FRENCH OPEN: Rafa Out: "I Just Need to Face Reality and Stay Calm"

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Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

PARIS

Bill Simons

Rafa Nadal is lucky. He has a great family, a great game of tennis and is beloved around the globe.

Then again, Rafa Nadal is unlucky. He’s played in the era of Federer, Djokovic and Murray, and has a pounding, muscular game based on a breathless ferocity – every point is a war. He was raised on clay, but worked tirelessly to learn to play on hard and grass courts. Sure, he’d complain about the pounding that players take on hard courts. But he gave it his all – and he’s paid the price.

Simply put, his announcement today that he was withdrawing from the French Open due to a recurring injury to the tendon sheath in his wrist was the biggest off-court shock at a Slam since Andy Roddick’s surprise retirement announcement at the 2012 US Open.

But, fasten your seat belts, tennis fans. Times may be changing in the sport. Roger Federer is 35, hasn’t won a Slam since 2012, and withdrew from the French Open due to lack of conditioning after surgery. He’d hurt his knee while giving his kids a bath in Melbourne earlier this year.

Rafa’s injury occurred on-court in Madrid when he “felt something.” He went right off to Barcelona where he got an MRI and echotherapy. Doctors said it would be all right to play the Italian Open. He played there on anti-inflammatories and reached the semis. But things deteriorated. Nadal said, “When I came back to Mallorca I felt a little bit more – every day is worse.”

To observers here, he looked good through his first two rounds against modest foes. In six sets he lost just six games – no problemo. But he started to wear a brace and played yesterday with an injection, “just to sleep the wrist.” His doctors said he could play his scheduled match tomorrow against his fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers (who ironically advanced when Nicolas Mahut withdrew during their match Wednesday). But Rafa’s advisors said it would be impossible for Nadal to play the five matches he would need to prevail at the French Open.

They added that they could not inject his wrist five more times. Rafa said, “So there comes a time when I can’t hit the ball anymore…I couldn’t hit a single ball…I was ready to run the risk all the way to the limit, but there comes a time where you simply can’t go on…We have really reached the limit…the sheath of the tendon is suffering…It might just take a few weeks without moving. So I just have to face reality and stay calm.”

This was his third withdrawal from the French Open – he withdrew in 2003 and 2004. He also surprised some people when he withdrew from Miami due to heat exhaustion this April. Rafa said his wrist injury would not require surgery, but he couldn’t say whether he’d be back in time for Wimbledon in about a month.

With Rafa’s recent knee injury that sidelined him for seven months, there were big questions. Often the doctors “could not see the end of the tunnel.”

All of tennis now hopes there will be an “end of the tunnel” for the popular star. After all, one of tennis’ most lingering fears has long been that Rafa’s raw, take-it-to-the-max approach, his bang-and-blast physical style, would one day catch up with him.

Today was that day.

At a time when the sport is rocked by scandals relating to gambling, drugs and sexism, when Federer is injured, Sharapova is suspended, Juan Martin del Potro remains a non-factor due to his wrist injury, France’s most charismatic star Gael Monfils withdraws from Roland Garros, and there are no new superstars on the immediate horizon, this was not the news we wanted to hear.

As philosophical as ever, Rafa said his injury was “part of the life, part of my career…Nobody died.”

Of course, if there is one man in tennis who embodies sporting passion, athletic zeal and love of the game, it is Nadal. At a shaken Roland Garros in the press room, reporters did speak of how Nadal’s withdrawal helps the likes of Jo-Willie Tsonga and Novak Djokovic. Then there was silence, while on the grounds there was a widespread hope – that the beloved Spanish bull will soon return to the ring he loves so much.