ROME — Quick and dominant in the opening set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was the complete opposite in the home stretch at the Italian Open on Thursday night.
Late to the ball. Limping between points. Grinning and grimacing even when changing formats. His distress was so visible as double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the final set that even Canadian fans seated high in the center court stands cheered Nadal as compatriot Shapovalov put the finishing touches to his victory , 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the round of 16.
Shapovalov, a springy and explosive southpaw ranked No. 16, has the tools to confuse even a healthy Nadal. He beat him 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 it 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 following was as depressed and pensive as I remember in nearly 20 years after his career.
“I imagine there will come a time when my head will say ‘Enough,'” Nadal, a ten-time Italian Open champion, said 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 many days I live with too much pain.
Nadal said he also had to live with taking “a ton of anti-inflammatories a day to give me the ability to train”.
“It’s my reality,” he said. “And there have been many days, like today, where the time has come where 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-court player in history will even be able to play at Roland Garros, the Grand Slam tournament he has won a record 13 times.
“I will keep dreaming about this goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The negative thing is that today it’s not possible to play for me, but maybe in two days things will be better. That’s the problem with what I have on the foot.
The French Open will start in nine days on May 22, although Nadal may not have to play until May 24 as the French Open, which begins on a Sunday, holds its first round over three days.
Although Nadal, who turns 36 next month, has often shown amazing fighting spirit and recovery power, it will be an unparalleled challenge for him in Paris in the spring.
“Certainly difficult to see him suffer there at the end; I never want to see that, especially with a great legend like Rafa,” said Shapovalov, who still needed to produce bold tennis and big serves to win on Thursday. “I hope he is well. He brings so much to our sport. I hope he is fit and ready to leave 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 pandemic-shortened season when the start of Roland Garros was moved to October and almost the entire clay-court season has been cancelled. .
This year the calendar has returned to normal but not for Nadal. After a torrid 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 which left him prevented from competing or training normally for six weeks. .
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 suffered his first loss at the Italian Open since 2008, when Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former No.1 who is now the coach of Alcaraz, stunned Nadal in the second round.
Nadal still won the 2008 French Open, beating rival Roger Federer in the final, but Nadal had already won the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg that year.
This season, it lacks matches and wins on clay as established threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and newcomers like Alcaraz, have established stronger foundations.
“At the end of the day, even the greatest players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stine, the veteran American coach who now works with Tommy Paul. “It gets to this point for Rafa. What he did in Australia was more than exceptional, but I think we saw the collateral damage of his great start to the season. If he’s healthy, he’s still a favorite week after week, but he’s a big one. “If the body decays” is not included in Kipling’s poem. »
It is a reference to “If”, an excerpt from which is displayed at the players’ entrance to Center Court at Wimbledon.
It’s hard, after 15 years of watching Nadal almost always prevail over adversity and opposition at Roland Garros, to imagine that he really won’t find a way to pose a challenge.
“I will fight for it,” he said grimly. “I will continue to believe in it for this week and a half.”
What is clear is that, for a change, he shouldn’t be the favourite. “No way,” said Mark Petchey, the veteran coach and analyst. “A lot of co-favorites and players with real chances to win.”
His longer roster includes defending champion, Djokovic; last year’s other finalist, Tsitsipas; Alcaraz; Alexander Zverev; Casper Ruud; and the young Italian Jannik Sinner.
Nadal, since losing to Djokovic in a four-set semi-final in Paris last June, has played just five matches on clay, losing two.
Watching him struggle and then finally hobble on Thursday reminded him that nothing is forever, not even Nadal on the surface that he made his own.