Rafael Nadal Unsure About French Open Status After Surprising Defeat

Rafael Nadal is, indisputably, one of the greatest tennis players in the history of at least the Open Era. But his intense, grinding style of play has taken its toll on his body. The fact that the Spanish phenom was winning Grand Slams well into his 30s (he won the Australian and French Opens most recently in 2022, at age 35) was astonishing, considering his years of lower body injuries.

Now, however, things seem to have taken a semi-permanent downward turn. For the 37-year-old, whose 22 individual major victories represent the second-most ever in the men’s game, behind only contemporary Novak Djokovic’s 24. The 6-foot-1 native of Mallorca, Spain has captured 92 Association for Tennis Professional-level men’s singles championships, the fifth-most ever in the Open Era.

Nadal’s best major, of course, is the French Open, which he’s won a record 14 times. He’s great everywhere and has won each of the four majors at least twice, but he does have a specialty. He has been nicknamed “the King of Clay,” thanks to his particular acumen on clay courts. Typically, at least when he’s healthy enough to do so, Nadal will use the clay court season of the ATP as something of a ramp-up, culminating in the grand finale of a French Open run.

Last year, however, a hip injury incurred during his title defense at the Australian Open, knocked him out of the entire clay court season. He ultimately missed the rest of 2023 as he struggled to recover from the ailment. Subsequently, thanks to his absence from tournaments, Nadal fell out of the ATP’s top 10 for the first time since April 2005. His stint in that heady space, which he occupied between then and March 2023, is a record, and a testament to his incredible ceiling.

Rafael Nadal 2024
Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a volleyforehand to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland during the Men’s singles second round match on Day 6 of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia 2024 at Foro Italico on May 11, 2024…

Getty Images/Mike Hewitt

Now, once again, things are looking shaky. Issy Ronald of CNN reports that, after falling 6-1, 6-3 to No. 9-ranked Hubert Hurkacz at the Italian Open in Rome, Nadal seemed unsure that he would be healthy enough to appear in Roland Garros. The French Open starts on May 20.

“The decision (to appear at the French Open) as you can imagine, is not clear in my mind today,” Nadal said. “But if I have to say what’s my feeling and if my mind is closer one way or the other way, I’m going to say I will be in Roland Garros and try my best.”

“Probably one is to say, ‘Okay, I am not ready, I am not playing well enough.’ Then is the moment to take a decision in terms of not playing Roland Garros,” Nadal said. “Another is to accept how I am today and work the proper way to try to be in a different way in two weeks.”

Nadal, a longtime former world No. 1 who’s now just the No. 305-ranked player in the world (again, he’s 37 and coming off almost a full year of not playing), went on to allude to playing through lingering injuries at the Italian Open. The French Open is his signature tournament, and given that he has suggested 2024 could be his final season as an ATP pro, it would seem that he would at least want to make an appearance if he at all could.

“Physically I have some issues, but not probably yet enough to say not playing in the most important event of my tennis career,” Nadal added.

“Let’s see what’s going on, how I feel myself mentally tomorrow, after tomorrow, and in one week. If I feel ready, I’m going to try to be there and fight for the things that I have been fighting the last 15 years, even if now it seems impossible,” Nadal said.

Whenever Nadal finally does walk off the court for good, it will represent another sad indicator of the passage of time. He’ll be the second member of the Big Three (comprising himself, Djokovic, and already-retired Roger Federer, who won 20 majors) to hang it up. Together, Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer were the most dominant players in the history of men’s tennis, all boasting different strengths.

Their rivalries elevated their games against one another, too. That triumvirate pushed each other to new heights, and while the youngest, 36-year-old Djokovic (he’ll turn 37 during the French Open), remains a favorite to win virtually every tournament he plays, it appears that Nadal’s body has just run out of time.