Rafael Nadal falls apart on clay just in time for the French Open

Rafael Nadal falls apart on clay just in time for the French Open

ROM – Fast and dominant in the first set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was the polar opposite at Thursday night’s Italian Open.

Late for the ball. Limping between the points. Grimacing and flinching even when making changes. His distress was so visible as the double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the final set that even the Canadian fans perched high in the Center Court stands gave sympathetic applause for Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov crowned his win gave touches. 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the round of 16.

Shapovalov, a resilient and explosive left-hander in 16th, has the tools to put even a healthy Nadal in trouble. He beat him in their first match in 2017 when Shapovalov was just a teenager and should have beat him in the round of 16 at the Italian Open last year when he failed to convert two match points. He also took Nadal to five sets at this year’s Australian Open.

But this was far from a healthy Nadal as his chronic left foot problem known as Müller-Weiss disease resurfaced on his favorite surface. With the French Open looming, his mood afterwards was as downcast and thoughtful as I can remember in almost 20 years of his career.

“I imagine there will come a time when my head will say ‘enough’,” said Nadal, a 10-time Italian Open champion, in Spanish, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “Pain takes away your happiness, not just in tennis but in life. And my problem is that I live with too much pain for many days.”

Nadal said he also had to live with “taking a ton of anti-inflammatories daily to give me the ability to exercise”.

“This is my reality,” he said. “And there were many days, like today, when the moment came when I couldn’t.”

He ended Thursday with 34 unforced errors and just 13 winners, and the question now is whether the most successful clay-court in history can even play at the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament he has won a record 13 times.

“I will keep dreaming of this goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The negative is that today it is not possible for me to play, but maybe in two days it will be better. That’s the thing about what I have on my foot.”

The French Open begins in nine days on May 22, although Nadal may not have to play until May 24 as the French Open, which starts on a Sunday, hosts its first round over three days.

Although Nadal, who turns 36 next month, has often shown amazing fighting spirit and recovery powers, this spring in Paris will be a challenge like no other for him.

“It’s definitely hard to see him there in pain at the end; I never want to see that, especially with a great legend like Rafa,” said Shapovalov, who still needed to show brave tennis and big serves to win on Thursday. “Hopefully he’s fine. He brings so much to our sport. Hopefully he is fit and ready for the French.”

The only time Nadal triumphed at Roland Garros without winning a clay-court tournament earlier in the year was in 2020, the season curtailed by the pandemic, when the start of the French Open was pushed back to October and almost the entire clay-court season was cancelled.

This year the schedule was back to normal but not for Nadal. After a stellar start to the season with 20 straight wins and a record 21st Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, his clay court campaign was delayed by a stress fracture in his ribs that prevented him from competing or normal for six weeks to train .

He returned for the Madrid Open this month and was upset by 19-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in the quarter-finals and has now endured his earliest defeat at the Italian Open since 2008 when Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former No. 1, is now Alcaraz’ coach, surprised Nadal in the round of 16.

Nadal still won the 2008 French Open and overpowered his arch-rival Roger Federer in the final, but Nadal had already won the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg that year.

He’s been missing games and wins on clay this season, while established threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas and new ones like Alcaraz have a firmer footing.

“Ultimately, even the greatest players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stine, the veteran American coach who now works with Tommy Paul. “It comes to this point for Rafa. What he did in Australia was beyond extraordinary but I think we’ve seen the collateral damage of his great start to the season. When he’s healthy he’s still a favorite week in week out but this is a big one. ‘When the body collapses’ is not in Kipling’s poem.”

This is a reference to “If”, an excerpt of which hangs at the players’ entrance to Center Court at Wimbledon.

After 15 years in which Nadal has almost always triumphed over adversity and the opposition at Roland Garros, it’s difficult to imagine that he really won’t find a way to present a challenge.

“I will fight for it,” he said grimly. “I will continue to believe in this week and a half.”

It’s clear that he shouldn’t be the favorite for a change. “No way,” said Mark Petchey, the veteran trainer and analyst. “Lots of favorites and players with real chances of winning.”

His longer list includes defending champion Djokovic; last year’s other finalist, Tsitsipas; Alcaráz; Alexander Zverev; Casper Ruud; and the young Italian Jannik Sinner.

Nadal has played just five games on clay since losing to Djokovic in a four-set semi-final in Paris last June, losing two of them.

Seeing him fight and then finally limping on Thursday was a reminder that nothing lasts forever, not even Nadal on the surface he has made his own.

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