French Open: Let this be the last act of Nadal on his favourite playground

The dilemma to be back will be there, but who wants to see a vulnerable king of clay?

Rafael Nadal produced some fine tennis to give a stern test to Zverev (photo: IANS)
Rafael Nadal produced some fine tennis to give a stern test to Zverev (photo: IANS)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The lure to be back one more time will definitely be there, but the man they call the King of Clay may be better advised not to do so. The unprecedented first round exit of Rafael Nadal in straight sets, albeit at the hands of an able competitor in Alexander Zverev at the French Open on Monday, 27 May, should be enough for the Spaniard to see the writing on the wall.

The dilemma to return to the hallowed Roland Garros will definitely be there, especially if one has dominated it like the way no other ace has done before with his 14 titles and a win ratio of 96.55%. Each of the triumvirate of the Big Three have had their favourite backyards – Novak Djokovic dominated the hardcourts of Australian Open for 10 titles, Roger Federer has courted the grass for eight Wimbledon titles but neither of their careers have revolved so much around the most demanding of slams in Paris.

Right now, Nadal’s status in his halting English is: ‘’It’s a big percentage chance that I will not be back here’’ – though he hopes to be back on the same courts during the Paris Olympics in a few months’ time. It will be an anti-climax of sorts to have Rafa signing off on clay there, but then let’s remember the cliché that sport does not always guarantee one fairytale endings.   

There may always be a counterpoint to the suggestion of him calling time this year – as the powerhouse had won the last of his French Open crowns only in 2022 in a one-sided final against Casper Rudd. It was in January, 2023 that Nadal injured a hip flexor at the Australian Open, an injury more akin to what signalled the end of Andy Murray’s career and went on to miss the action for the next 15 months.

He had undergone an arthoscopic surgery and braved the odds to make a professional comeback early this year – though a muscle tear cut short his campaign in Brisbane.  It’s a matter of conjecture whether Nadal could have progressed further in this French Open if the draw was a little kind to him instead of pitching the in-form fourth seed German in the first round, but then the champion’s ego shone through for a brief while in the second set till he started making unforced errors and conceded ground in the tie-breaker.

At 37 years and with the kind of pounding that his body has already taken, Nadal may still continue to surprise his opponents with his muscle memory now and then – but to expect him to win seven matches in a span of two weeks for a slam will certainly be too much. He is certainly the best judge of his body and if his post-match speech on Monday is any indication, Nadal seems pragmatic enough to see the writing on the wall.

The legion of Nadal fans will wait and watch - but what they will hate to watch is a vulnerable champion on the court. That will be so unlike Nadal! 

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