ราฟาเอล นาดาล: เหตุใดการที่ชาวสเปนหายไปจากเฟรนช์ โอเพ่น จึงเป็นเรื่องยากที่จะจินตนาการได้ แม้ว่าตอนนี้มันกำลังเกิดขึ้นก็ตาม
No matter how many times you repeat to yourself ‘Rafael Nadal is missing the French Open’, it still seems almost impossible.
The Spaniard who is synonymous with Roland Garros, the red clay and the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy that he has lifted a record 14 times will not be there when this year’s edition starts on 28 May because he is not fit enough following a hip injury.
Even the fact it is a physical issue that is keeping him out is almost inconceivable when you consider he won the title last year with a completely left numb foot because of multiple pain-killing injections.
In announcing on Thursday that he would be missing his favourite event for the first time in 19 years, he also signalled his intention to retire at the end of the 2024 season.
His plan to take some time out of the game now – he was not sure if it would be two months, four months, whatever – is aimed at ensuring he is in the best shape for a final year of ‘goodbyes’ at the most important tournaments for him.
Top of that list will be the clay-court Grand Slam, which he – in contrast to many of his fans – described as “Roland Garros with or without me”.
“Players stay for a while and they leave, tournaments stay for ever,” he told a news conference on Thursday.
But when asked a few weeks ago what a French Open without Nadal would look like, tournament director Amelie Mauresmo said it would be “hard” to imagine.
“He’s so much part of the history of the tournament for the last almost 20 years – it would be sad,” she said.
Never mind imagining it, we are now living it.
So, what does Nadal’s absence mean for the French Open and beyond?
A year to plan a retirement party for French Open’s greatest player
A statue of Nadal was unveiled at Roland Garros in 2021 but organisers have since admitted that even that will not be enough of a tribute to the tournament’s greatest player when he eventually retires.
They will now have a year to plan his send-off, while Nadal himself would like nothing better to celebrate with a 15th title to bookend an extraordinary career.
He won the French Open title on his first appearance there in 2005, going on to triumph another 13 times in the following 17 years.
No player has won as many singles titles at one major tournament as the left-hander has at Roland Garros.
Known as the ‘King of Clay’, Nadal has won 112 of his 115 matches at the French Open.
Nadal’s first loss there was a shock fourth-round defeat by Sweden’s Robin Soderling in 2009, before quarter-final losses to Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in 2015 and 2021.
Last year, two days after his 36th birthday, Nadal reclaimed the title by beating Norway’s Casper Ruud in the final to become the oldest French Open men’s singles champion.
Could he yet extend that record?
Who are this year’s French Open favourites now?
While it would never have been wise to discount him on the Parisian clay, Nadal was not considered a red-hot favourite for the title this year after four months off the tour since January’s Australian Open.
But for anyone who has watched him fight through the pain on so many occasions – including memorably in a five-set win in last year’s Wimbledon quarter-finals with an abdominal issue that severely restricted his movement – there had still been hope until now.
A 15th victory here would have given him a record 23rd men’s Grand Slam singles title but instead Djokovic will get the chance to reach that mark.
However, Djokovic has been in patchy form on clay, with earlier-than-expected exits in Monte Carlo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and, most recently, in Rome on Wednesday, while he also missed the Madrid tournament through injury.
Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz will take over from Djokovic as world number one on Monday and back-to-back titles in Madrid and Barcelona underlined his French Open credentials, but his own preparations suffered a setback with a shock last-32 defeat by Hungarian qualifier Fabian Marozsan at the Italian Open.
It leaves arguably the most open draw in the men’s singles at Roland Garros since the ‘King of Clay’ began his reign.
‘New generation is here’ as second of ‘big three’ prepares to retire
Since Swiss great Roger Federer called time on his career last year, there have been the inevitable questions about when Nadal might follow his long-time rival into retirement.
The ‘big three’ of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated men’s tennis for nearly two decades but slowly things have been changing.
There have been new men’s champions at Grand Slams in the past three years, although Nadal and Djokovic have still won 16 of the past 19 majors.
This year’s Italian Open final will for the first time since 2004 feature neither Djokovic nor Nadal, with the Serb declaring on Wednesday that the “shift of generations” has finally come.
“A new generation is here already,” Djokovic told reporters after his Italian Open quarter-final defeat by 20-year-old Danish seventh seed Holger Rune.
“Alcaraz is number one in the world from Monday, obviously he’s playing amazing tennis. I think it’s also good for our sport that we have new faces, new guys coming up.
“I’m personally still trying to hang in there with all of them. I still have the hunger to keep going. Let’s see how far I’m going to play.”
Alcaraz wrote on social media that it was “painful and sad for everyone” that Nadal would not be there this year.
But if you thought it was hard enough to imagine a French Open without him, try imagining anyone ever matching his French Open records.