FOR months, Rafael Nadal waited for his body to heal. Waited to be able to push himself around a court at full speed, with full energy, of the sort that has carried him to a record 14 titles at the French Open and a total of 22 at all Grand Slam tournaments.
He finally acknowledged Thursday it wasn’t going to happen in time for Roland Garros, where play begins in 10 days—and, while he’s not exactly sure when he will be fully recovered from a lingering hip injury, Nadal said he expects to return to action at some point and probably wrap up his career in 2024.
Speaking at a news conference at his tennis academy in Manacor, Spain, the 36-year-old Nadal announced he will miss the clay-court French Open for the first time since making his debut—and, naturally, claiming the trophy—there in 2005. He also spoke about his future in a sport that he and Big Three rivals Roger Federer, who retired last year, and Novak Djokovic have ruled for decades.
“You can´t keep demanding more and more from your body, because there comes a moment when your body raises a white flag,” said Nadal, who sat alone on a stage, wearing jeans and a white polo shirt, as his session with the media was carried live in Spain by the state broadcaster’s 24-hour sports network. “Even though your head wants to keep going, your body says this is as far it goes.”
He did not offer a date for his return to the tennis tour, but said it is likely to take months.
“You never know how things will turn out,” said Nadal, who answered questions in English, Spanish and the local Mallorcan dialect, “but my intention is that next year will be my last year.”
One thing he made clear: He does not want to bow out like this, holding a microphone in his left hand instead of a racket. Nadal has been the ultimate competitor, playing every point as if it might be his last, as if the outcome might depend on each and every swing.
That hard-charging style has been at the heart of his brilliance on the court—and also perhaps contributed to a series of injuries over the years.
“I don’t deserve,” Nadal said, “to end my career like this, in a press conference.”
He is just 1-3 this season and has dropped seven of his past nine matches overall, dating to a fourth-round loss to Frances Tiafoe in the US Open’s fourth round last September.
The Spaniard hasn’t competed anywhere since he lost to Mackie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open on Jan. 18, when his movement clearly was restricted by a bothersome left hip flexor. That was Nadal’s earliest Grand Slam exit since 2016.
An MRI exam the next day revealed the extent of the injury, and his manager said at the time that Nadal was expected to need up to two months to fully recover. He initially aimed to enter the Monte Carlo Masters in March on his beloved red clay, but he wasn’t able to play there, then subsequently sat out tournament after tournament, decreasing the likelihood that he would be ready for the French Open.
It is one thing for Nadal to lose more frequently, and in earlier rounds, than he usually has over the course of his illustrious career — one in which his 22 major titles are tied with Djokovic for the most by a man (Federer won 20), and includes 92 trophies in all, along with more than 1,000 tour-level match wins.
It is another thing entirely for Nadal to be missing from Roland Garros, where he has appeared 18 times in a row and is 112-3 over his career. He lifted the trophy in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022, when he became the oldest champion in tournament history.
French Open tournament director Amélie Mauresmo said she is “so disappointed” for Nadal, for the event’s spectators and for all tennis fans.
“My thoughts go out to him, as I can only imagine the pain and sadness he must be feeling after having to make such a hard decision. It’s heartbreaking,” said Mauresmo, a former No. 1-ranked player who won two major singles titles. “We hope that he will be able to recover quickly so that he can get back out onto the tennis courts, and we hope to see him at Roland Garros next year.”
Nadal’s birthday is June 3, when ordinarily he might have been playing his third-round match in Court Philippe Chatrier weeks from now.
Instead, he will be absent right from the start in Paris this time. And soon, it seems, he could be bidding the tennis tour adieu for good.
“Tournaments stay forever; players play and leave. So Roland Garros will always be Roland Garros, with or without me, without a doubt. The tournament is going to keep being the best event in the world of clay, and there will be a new Roland Garros champion — and it is not going to be me,” Nadal said. “And that is life.”
Image credits: AP