Rafa Nadal is the king – the king of clay – and Roland Garros is his castle. In 16 years, just two men have beaten him. “The conversation has become,” said Andy Roddick, “who even has the potential to beat Rafa? And the answer is: not many.”
But now, our powerful monarch is aging – his wounds are deep and rivals are circling. His vulnerability is clear. The warrior is in an almost constant battle against his body, that has endured so many raging contests: 2022 Indian Wells, cracked rib; French Open, numbed foot; Wimbledon, pulled stomach muscle; Aussie Open, psoas muscle near the hip and pelvis.
It was supposed to heal in time for him to play his beloved clay circuit. But now – after not playing since Mackie McDonald beat him in the second round at the Australian Open, he has withdrawn from the French Open. This is the first time in 19 years that he won’t be playing Roland Garros. The Parisian party won’t be the same without him. Jimmy Connors was a US Open hero. Roger Federer swept across Wimbledon’s lawns. In Australia they play in Laver Arena. But no modern player has so impacted a Slam event as Rafa at the French.
Nadal, who says 2024 will likely be his last year on the circuit, first emerged in Paris in 2005 and claimed his first title. His French Open record is 112-3. But clearly Nadal is a warrior in the twilight of his career. Mountain climbers prove themselves by climbing Mt. Everest. Tennis players seek to make their mark by downing Rafa in a five-set match at Roland Garros. It’s the hardest thing to do in tennis.
“I will be honest,” confided Daniil Medvedev, “I’m scared to play Rafa on clay.”
“Rafa hit like boom and boom and boom again,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime. “He just went into another gear. I will just pray to God that I will never have to play Rafa at Roland Garros again, because it is an impossible task.” It’s said that Rafa is the best player the French Open has ever seen or will ever see.
Tom Brady has seven Super Bowl rings, Bill Russell collected 11 NBA titles, John Wooden won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. Federer reached 23 straight Slam semis, Evert made at least the semifinals in 48 of 49 Slams. Rafa backers claim his 14 French Open titles are the equal to any sports record in the book.
Rafa began 2022 by winning the Australian Open and two other tourneys, and reeled off 20 straight wins. Now what’s reeling is his fate. Thirty-six is a cruel age for a clay court grinder. And after his record stint of being in the top ten for 17 years, 10 months and 23 days, his ranking has fallen to No. 14.
Of course, Roland Garros is everything to this man. There, it’s said, his game picks up by 30%. He explodes into his shots, his anticipation is uncanny, his slide is severe, his nerve never wavers. His glares are fiercer, he struts with a hint of arrogance. The man mesmerizes us. His power is a poem.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, who soared so high in the 2021 final, but faltered, confessed that while playing Nadal he “felt empty in the brain.” Casper Ruud remembers his loss in last year’s final: “Rafa on clay made me feel clueless…and chanceless. It was a one-way show. Every point was being thrown at you with an incredible topspin. Rafa locks you in one corner.”
Mary Carillo once asked, “Have you ever seen anyone who has the [same] sense of recognition of the rhythms of a clay court?” Carillo’s advice to Rafa’s foes was simple: “Hit all your shots on the lines.”
But once again, Rafa’s body is in rebellion and there might just be one foe he can’t beat on clay – father time.