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

ROME – Fast and dominant in the first set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was quite the opposite downhill at the Italian Open on Thursday night.

Late for the ball. Limping between the points. Grimaces and gasps also on the exchange rates. His distress was so visible as double fouls and unforced errors piled up at the end of the final set that even Canadian fans seated high in the center court stands were offering nice cheers for Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov gave the last ones. tweaks to his victory, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the second round.

Shapovalov, a resilient and explosive left-hander ranked No. 16, has the tools to upset even a healthy Nadal. Hey, beat him up in their first match in 2017 when Shapovalov was still a teenager, and should have beaten him in last year’s round of 16 at the Italian Open when he failed to convert two match points. He also pushed Nadal to five sets at this year’s Australian Open.

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

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

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

“This is my reality,” he said. “And there have been many days, like today, when there comes a time when I can’t do it.”

He finished with 34 unforced errors and just 13 winners on Thursday, and the question now is whether the most successful clay player in history will also be able to play in the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament that has won a record 13 times.

“I will continue to dream of that goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The bad thing is that today it’s not possible to play for me, but maybe in two days things will get better. This is the problem with what I have on my feet. “

The French Open will kick off in nine days on May 22, although Nadal may not have to play until May 24 because the French Open, which starts on Sunday, holds their first round in three days.

Though Nadal, who turns 36 next month, has often displayed surprising fighting spirit and resilience, this will be a challenge like no other for him in Paris this spring.

“Definitely difficult to see him suffer there in the end; I never want to see him, especially with a great legend like Rafa, “said Shapovalov, who had yet to produce bold tennis and great serves to win on Thursday.” Let’s hope he’s okay. He brings so much to our sport. Let’s hope he’s fit and well. ready to go for the French “.

The only time Nadal triumphed at Roland Garros without winning a clay tournament earlier this year thing in 2020the season shortened by the pandemic when the start of the French Open was postponed to October and nearly the entire clay court season was canceled.

This year the schedule is back to normal, but not for Nadal. After a torrid start to the season, with 20 consecutive victories and a record 21 Grand Slam singles titles at the Australian Openhis clay campaign was delayed by a stress fracture in the ribs that prevented him from competing or training normally for six weeks.

He returned for the Madrid Open this month and was blown away by the 19-year-old Spanish phenomenon Carlos Alcaraz in the quarter-finals and suffered his first defeat at the Italian Open since 2008, when Juan Carlos Ferrero, ex n. 1, who is now the coach of Alcaraz, surprised Nadal in the second round.

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

This season, he is short on matches and wins on clay, while established threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas and new ones like Alcaraz have established firmer foundations.

“In the end, even the greatest players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stine, the veteran American coach who now works with Tommy Paul. “It’s getting to that point for Rafa. What he did in Australia was beyond exceptional, but I think we have seen the collateral damage of his great start to the season. If healthy, he is still a favorite week after week, but if he matters. “If the body breaks” is not included in Kipling’s poem. “

This is a reference to “If”, an excerpt from which it is posted at the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Center Court.

It’s hard, after 15 years of watching Nadal almost always prevail over adversity and opposition at Roland Garros, to imagine that he won’t really find a way to challenge him.

“I’ll fight for this,” he said darkly. “I will continue to believe it during this week and a half.”

What is clear is that, for a change, he shouldn’t be the favorite. “Absolutely not,” said Mark Petchey, the veteran coach and analyst. “Lots of co-favorites and players with real chances of winning.”

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

Nadal, since he lost to Djokovic in a four-set semifinal in Paris last June, he only played five games on clay, losing two.

Watching him fight, then limp on Thursday, reminded us that nothing is eternal, not even Nadal on the surface who has become his own.