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The French Open’s unrivaled Rafa Nadal legacy and what it would be like without him

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With his incredible record of 112 victories (the highest by any men’s player in a single major in the Open Era) and 14 of the last 18 French Open titles, he has long held the venue in the palm of his hand. The customary elements of the Nadal experience in Paris will next commence, including the trumpet fanfare greeting him to the showcase court, the raising of Spanish flags in the spectators, and the never-ending choruses of “Bella Ciao.”

This year, the drums will continue to beat, Nadal t-shirts and caps will be worn, and stories will be told, but the main character won’t be there because he withdrew on May 18.

His second home has been Roland Garros. Nadal has a number of other astounding stats from that region of Paris, in addition to his 97% winning percentage at the competition. He won 112 matches, 90 of them in straight sets, and won the 2008, 2010, 2017, and 2020 championships without losing a set. He has 39 more victories there than Roger Federer and 27 more than Novak Djokovic combined.

Even the opponents he defeats cherish the memories.

“I hope to be able to tell my grandchildren someday that I defeated Rafa on Chatrier in the championship, and they’ll probably reply, “Wow, did you?” Casper Ruud, who lost to Nadal in the singles final last year in straight sets, made this statement. I’ll respond, “Yes.”

A Roland Garros sans Nadal lacks the traditional reference point for both enthusiasts and casual spectators, so watching this event unfold will feel a little hollow. In Paris the previous year, Billie Jean King stated of Nadal, “I never want him to stop.”

The upcoming departure has already been felt in the area. Rumors that Nadal would declare his retirement after the match began to circulate on the day of the final versus Ruud from a year ago. It seemed plausible. It would have been the ideal finish to his illustrious career as he stood in the middle of the court holding the La Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Instead of retirement, his address focused on resiliency and perseverance.

Later, he described the discomfort he had endured while playing. He had Muller-Weiss syndrome, a rare illness that results in constant pain in the left foot. He brought his physician, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, to the competition, who would inject a nerve to numb the foot to enable him to play. Later, the physician called it a “miracle” that Nadal had overcome his injury to win.

Since then, his body hasn’t stopped failing him. During Wimbledon, he tore his abdominal muscle, forcing him to withdraw from his matchup with Nick Kyrgios in the semifinals. He hit himself in the face with his own racket at the US Open, bleeding his nose, and subsequently fell to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round. The abdominal injuries had not yet healed completely.

He briefly partnered with Federer in the Laver Cup before losing to Alex De Minaur in the United Cup to start the new year. He subsequently lost to Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open while suffering a left hip flexor injury.

He stated, “I hope it’s not serious because I’m already worn out and frustrated from spending so much of my career recovering from injuries.” Since then, there have been very few confirmed sightings of Rafael Nadal on a court at full speed, despite the occasional glimpse of him training on his Instagram page. That was his last competitive match.

After skipping the start of the clay-court season, Nadal made a candid comment on April 20 that cast considerable doubt on his ability to compete at Roland Garros. It came in the form of a dejected video that was posted on his social media sites and described his troubles as he withdrew from the Madrid Open. “I’m sorry, but I’m unable to provide timeframes; if I did, I would inform you. This is the current situation.

On May 18, the confirmation arrived. Nadal spoke to a small number of reporters present in the room and thousands more watching the live video on YouTube from his academy in Mallorca. Without providing a timetable for his recovery, he announced that he would not be competing at Wimbledon and the French Open. He added that 2024 would probably be his final year of touring.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back in the highest level and compete for Grand Slams,” Nadal admitted. What I’ll aim to do is give myself the chance to compete at my best in what may be my last year of doing so.

His competitors took note. “Very painful and sad for everyone that you can’t be at Roland Garros or play more this year,” Alcaraz wrote in a tweet. “But I hope that 2024 will be a great season for you and that you can say goodbye like the great champion you are!”

When describing Nadal’s dominance, Daniil Medvedev said, “Even if he wouldn’t be 100% physically, but decided to play, he’d be a favorite.”

In 2005, Nadal made his French Open debut and won the championship. He has participated every year for the past nearly twenty years. A replacement for Nadal to rule Alcaraz’s clay courts will have to be chosen by the fans.

If healthy, Alcaraz and Djokovic will be the favorites. In what is expected to be the most competitive event since Nadal began his reign, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jannik Sinner, Ruud, and Holger Rune will also fancy their chances.

The post-GOAT era has already begun in men’s tennis. While Djokovic and Nadal were attempting to recover from their respective illnesses at the beginning of May, their former sparring rival Federer was relishing retirement. The Miami Grand Prix was his next stop after the Met Gala, and it was there that he clearly described the significance of Nadal’s absence at Roland Garros. Rafa not being present would be “brutal, it would be tough for tennis,” Federer remarked.

Nadal will return if the body allows him one more chance to win Roland Garros. But the struggle is getting harder and harder. A pledge he made after his 2022 final was to “keep fighting to try to keep going.” The concept of the fight has always been present in Nadal’s speech, and it was reiterated during the news conference in Mallorca.

Nadal stated in May that “Tournaments stay forever, players play and leave.” “With or without me, Roland Garros will remain Roland Garros. The competition will remain the best competition on clay. Tournament participants arrive and depart.”

The French Open’s administrators will have a difficult time honoring Nadal when he inevitably departs. He has dominated the tournament for close to 20 years. Does he have a new statue installed?

A three-meter-tall statue of Nadal was inaugurated in May 2021 close to the Jardin des Mousquetaires as a lasting memorial to the player who has distinguished himself beyond the realm of clay-court tennis. It’s uncommon to make such a gesture to an athlete while they are still dripping sweat a few meters away.

But it was the first step toward acknowledging his legacy and getting ready for life without Nadal in that region of Paris. What will they do next to recognize his influence on the competition? Nothing is off the table, even if they are unlikely to rename one of the current top courts, and the trophy is already named for the French “four musketeers” who dominated men’s tennis in the late 1920s.

Although they hope they won’t have to make that decision just yet, it appears to be coming up soon. This year will provide a glimpse of the uncertain post-Nadal world.

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