-form Aryna Sabalenka, who won the Australian Open, is ripe for another Grand Slam.

Sabalenka beat Swiatek in the Madrid Masters final earlier this month, one of the big clay court tournaments on tour. She has won three titles in 2023, with 29 match wins and only four losses this year. Sabalenka chose to miss the Italian Open to prepare for Roland Garros.

Swiatek has two titles in 2023 and a 25/5 win/loss record this year. She also has the feel-good factor of previous Roland Garros success in 2020 and 2022.

french open jabeur

Tunisian Ons Jabeur has had her injury problems this season, but she is one of the best clay court players on the tour. (Photo: TPN / Getty Images)

Other strong contenders include 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, while world No 7, Ons Jabeur, loves the clay.

Jabeur, winner in Madrid in 2022 and Wimbledon finalist last year, has struggled with injury this season, but she feels ready for Roland Garros despite losing in the first round of the Italian Open against Paula Badosa.

“You just keep going and remember who you are… remember the ranking that you were,” Jabeur said this week.

“For me, I feel that the game is there, you just need to get back in shape physically and everything, and see what could happen. The draw did not help at all in Rome.”

Swietek said that she and Jabeur are the two best women players on clay. They will soon have a chance to test that assertion. Jabeur agrees.

“I think I am actually (one of the best on clay). Iga is really amazing and I’m honoured she said that,” said the 28-year-old.

“The main key is that you adapt to clay, to grass, to hard courts; it’s very difficult to find a complete player. I love clay, I love playing on clay… it’s probably the only surface that I don’t need matches under my belt to play good.” DM


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