At midday on Thursday, before Rafael Nadal held a press conference at his tennis academy, a close friend of the player told this newspaper what the athlete himself confirmed four hours later: “He has tried everything, but it just hasn’t been coming together; one day he was doing well, but the next he wasn’t feeling quite right and took a step backwards. The movement and the shots weren’t coming off, he didn’t feel comfortable. At this stage of his career, a player of his stature can’t afford to go to a place like Roland Garros to only get through a couple of rounds, so the most sensible option is not to go to Paris.”
When Nadal spoke, he did so with clarity. Tired of fighting against time, his own body and the constant demands of elite competition, the 37-year-old wanted to clear up questions and make his situation clear to those who expected another superhuman two weeks at the French Open, an umpteenth resurrection, the last great feat of a remarkable career: he will still try, in the style of Michael Jordan and his Last Dance, but the reality is what it is. Nadal’s era is in its twilight phase. So it was with Serena Williams, and then Nadal’s great rival and friend Roger Federer, as it has been throughout the annals of sporting history with so many more generational talents.
“Everything has a beginning and an end, unfortunately. I am just one more of all these endings of all the people who have been able to stand out in any field of life,” Nadal said as he announced that 2024 would be his final year on the ATP Tour. “From then on, I will start another stage, which will be different. But it doesn’t have to be any less happy.” This is a fundamental concept to understand the sequence of recent events in Nadal’s career: for some time, almost three years, the suffering has outweighed the pleasure of winning. Too many injuries, too many ailments and too much physical pain, sometimes recorded by the cameras as in Rome last year when he was barely able to walk, and sometimes privately but the underlying reality, beyond trophies and records, has always been there, latent and poignant.
“In training you see many things that make you understand other things, which we are not in favor of revealing,” his coach, Carlos Moyà, conceded in November, hinting during a chat with journalists that Nadal’s emotional tank was not far from overflowing. Another clue that the red line was getting closer and closer came at Wimbledon, when his team, including his father, his agent, and his sister, urged him to retire during his quarterfinal win over Taylor Fritz when he suffered an abdominal tear, which forced him to pull out of a semifinal meeting with Nick Kyrgios, with a view to minimizing he damage.
“I have much more important things to attend to than tennis,” Nadal said losing to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the 2022 U.S. Open, where he had returned to action but was unable to train fully and was preoccupied by the complicated pregnancy of his wife, Xisca Perelló. Nadal had already begun to question his continued presence on the courts during the coronavirus pandemic and more recently he has required painkilling injections in his foot to be able to play, his professional life a never-ending cycle of needles, scans, rehabilitation, and radiofrequencies. It is too much for anyone, even Nadal.
Since 2003, when he began to make his mark among the ATP elite, Nadal has missed 13 Grand Slam tournaments due to physical ailments and has been sidelined for a total of around four years, adding together the duration of all his injuries. Despite this, he was able to surpass the record set by Federer at major tournaments and to keep pace with the other member of the Big Three, Novak Djokovic, who turns 36 next Monday, without ever throwing in the towel. He is still holding off on doing so now, but wisdom and what comes tomorrow have prevailed. For some time, he has spoken with his heart on his sleeve about his physical issues, confessing that the end in sight during the farewell tournament for his Swiss comrade, with both players in tears in a photograph that went around the world.
“You can’t keep demanding more and more from your body,” Nadal said Thursday, “because one day it will raise the white flag and tell you that this is it.” He will aim to stage one last hurrah, in 2024, and as ever will be Nadal until the final ball, but only if he feels that he can still be competitive, be true to himself and to the ideology that his uncle Toni instilled in him from the very beginning of one of the most storied journeys in the history of sport.
“I’m going to try to make my last year not just a party, I’m going to try to compete at the highest level, give myself the option to try to compete and win tournaments on this clay tour. The reality is that we’ll have to wait for that,” Nadal said, at the same time as Roland Garros tweeted it hoped to see him again in 2024. This year will be the first time Nadal has missed his favorite tournament since 2004, when a foot injury prevented him from playing.
But, definitively, the will clashes with reality. Nadal’s immediate future no longer depends on achievements, on records, on trophies or ranking, now minor issues as much as his layoff will affect the latter. The 22-times Grand Slam winner is simply responding to life, and a matter of deserved happiness.
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