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Even as He’s Out, Rafael Nadal Will Always Be a Part of the French Open

In case, in this distracted era, you only have time to read the first paragraph on your phone, here is the essential from Rafael Nadal: No French Open this year for the first time since 2004; no retirement just yet.

But there is, of course, much more to Nadal’s story, particularly at Roland Garros, the Grand Slam tournament he has dominated like no player has dominated any tennis major.

His 14 singles titles still look like a typo even for those like me who have watched him build that probably unbreakable record, red brick by red brick.

“When you play Roland Garros 14 times you tell yourself you had a good career,” the French veteran Nicolas Mahut said in an interview with L’Équipe. “When you win 14 matches there, that’s not too bad at all. When you get to the second week 14 times you are one of the great players. And when you win the title 14 times, there is no way to comprehend that. There are no words.”

Though Nadal is Spanish, even the French Open organizers buckled under the weight of all the hardware and erected a shimmering, larger-than-life statue of Nadal just inside the main entrance of the tournament grounds.

His reign in Paris — full of flexed biceps, forehand winners and underrated court craft — is one of the great achievements in any sport, and though a 15th title is a long shot at this late stage, all we know for certain is that Nadal will not be winning it this year.

He announced his withdrawal from this year’s French Open at a news conference on Thursday in his home city of Manacor at his eponymous academy: another monument to his tennis excellence.

Dressed in jeans and a white, short-sleeved shirt, Nadal, who will turn 37 on June 3, explained calmly and at length that he had lost his latest race against time: failing to recover sufficiently from a core muscle injury he suffered in January at the Australian Open to play.

“It’s not a decision that I made, it’s a decision that my body made,” he said.

Nadal, still interested in playing only when he has a chance to win, will stop practicing through the pain for an extended period, likely several months. He did not rule out returning to competition later in 2023 — mentioning the Davis Cup Finals that will be held in Malaga, Spain, in November — but above all he is aiming to return for what he said was “probably” going to be his final season in 2024.

“I don’t want to put myself in a position to say one thing and then do another thing, but my goal and my ambition is to try to stop to give myself an opportunity to enjoy next year,” he said, sighing audibly midsentence as if he was fighting himself to talk about the finish line.

John McEnroe, a more combustible tennis champion, used news conferences as therapy, working through his issues and setbacks via the question-and-answer game. Nadal, left eyebrow arching, did some of the same on Thursday and did it, unlike McEnroe, in Spanish, English and Mallorcan, the dialect of Nadal’s home island and the lingua franca of the Nadal family.

Whatever the language, the message was the same: Nadal has had enough of gritting his teeth through practice sessions but he craves a happier ending.

There are no guarantees considering that his body has been failing him at an accelerating rate. Oft-injured even in his youth, he is breaking down in new places in his tennis dotage: a fractured rib and abdominal injury in 2022 and the hip injury in 2023, sustained midmatch in his straight-set defeats to Mackenzie McDonald in the second round in Australia.

Perhaps Nadal should not have played through that pain, but he is as gritty as the red clay that suits his game best. And even if newly married and a new father with a fancy yacht and an impressive golf handicap, he is not yet ready to join Roger Federer, his friend and former archrival, in gilded retirement.

“I think I don’t deserve to finish like this, in a press conference,” Nadal said. “I want a different ending and I am going to do my best to make that happen.”

He added: “I don’t know if I can be competitive to win a Grand Slam. I’m not an irrational person. I am aware of the difficulty of the situation. But I’m not a negative person either. I want to give myself the opportunity to come back and compete.”

Farewell tours have their own perils. Stefan Edberg, the former world No. 1 and six-time Grand Slam singles champion from Sweden, announced well in advance that 1996 would be his final season and ended up regretting it, worn out by the post-match ceremonies and glad-handing. When Edberg coached Federer, he advised him to keep it shorter to make it sweeter, and Federer listened: bowing out at age 41 last September on short notice by playing doubles with Nadal at the Laver Cup team event in London.

It was a poignant scene that packed quite a punch with both champions — and plenty of observers — in tears as Federer called it a career. Most other tennis greats — from Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to Steffi Graf and Serena Williams — have kept their goodbyes compact. In Sampras’s case, he avoided the farewell tour altogether, and won his final tournament, the 2002 U.S. Open.

But Nadal is certainly accustomed to bearing the weight of others’ expectations and to politely handling the limelight. He has been a star at home since helping Spain beat the United States to win the Davis Cup at age 18 in 2004 and has been a global star since winning the French Open at age 19 in 2005, his debut in the field.

He would likely have won Roland Garros even earlier if he had not been forced to miss the event in 2003 and 2004 because of injuries. But despite all the physical challenges he has faced, he managed to play his signature tournament 18 years in a row, retiring mid-tournament just once in 2016 because of a wrist injury.

He has become as much a part of the Roland Garros landscape as the red clay beneath everyone’s feet, but it will be someone else’s domain this spring.

Novak Djokovic, who turns 36 on Monday, is the only player to beat Nadal twice at the French Open and remains tied with Nadal for the men’s record with 22 Grand Slam singles titles. But though Djokovic is built to last with his elastic limbs and centenarian’s diet, he has been struggling with elbow pain and has looked far from irresistible on clay this season.

The younger set looks like the slightly better bet. Carlos Alcaraz, 20, is back at No. 1 and already a Grand Slam champion after winning last year’s U.S. Open. Holger Rune, 20 as well, beat Djokovic in Rome this week and has elastic limbs of his own. You can add Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud, Jannik Sinner or even Daniil Medvedev, formerly allergic to clay, to the short list without ruling out a bigger surprise.

Nadal, absent from the draw for the first time nearly two decades, said he won’t watch it all from afar, but he will be keeping tabs.

Last year, he drew some criticism from pro-Djokovic quarters for emphasizing that no tournament is bigger than any single player when Djokovic missed the 2022 Australian Open after arriving in Melbourne unvaccinated for the coronavirus and was deported.

“The Australian Open will be great Australian Open with or without him,” Nadal said before winning it himself.

But he was clearly eager to be consistent on Thursday.

“My speech is not going to change,” he said. “Roland Garros will be always Roland Garros with or without me without a doubt.”

He continued: “Players stay for a while, and they leave. Tournaments stay forever.”

That is true and will seem truer still when some other man with red-stained socks is crowned champion next month in Paris. But there can also be no doubt that Nadal and Roland Garros will be linked as long as there is a Roland Garros.

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