Trouble in Paradise – Rafa Withdraws

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Bill Simons

FAREWELL SENOR NADAL: Three tennis legends were slated to play in Indian Wells within 28 hours. This afternoon, Andy Murray downed the once considerable Belgian, David Goffin, in straight sets. For once, he didn’t have to play a marathon to prevail. Well done, Sir Andrew! 

This evening, the iconic Venus Williams was supposed to play the Japanese qualifier Nao Hibino. But then (“It never rains in Southern California”), precipitation soaked the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and the match was delayed. 

Then Rafa rained on everyone’s parade. He withdrew.

Never mind that he brought a massive cast from Spain, including his tennis support team, media members, his family and 17-month-old son, the adorable, scene-stealing Rafa, Jr. Never mind that Nadal had come early to the desert and was staying at the sprawling, golf-happy estate of his pal Larry Ellison, who owns the BNP Paribas Open. And never mind that after fighting hard but falling short to Carlos Alcaraz in Las Vegas at a Netflix exhibition, the expectations of his rabid fan base were soaring.

But to Rafa-lovers, for now, all is lost. The great man with his great muscles and unwavering fighting instincts was yet again betrayed by his body.  

In a brief statement he expressed his sorrow and his love of Indian Wells, but didn’t really explain why he pulled out. Insiders in Las Vegas claimed he hurt himself during the Netflix exhibition, but Spaniard David Ferrer suggested he tweaked his back while practicing in Indian Wells.

Tennis buffs know that Indian Wells has a long history of gut-wrenching withdrawals. Upstart Nick Kyrgios pulled out of a much anticipated high-noon shoot-out against Roger Federer in 2017. And then there was the most controversial withdrawal since the days of Helen Wills Moody, when, in 2001, Venus Williams withdrew from her semifinal match against her sister Serena. 

Most observers didn’t give rusty Rafa, who’d played just one tourney since the 2023 Australian Open, much of a chance to make a deep run here. For starters, he would have had to down the former Wimbledon finalist, Milos Raonic, before facing the No. 7 seed, young Holger Rune.

Last spring, when it became apparent that Nadal would not be playing the French Open, a headline in France’s sports newspaper L’Equipe announced that Roland Garros was like “a land without its king.” Now the BNP Paribas was without its prince, who three times had claimed the crown.

Tonight in Indian Wells, fans are in shock as they mourn the loss of the tournament’s most appealing player. Shaking their heads, many wonder if the last match Rafa ever plays in America will have been a Vegas exhibition. 

Surely the king of clay and 14-time Roland Garros champ is yearning to play the French Open. And the two-time Olympic gold medalist will certainly want to play the Olympics in Paris in August. But will his so magnificent yet often fragile body allow him to do so?

YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: You know you’re in Southern California when a young reporter walks by and says derisively, “So that’s what a wet tennis court looks like!” 

GO FIGURE: Coco Gauff is on the cover of Vogue magazine…The Ukrainian flag is no longer flying atop Stadium 1.

WOMEN LIKE TO SHARE: When asked why so many different women are winning titles this year, Ons Jabeur replied, “We are women – we like to share.”

PANDA EXPRESS SNUBBED: Australian Open champion Quiwen Zheng is based in Barcelona, and rarely goes back to her Chinese homeland. When Inside Tennis asked her what she misses the most about China, she replied, “The food.” She then noted that there are few good Chinese restaurants in Palm Springs, and lots in New York City. But, oh my, she didn’t mention Panda Express once.

NOT-SO-SHY SHAI OSAKA: People sometimes laugh that Naomi Osaka, who’s known for her sometimes consuming shyness, chose to name her daughter Shai. And by the way, Shai, at 8 months, is not shy. She’s quite an extrovert. 

WHICH WAY, SAUDI ARABIA? The debate over Saudi Arabia’s greater involvement in tennis continues. In the press room, critics whispered about recent mass executions, how there is no real legal system in Saudi Arabia, and how, when there are judgements, they can be harsh and arbitrary, even for truly minor transgressions, like retweeting Twitter posts. 

As best we can tell, there are no dissidents in Saudi Arabia, and, may we note, the last prominent one was dismembered. 

Plus, women there are many jobs that women can’t hold and they can’t leave the country without the backing of a male relative. Some claim that not much progress has been made. Also, according to sources, there was significant criticism in Spain when Rafa Nadal became an ambassador for Saudi Arabia.

Here in Indian Wells, some have taken note of a large, sophisticated booth on site that promotes the Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, the PIF, that’s headed by the kingdom’s controversial leader, Mohammed bin Salman, and that, with its incredibly deep, oil-enriched coffers, has been at the forefront of the Saudi’s unceasing sports washing campaigns in golf, soccer, Formula 1, boxing and horse racing. 

One advocate for tennis’ involvement with Saudi Arabia has been Tunisian Ons Jabeur, the three-time Slam finalist who was the first Arab to break into the top ten.

Today she told the media, “I think I’m the first player who would be supportive of going to Saudi. The country is evolving. I know that other people have a different opinion, which is normal, but I’ve been there a couple of times and I’ve seen how amazing people are, how women are getting more and more rights.

“As a female tennis player, I feel it’s time to go there, it’s time to give the opportunity to women who dream of being tennis players.”

CALIFORNIA UPSETS IN INDIAN WELLS: Wildcard Katie Volynets, 22, upset No. 38 Mirra Andreeva, 16, in the first round, 7-5, 7-5, for the Northern Californian’s first Top 40 win of the season. The No. 131 Volynets will face No. 6 Ons Jabeur in the second round. 

San Diego’s Brandon Nakashima scored a 6-3, 7-6(3) upset over countryman Christopher Eubanks. “Just walking onto this court is super special for me,” said the 22-year-old Nakashima, No. 93. “Playing a guy like Chris, who has a big game, big serve, I knew I just had to do my best to hold my serve and knew I was going to get opportunities on his serve.” Next up for Nakashima is a second-round meeting with 32nd seed Jiri Lehecka.

Former UCLA star Marcos Giron fell in his first round to Thansai Kokkinakis, 6-3, 7-5.

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