Rafael Nadal starts Madrid Open by confronting never playing Roland Garros again

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Rafael Nadal starts Madrid Open by confronting never playing Roland Garros again

CAJA MAGICA, Madrid — The day before Rafael Nadal’s next tennis match, in a season that has become both a farewell tour and a battle to stage a last run at the French Open, the Spanish champion said he would not take the court at Roland Garros if he feels the same way in a month as he does right now.

For anyone who watched the 14-time French Open champion play last week in Barcelona, that was a sobering thought.

Nadal showed he had plenty of room for improvement in two matches in Barcelona, especially when he served. But there were also flashes of the trademark Nadal brilliance and improvisation: the grit, the fight, the raw power, even off his back heel and in other positions where no player has any business generating power. And it got the tennis world thinking that Nadal, even with his junk knees, his chronically damaged foot, his surgically repaired and reinjured hip region, and his sore abdominal musculature, still might have a last Roland Garros hurrah within him. 

And then came a Wednesday news conference in the Spanish capital, ahead of his opening round match against a 16-year-old American wildcard named Darwin Blanch. 

“If I arrive in Paris the way I feel today, I will not play,” Nadal said inside a packed room at the Caja Magica during the Spanish portion of his news conference. “I will play Roland Garros if I feel competitive. If I can play, I play. If I can’t play, I can’t. It won’t be the end of the world or the end of my career. I’ve still got goals after Roland Garros, like the Olympics.”

A few minutes later, Nadal was asked if he had a different goal for this tournament than he did at the Barcelona Open last week, which he seemed to be used as an information-gathering mission after three months without playing competitive matches. There, he relented when he went down a set and a break in his second match, against Alex de Minaur of Australia, playing within himself in the hope that later, somewhere, he would be able to play outside himself.

“The goal is to be on court and enjoy as long as possible,” he said. “Try to finish the tournament alive in terms of body issues and enjoy the fact that I will be able to compete one more time, and at home in Madrid.”

The thought of getting on a roll and finding a way to last deep into this tournament is not on his mind.



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For two decades, through injuries and losses, no one could accuse Nadal of lacking desperation to win every time he steps onto a tennis court. His competitive fire has been his hallmark as much as his bullwhip forehand. 

But what it means to compete has become a complicated business. He has played just five tour matches since suffering tears around his left hip at the Australian Open in 2023, which required career-threatening surgery five months later.

When athletes talk about competing, they are often talking about their state of mind, about having the will and concentration to stay in the fight.

For Nadal, competing also means being able to let his body go with a freedom that allows him to take it over an edge without fearing the consequences and while feeling little pain. Before, it was about winning. Now, it is about surviving.

Therein lies the Catch-22 that rules his life at this moment.

He still wants to be the guy who wins a tournament one day and heads to the airport on crutches the next. But there is a difference between beating up a body from somewhere close to its peak and kicking it while it is already down. At nearly 38 years old, two decades into the most taxing and physical of tennis careers, his body is telling him that what he wants may no longer be possible. 

What does it mean for the Rafael Nadal of today to “compete”, if it doesn’t mean matching up to the standards of the Rafael Nadal of the last two decades — the one that he, and the watching world, are seeing and remembering at the same time?

If competing doesn’t mean matching up, is there any other reason for the Rafael Nadal of today to walk onto a tennis court?



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The Spaniard insists that reasons remain.

A few weeks ago, he was not sure whether he would ever be able to play another professional tennis match. He did it twice last week. He will do it again on Thursday. 

He’s back in his element, hitting balls with the best players in the world — and sometimes he even feels like their equal. He’s far from perfect, he knows, but he can still enjoy the game. From an emotional standpoint, he said, it’s very important that he be on court Thursday — that he say goodbye there, rather than in a social media post.

And then, beyond all that stuff, or maybe ahead of it, is the other thing: that possibility, however remote, of the lightning strike, of waking up one morning, preferably before the last week in May, and feeling, well, fine.

If that somehow happens, he needs to be ready for it. 

“Things can change very quick,” he said, as he often does about this sport and most others.

He’s not going to be ready to capitalize on that change from his yacht in Mallorca. The only thing he knows to do is to put himself in the best possible position should the miracle arrive. 

“I am here giving myself a chance,” he said. 

And who can blame him for that?

(Top photo: Jose Oliva/Europa Press via Getty Images)