Tennis-Invincible no more but Nadal targets final fling at Roland Garros

By Thomson Reuters May 21, 2024 | 4:17 AM

By Shrivathsa Sridhar

(Reuters) – Rafa Nadal hopes to play in the French Open where he would be in the unfamiliar role of underdog but niggling injuries threaten to sour what would likely be the Spaniard’s last appearance at the Grand Slam he dominated for nearly two decades.

The 37-year-old, who won 14 of his 22 major titles in Paris to establish himself as one of the greatest ever players on clay, skipped the 2023 edition with a hip injury that required surgery and is still in two minds whether to play this year.

Having already announced that 2024 could be his final season on the tour, Nadal returned to action in January but sustained a small muscle problem that stalled his progress before he made another comeback during the European claycourt swing.

Following a second-round defeat at Barcelona, Nadal cranked up his level to go on a surprise run to the Madrid fourth round and delight fans but in Rome a crushing loss to Hubert Hurkacz in his second match dampened spirits ahead of Roland Garros.

“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, who won his first French Open in 2005 and last lifted the Musketeers’ Cup two years ago.

“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 now seems impossible.”

Nadal’s indomitable spirit despite a plethora of injuries in his glittering career has never been in question, but the former world number one who has plummeted down the rankings risks being dumped out prematurely at his happiest hunting ground.

His earliest exit from the tournament came in 2016 when a wrist problem forced him to withdraw ahead of his third round clash with countryman Marcel Granollers and he has only lost three times in 115 matches.

Despite previously stressing that he would play in Paris only if he felt fully fit and competitive, Nadal understands the importance of going out on his own terms as he did in front of teary fans in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome.

“Probably when the people start to see that there will not be many chances to watch me play again, probably 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.”

Tennis fans will be hoping for one last hurrah.

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris)