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Rafael Nadal - Australian Open 2023

Rafael Nadal: Is the King of Clay being forced to abdicate his throne?


We have been here before, haven’t we? Could the new era of men’s tennis finally be ushering itself in? Could Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic actually be on the way out?

If you have even closely followed tennis over the last five years of so, there will be little doubt that you have greeted the current speculation with much the same scepticism as you have the rest. None of them have had any real foundation.

Is there, though, a little more substance to these ones? The elbow problem that Novak Djokovic is currently battling will be a concern to his fans, mainly due to his history with a similar injury.

That one, though, is something that is developing. Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, has some real cause for concern and it’s clear he knows it.

Injury problems are nothing new to Rafael Nadal, although generally speaking whatever problems he has had in his career he has always made sure he’s ready for clay season. The fact he has already pulled out of all of his usual events except Rome and Roland Garros at this stage will be a big worry for him.

“As you know I suffered an important injury in Australia of the psoas [muscle],” Nadal explained as he pulled out of Madrid. “Initially it had to be a six to eight week recovery period and we are now on fourteen. The reality is that the situation is not what we would have expected.”

“All medical indications have been followed, but somehow the evolution has not been what they initially told us and we find ourselves in a difficult situation.

“The weeks are passing and I had the illusion of being able to play in tournaments that are the most important in my career such as Monte Carlo, Barcelona, ​​Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros and for the moment I have missed Monte Carlo and Barcelona. I will not be able to be in Madrid unfortunately.”

“The injury still hasn’t healed and I can’t work out what I need to do to compete. I was training, but now a few days ago we decided to change course a bit, do another treatment and see if things improve to try to get to what comes next.

“I can’t give deadlines because if I knew I would tell you but I don’t know. This is how things are now.”

There is a lot of worrying language there from Nadal. The fact he is describing a timely comeback as an ‘illusion’ that he fell for is an obvious concern, as is the lack of detail about where he goes from here or when he can hope to return.

At the same time, we should be careful not to fall into the trap of writing Nadal off. Let’s face it, most of us have done that before at one time or another and ended up proven comprehensively wrong.

Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022

His lack of clay tennis isn’t necessarily a problem for him either as far as Roland Garros goes. Just last season he went to Paris with just five matches on clay under his belt. He missed Monte-Carlo and Barcelona with the rib injury he sustained at Indian Wells, and yet he still won the French Open.

This time would be a lot more complicated, though. Nadal never needs a period of time to adapt to clay. It’s his natural environment. Others might. Nadal doesn’t.

The bigger problem will be a lack of tennis generally. Last season when Nadal did it, for all he missed some time with an injury he had still played plenty of tennis. He arrived at Roland Garros having already played six tournaments. As things stand, Nadal has played just four matches this year.

In fact, you can take it even further back and note that the Spaniard has played just 13 matches in the last ten months. He lost eight of them. That will be a monumental obstacle to overcome.

At the end of the day, we are talking about Rafael Nadal and Roland Garros here. You cannot rule anything out, including the superhuman. Right now, though, tennis heads towards the showpiece of the clay season without its King, and no one really knows what that is going to look like for the Kingdom.

As ever, though, it’s going to fun to find out.

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