We are now coming up to the finale of the clay court swing at Roland Garros, the French Open.
The holder, Rafael Nadal, has won this tournament an extraordinary 14 times. Alas, the “King of Clay” is injured and won’t be competing this year. Neither will Roger Federer, having retired from the game last September. It will be the first time since 1998 that neither of these monumental players will be gracing the “red dirt” in Paris.
After a career spanning 22 years, multiple injuries have taken their toll. Nadal has stated that he will finally, at the age of 36, be calling it a day at the end of next season.
Just to name a few, those injuries include:
left shoulder injury; scaphoid stress fracture; tendinitis; abdominal rupture; muscle tears; chronic knee problems; wrist inflammation; and the latest — a hip injury. He won last year’s French Open on virtually one leg, only managing to get through the tournament by receiving multiple foot injections to numb the pain. Is he even going to be able to walk when he hits 50?
This catalogue of injuries is mostly due to his playing style, above all his dogged determination to get to every single ball. Some of his rallies on clay seem almost endless and the heavy topspin forehands have taken their toll. And that determination extends the already lengthy exchanges. He also stands way, way back to receive serve, so he has even more court to cover than most players.
Nadal’s stats are pretty mind-boggling. He was world no. 1 for 209 weeks. He holds the joint record for Grand Slam wins with Novak Djokovic at 22. Clay may be his favourite surface, but he has also won all the other Slams, as well as an Olympic gold. Normally a baseline slogger, he was able to adapt his style to win Wimbledon in 2008, a mere fortnight after his Paris triumph, taking the ball far earlier, shortening his backswing and making frequent forays forward to deal with the slick grass. The two surfaces require totally different techniques and it’s seen by tennis professionals as a huge accomplishment to win the “Channel Slam”.
And on top of all this, Nadal is a thoroughly decent man, humble despite all the success. Unlike Djokovic, for example, he never shouts at ballboys or girls to do their job better or scream at his box.
Out of the “Big Three”, Roger Federer is the suave one. He is a clothes horse – his good friend Anna Wintour is keen to get him into fashion and he also has his eye on acting. I can imagine Novak Djokovic getting into politics after he retires. Judging by his massive popularity in Serbia, his home country, he could go far. These two will also, no doubt, bag lucrative commentating deals. By contrast, Rafael Nadal will probably go back to fishing with his mates in Mallorca.
Out of that Big Three, only Novak Djokovic remains and at the age of 36 yrs, it can’t be very long before he also retires.
Most of the other top players lack the magnetism of these tennis giants and the game will be the poorer for it. The young Spaniard, Carlos Alcaraz, seems the only player capable of plugging the hole, with his explosive game, his charisma, good humour and great temperament.
In the meantime, Nadal hopes to play as many tournaments next season as his body will allow. It promises to be a series of fond farewells. Rafael Nadal — aka Rafa, El niño, El matador, the raging bull — will be sorely missed.
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