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Rafael Nadal - Australian Open 2023

Rafael Nadal deserves to write his own ending, but tennis is rarely so kind


Men’s tennis has been a strange place to be in recent times. The more we watched Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic dominate, the more we have craved change – and the more we have feared it.

That change has already started, of course. Federer has gone and it has been almost a year since we had Nadal on Tour too. He played the backend of last season and the start of this one too, I know, but it was really more a shadow of him rather than anything else. We haven’t had the real Rafa since Wimbledon last summer.

And, it seems, we may never get him again. For the first time since 2004, Nadal will not be at the French Open after he withdrew due to injury.

“Too many days I have been stopping with too much pain. I don’t know when I will come back to the practice court. Maybe two months, three, four,” explained Nadal.

“I am following my personal feelings for my body and personal happiness. My goal is to try to enjoy next year. Which will probably be my last.”

In truth, limping to the finish line of a great career always feels somewhat inevitable. Stars fade but still shine brightly enough to give the encouragement to carry on. It’s also hard to let go. I think we can all relate to that in some way or another.

And, if we are honest with ourselves, it ending like this for Nadal felt more inevitable than anyone else. Maintaining his body to withstand the assault he subjects it to every moment on the tennis court has always been a herculean effort for the Spaniard.

We have all watched him play for years, and usually the overriding feeling with him has been awe. There has also been that little underlying fear though – fear that he could break down at any moment, fear that he might break under the strain of his own otherworldly intensity.

That, though, has always been a key element of Rafael Nadal’s appeal and popularity. You don’t just watch Nadal play tennis, you experience it. He has that incredible ability to make you feel along with him and take you on his journey. It’s rare, and it’s brilliant, and it will be missed.

In the meantime, the overriding emotion from tennis fans will be sadness. Sadness that, after years of flirting with the idea of career immortality, the end for Nadal is firmly in sight. Sadness that we won’t see him for months now, perhaps even the rest of the year.

Sadness too, that it has come to this – a legend who has given us so much joy for so long reduced to suffering with too much pain to do what he loves to do. He deserved better than that.

There is hope though, too. Hope that he will be able to go out on his own terms. That, clearly, is his plan. Rest up and recover this year with no pressure or expectation on himself, then say a sustained farewell to the Tour in 2024. That is the way to do it, and we will all be keeping our fingers crossed that he is able to do it.

Of course, it was Roger Federer’s plan too, and Nadal’s most iconic rival now serves as a reminder to him and everyone else that you can take nothing for granted.

For all intents and purposes, Federer’s career ended on a bagel as part of a straight sets defeat at Wimbledon. He had his goodbye moment at the Laver Cup a year later, but that’s all it was. Federer, like the rest of us, will be hoping for a much more satisfying conclusion to the Rafael Nadal story.

Rafael Nadal big events missed in 2023

Nadal has been out for four months to the day, and has therefore been unable to compete at five ATP Masters 1000 events and another of his other favourite tournaments across the clay court swing.

Here are the events he has had to withdraw from so far:

  • Indian Wells (Three-time champion)
  • Miami Open (Five-time finalist)
  • Monte Carlo Masters (Record 11-time champion)
  • Barcelona Open (Record 12-time champion)
  • Madrid Open (Record five-time champion)
  • Italian Open (Record 10-time champion)
  • Roland Garros (Record 14-time champion)

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