We were happy and didn’t know it: Nadal and the shiver that runs down tennis’ backside
A shiver runs down the spine of tennis: Roland Garros without Rafael Nadal ? It’s perfectly possible. Absent from Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, and now Rome, he only has Paris left in the clay-court season. And there’s a serious chance he won’t play there either. To give you an idea of the tennis-tectonic plate movement involved in his absence from the French Open, the last time Nadal wanted to play there and was prevented by injury was in 2004.
It was 19 years ago. That time he was 17, today he is 36.
Roland Garros without Nadal
Is it the end? We don’t know, but we are beginning to understand that one way of being happy in tennis is coming to an end. In September 2022, Roger Federer played his last match, cried and held Nadal’s hand. In April 2023, Nadal used a video and smiled as he explained that he will not play Madrid and that, in fact, he has no idea when he will be able to return to tennis. Nor under what conditions. Weeping and smiling at the limits of tennis and life.
Without Federer and Nadal, tennis is something else. There is no “big three”, because what there really was between 2005 and 2021 was a “big two” that Novak Djokovic could never enter. That “big two” goes beyond tennis and results, the Swiss and the Spaniard feel that their way of understanding sport and life is different from that of the Serb. And they have let him know it in many ways. Hurt, Djokovic has responded with the decision to take away any record they have had in their hands. And he’s not doing badly at all in that goal.
At this stage, Djokovic is not Nadal’s toughest rival. Neither is Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Spaniard’s great rival is his own body, which is a paradox.
It was (is) his body that allowed him to display a hyper-physical tennis with characteristics that were never taught and will never be taught again. Nobody played like Nadal and nobody will ever play like him again, with apologies to Guillermo Vilas or Alcaraz. Nadal is so special that it is enough to say that the best thing to do is not to play tennis like him. And that makes him unique.
The paradox lies in the fact that that body, that enormous physique, was the basis for a tennis of wear and tear, more or less aggressive depending on the moment, but which always involved a display with a demand that was out of this world. And it is that same physique, that same ally, that once again says “enough”, this time at a key moment in his season and his career: not playing the clay court season and missing Roland Garros is like throwing 2023 away and being filled with questions and doubts at the age of 37. Nadal’s successes and career can only be understood from what he built every year on the orange rectangle. Without it, Nadal is not Nadal.
Over the course of his career, those injuries meant that Nadal was out of contention for the title in 16 Grand Slam tournaments: 11 in which he missed out and five in which he withdrew injured. That equates to four full seasons. Had he won two or three of those 16 – a more than conservative estimate – Djokovic would not be in contention for the title of most successful tennis player in history.
This time it is the psoas iliacus, a muscle that is complicated to treat, something that is demonstrated by the mere fact that the injury happened in January in Australia. The injury was supposed to be resolved in “six to eight weeks” which was extended to 12 and who knows how many more.
The hope for those who love Nadal lies in the fact that Madrid is not really a stage on which the Spaniard feels comfortable. The capital’s 550-metre high altitude bothers the former world number one, who complains about how difficult it is to control the ball. Returning to the tour in such a tournament would not be wise on his part.
One might think, then, that the injury is progressing well and that he could well have played in Madrid. So? Nadal’s return would have been in an ideal tournament for his tennis, the Italian Open in Rome, the minimum essential condition for him to feel in conditions to face the goal of conquering the fifteenth Roland Garros.
None of that. Rome was a chimera, Roland Garros seems to be taking the same path and the chill is growing in intensity.