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FRENCH OPEN

A volley of success at Roland-Garros would be Rafa’s perfect send-off

A volley of success at Roland-Garros would be Rafa’s perfect send-off
Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his victory over Jordan Thompson of Australia in the first round of the men's singles at Roland-Garros on 23 May 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo: TPN / Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal is set to grace Roland-Garros for his final French Open.

There are no plans that anyone is aware of to change the name of Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland-Garros to Court Rafael Nadal, but few would argue against such a move.

The red clay of the Paris Grand Slam has been synonymous with Nadal for almost the entire 21st century. No player in the history of the sport has had greater success on any tennis arena around the world.

Mention Roland-Garros to anyone under the age of 30 who has a passing interest in tennis and almost certainly the first image that would come to mind is that of Nadal.

It was on this famous court where the wider world outside the tennis community was introduced to a young Spaniard in cut-off sleeves and three-quarter-length “shorts” back in 2005.

Nadal swashbuckled his way to the first of an incredible 14 titles at the French Open. He has only lost three of the 115 matches that he’s played at Roland-Garros – a staggering record.

To put that in perspective, the great Pete Sampras won 14 Grand Slams in total and it’s more than all the Grand Slams of Andre Agassi and Boris Becker combined.

Novak Djokovic has dominated the Australian Open and has 10 titles in Melbourne, but he has still lost nine times at that tournament. Nadal’s French Open record is beyond comparison.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after winning against Casper Ruud of Norway in their final match during the French Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, 11 June, 2023. (Photo: EPA / Caroline Blumberg)

Idiosyncrasies

Initially, we marvelled at Nadal’s array of idiosyncrasies: his touching of each ear and his nose and tugging at the seat of his pants in preparation to play the point on serve.

In between points, the meticulous arranging of his water bottles and the near religious commitment to wiping himself down with a towel became part of the sport.

It was amusing and slightly irritating at first but, in time, the Nadal tics just added to his aura as much as his vicious forehand topspin that became a weapon of mass destruction, nowhere more so than at Roland-Garros.

Heavy topspin has always been a vital skill in a player’s armoury on clay, and Nadal took it to extreme and unmatched levels. He also was the first player to stand so deep when returning serve that he was almost in the expensive courtside seats, which gave him more time to play his heavy topspin shots off both wings.

And because of his supreme fitness levels and physicality (which increased after his breakthrough season), in basic terms, he wore opponents down on clay because they could not easily hit through him.

We could get into a long analysis of how he adapted his game on faster courts, flattening out his forehand in particular to win points more quickly.

But the reality is that the Nadal style of play – the 3,200 to 5,000 revolutions per minute of spin on his forehand – is part of the fabric of the French Open.

And 2024 presents perhaps the final time we will see it. Nadal has not announced any formal plans to retire, but given an ever-growing string of injuries, it’s unlikely he will continue much longer.

He has also not confirmed that he will play in Paris after some more niggling injuries, but it’s highly unlikely he will skip the season’s second Grand Slam, unless he cannot swing a racquet.

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, 26 May, and it may be the last time Nadal graces Roland-Garros as a player.

He has struggled with injuries for much of the past two years and it’s unlikely he can outlast the likes of Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, never mind a few others, over two brutal weeks of clay court slugfests.

And nothing he has produced in the clay court season points to more success in Paris. After a second-round defeat in Barcelona last month, Nadal showed glimpses of his old self to reach the fourth round in Madrid.

Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic of Serbia during Day 10 of the French Open 2022 at Roland-Garros on 31 May 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo: John Berry / Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal serves against Casper Ruud during the men’s singles final of the French Open at Roland-Garros on 5 June 2022. (Photo by Ryan Pierse / Getty Images)

Adoring fans

After his defeat in the Spanish capital, the rousing and emotional standing ovation he received from his adoring compatriots suggested that it was the last time they would see him at home.

A similar outpouring of love, respect and tears followed at the Italian Open when Nadal lost to Hubert Hurkacz in his second match in Rome. It was also a deflating final outing before Paris.

“Physically, I have some issues, but not probably yet enough to say I’m not playing in the most important event of my tennis career,” said Nadal in reference to competing at Roland-Garros. “If I feel ready, I’m going to try to be there and fight for the things I have been fighting for the last 15 years, [even] if it now seems impossible.”

Nadal is not immune to the significance of this year’s French Open. He’s always been modest to a fault, but even he could recognise that, when he finally retires, tennis will lose something and someone special.

“Probably, when the people start to see that there will not be many chances to watch me play again, they feel a bit more emotional, more sad, because it’s in some way the end of an important era in the history of tennis,” Nadal said. “As a player, I want to be remembered for the results that I had. As a person, I hope to be remembered as a positive example of being respectful, well educated and a good person.”

Defending champion Djokovic, who won his third French Open in 2023 in Nadal’s absence, has had a mediocre season by his own standards.

He lost the Australian Open final to Sinner and lost in the third round of the Italian Open a day after being hit on the head by a bottle that fell from a fan’s backpack.

Djokovic played in Geneva to tune himself up for Paris.

“I’ve dedicated quite a bit of time with my new fitness coach to build the endurance, to build physical strength and capabilities that I need in order to play a best-of-five Grand Slam on the physically most demanding surface, which is clay,” Djokovic said.

“So, hopefully, I’m going to get more than one match here in Geneva. That’s the goal and then let’s see what happens in Paris.”

Women’s world No 1 Iga Świątek is on a quest for a fourth French Open title.

Only Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Justine Henin have won the title four times in the professional era. After back-to-back titles in Madrid and Rome, Świątek is the overwhelming favourite to join that select group of players. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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