Rafael Nadal: French Open missing its serial champion

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Jun 05, 2023 03:45 PM IST

Nadal missed out this year and has had a hip surgery, but everyone, from organisers to his biggest rival to the Gen Next men and women players all miss him

Marc Maury, the French Open announcer, couldn’t help himself. And so the iconic voice behind Rafael Nadal’s entry and introduction on Court Philippe-Chatrier — the one infusing unparalleled vigour in the first two letters of the name and almost breathlessly rattling off his title-winning years there — recreated the entire sequence in Spanish.

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates with trophy after winning the 2022 French Open men's singles final against Norway's Casper Ruud (REUTERS) PREMIUM
Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates with trophy after winning the 2022 French Open men's singles final against Norway's Casper Ruud (REUTERS)

Except this time, instead of the 14-time Roland Garros champion walking in and waving to spectators with the voice in the background, Maury did it standing by an empty showpiece court for a video on Saturday.

That happened to be Nadal’s 37th birthday. It is an occasion marked almost exclusively in the Parisian summer since 2005, with the Spaniard adding another year to his age and, in all but four tries, another title to his Grand Slam tally. The Roland Garros organisers join the party, rolling out a life-size cake on Chatrier for an almost-embarrassed Nadal post his birthday match days or, like last year when he isn't competing on the day, presenting a cake and gifting a scooter in a ceremony at the venue.

On Saturday, Roland Garros tweeted a video putting together pictures of all those moments over the years and signing off with, “We miss you!”. Nadal, minutes after posting an update about a surgery on his injured hip that kept him away from his year’s French Open, retweeted it. He wrote in French, “Vous me manquez trop”, translated to “I miss you very much”.

It’s a feeling not only shared by the tournament and the name synonymous with it, but also the players grinding it out on the Paris dirt this year. Not merely because Nadal’s first French Open absence in 18 years has thrown open the men’s draw — one half of it is now without a Grand Slam winner — and, in the words of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, the “possibility for many players”.

Top-ranked women’s player Iga Swiatek, for instance, has been left to search for a new favourite during her time there. “I always cheer for him. This time he’s not here, so it’s going to be a little harder for me to find my favourite,” the 22-year-old chuckled. “Obviously, it’s very sad, we all wished Rafa would play here.”

The 22-time Grand Slam champion announced that he would not, about a week and a half before the tournament. Soon, the missing Nadal murmurs surfaced. Two days before her first-round match, former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka tweeted a picture of a large Nadal cutout with her son Leo’s face popping out of Nadal’s. The caption read: “Bonjour @rolandgarros someone is really missed here.”

Plenty of tennis fans, who often travel far and wide to watch their revered stars in Grand Slam action, could relate. A French Open without Nadal, especially with him in the final chapters of his storied career, is therefore as much their loss.

“As an audience member, for countless years we’ve always associated Roland Garros with Rafa, Rafa with Roland Garros,” Prakash Amritraj, former pro and son of Indian tennis stalwart Vijay Amritraj who works as a presenter, was quoted as saying on Tennis Channel. “So many people come here just to get that bucket list, hope to be able to catch him on a court over here.”

That goes for some players too. Karen Khachanov has lost all his eight matches against Nadal, though he hasn’t faced him at the French Open. Yet the thrilled Russian, who entered the quarter-finals on Sunday, would bring him up after winning his third-round match. “This is one my favourite Grand Slams growing up, seeing as a kid Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa,” Khachanov, counting on his fingers, said. “I mean, I don't have enough fingers, you know.”

Korda’s tennis hero

Also growing up fan boying Nadal was 22-year-old Sebastian Korda. To the extent that the American has named his pet cat Rafa. When he stood across the net in the fourth round of the autumnal 2020 French Open from his idol, it was the most cherished moment of his young career. One that, even three years later as a top-30 player, he gleefully talks about while revealing where he has kept the signed Nadal T-shirt from the match.

It is not that there is no tennis hero at home. Father Petr is a former world No. 2, 1998 Australian Open winner and 1992 French Open runner-up.

“It is hanging in my room,” Korda said this week. "Ever since I started watching tennis, he was always the guy. I think he didn't lose here too many times and was always winning here, basically. That's one of the most impressive things in tennis history, maybe sports history —how many times he’s won here and how much he’s dominated here.”

Just a small matter of 112 wins and three defeats. The only human to have beaten the clay magician twice at Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic’s first of the 59 meetings with Nadal would come there in 2006 (Djokovic retired after the second set). The great rivals have crossed paths a further nine times in the clay-court Slam, including the last three years, in battles that have grown in quality, stature and context.

“Every time I step on the court with him, this court particularly, I know that I have to leave my heart and my guts out there,” said Djokovic in Paris in a chat with Amritraj on Tennis Channel. “It’s probably the ultimate challenge in sport, playing against Nadal on clay, on this court.”

A court that has, this year, felt a Nadal-sized hole.

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