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Stage is set for emotional 'au revoir'

Nadal fights to be fit for final fling at French Open, as injury cloud looms over Djokovic, Sinner and Alcaraz

Updated: 2024-05-24 09:26
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Spain's Rafael Nadal speaks with his coach Carlos Moya during a practice session on Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros in Paris on Tuesday, ahead of the French Open which starts on Sunday. AFP

Rafael Nadal will bring down the curtain on his 19-year French Open career with the likelihood of adding to his 14 titles greatly diminished, before he leaves behind a record and reputation unlikely to ever be matched.

The Spanish great, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, won his first title at Roland Garros in 2005 as a teenager. A week on Monday, he will celebrate his 38th birthday.

A former world No 1, who is now at 276 in the world, Nadal has only played 15 matches since January last year, as a hip injury and then a muscle tear were added to a depressing history of physical ailments which have forced him to miss 12 Grand Slam tournaments in his career.

His fans are hoping the 2024 French Open doesn't become unlucky No 13, and they will have been eagerly awaiting the draw for the event, which took place on Thursday.

"I'm going to play the tournament thinking that I can give my all, 100 percent," explained Nadal after a second round exit in Rome last week.

"And if 100 percent is not enough to win a match, I'll accept that. But I don't want to step onto the court knowing that I have no chance. If there's a 0.01 percent chance, I want to explore that and give it a go."

As well as 14 titles in Paris, Nadal can boast a record of 112 wins and just three losses, two of which came against career-long rival Novak Djokovic.

He is also held in remarkably high esteem.

At his first training session on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros on Monday, an estimated 6,000 people turned up to watch, many of whom chanted his name.

"We have to enjoy the time he has left on court, evaluate it, and be aware that it's very unlikely that something like this will happen again," said coach Carlos Moya during the recent Madrid Open.

"Personally, I'm never on court when he enters or leaves, but I am this year, because I like seeing the love he gets from the people when he steps on court.

"He's one of the great stars of this sport, he's about to retire, so it's really amazing to see that."

Djokovic under cloud

Nadal isn't the only A-list talent under a Paris cloud ahead of the tournament start on Sunday.

Defending champion and record 24-time Grand Slam title winner Djokovic, whose three titles in Paris put him alongside Gustavo Kuerten, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, is enduring a title dry spell unseen since 2018.

Back then, he also reached May without a trophy, before crashing to a shock last-16 defeat at the French Open to unheralded Marco Cecchinato of Italy.

This season, Djokovic has lost his Australian Open title, and has yet to make a final on tour.

Adding injury to insult, in a freak accident, he was hit on the head by a falling water bottle in Rome, which he claimed caused nausea and dizziness.

In an attempt to gather a degree of clay-court confidence ahead of the French Open, Djokovic, who turned 37 on Wednesday, grabbed a late wild card entry into the ongoing Geneva tournament.

Between them, Nadal and Djokovic have carved up the last eight French Open titles, while 2009 was the last time a final at Roland Garros did not feature at least one of them.

World No 2 Jannik Sinner, the man who succeeded Djokovic as Australian Open champion, has been laid low by a hip injury, which caused him to skip the Rome Open.

The 22-year-old Italian reached the quarterfinals of the French Open on his debut in 2020, where he was defeated by Nadal in straight sets.

Sinner has an extra incentive to progress deep into the Paris tournament, as he could depose Djokovic as world No 1.

Carlos Alcaraz, the reigning Wimbledon champion, also skipped Rome to nurse an arm injury.

The world No 3 took the first set off Djokovic in their semifinal last year, before body cramps saw him slip to eventual defeat.

The Spanish crowd-pleaser joked that his sudden and dramatic diminished physical state was caused by the fear of facing Djokovic.


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