By Giri Nathan
Clay is in full swing, but its king is nowhere to be found. Rafa Nadal hasn’t played a match since suffering a hip injury at the Australian Open. He offered a not-so-sunny update on his condition in a video on Thursday. “The reality is that the situation is not what we would have expected,” he said. Recovery for his injured psoas muscle was initially projected to take six to eight weeks; this marks week 14. “I was training, but now a few days ago we decided to change course a bit, do another treatment and see if things improve to try to get to what comes next,” he said, admitting that he couldn’t offer a specific timeline: “This is how things are now.”
Despite returning to the practice courts, Rafa withdrew from Monte-Carlo and Barcelona earlier this month. On Thursday, he also ruled out playing in Madrid, which will begin next week. These are tournaments he has won 11, 12, and 5 times, respectively; they are staple foods. That means his next possible return will be Rome, though after an update this grim and ambiguous, it’s hard to see that happening. And after Rome comes Roland-Garros, the most important fortnight of his year, every year, his happy place 14 times over.
For Rafa the European clay season is a steady accumulation of form and resolve, a series of familiar pit stops en route to an inevitable destination: biting into the Coupe des Mousquetaires on the dirt of Chatrier. If Nadal does return to his favorite courts in 2023, he will be doing it without that gradual ramp-up. That doesn’t rule him out as a contender at the big event; I would sooner rule out the sun rising tomorrow. In his late career, Nadal has found ways to conquer Roland-Garros despite minimal match reps on clay. In 2022, due to a stress fracture in a rib, he’d played only Madrid and Rome, winning three matches. In navigating the pandemic-skewed schedule, he’d played only in Rome, winning two matches. Both times he wound up with a French Open title, and both times he had to beat Novak Djokovic along the way.
Nadal will be tethered to this tournament for as long as tennis exists. Once he found it, he never quit it. Curiously, young Rafa played in the main draw of the U.S. Open (twice), the Australian Open (twice), and Wimbledon (once) before playing his first main-draw match at Roland-Garros. It would’ve happened in his breakout 2004 season, but a stress-fractured ankle sidelined him for much of that spring. So Rafa’s debut had to wait until 2005—a title run, naturally. Since then, Nadal has missed every other major tournament at least once, for a total of nine absences. But he has been there every year in Paris, no matter what, amassing the 112–3 lifetime record that holds up to any achievement in the history of sports. But a lot has changed since 2005, even beyond the long locks and capris. His ranking, for example. Nadal’s present injury left him unable to defend points earned in last season’s outstanding hard-court run, and in March he finally exited the top 10, which he’d first entered in April 2005.
Let that sink in: Despite all the injury woes, Rafa was about to close in on 18 consecutive years of being one of the top 10 tennis players in the world. Not a single lapse in that time. Not a French Open missed in that time. It will be hard to envision the tournament going on in his absence. Hopefully we won’t have to at all, though that depends on the success of this new line of treatment. “Un abrazo muy fuerte a todos,” he offered his fans.
Above: Rafa in agony during his second round loss at the Australian Open, the last time he played this year. (Getty)