The last lap: On the French Open

Rafael Nadal’s spirit no longer seems able to power his body 

Updated - May 29, 2024 02:03 pm IST

Published - May 29, 2024 12:10 am IST

For a good part of the last two decades, everything at the French Open seemed like a prelude to one man’s crowning moment on the concluding Sunday of the tournament. The year 2024, however, has turned out differently for Rafael Nadal, who had clinched the singles title on 14 of his 18 prior visits, as he made an emotional first-round exit on Monday, losing to fourth seed Alexander Zverev in straight sets. It was only the fourth time in 116 matches that the Spaniard had lost on Parisian clay, and the moment, more than any in recent times, had a valedictory feel to it. Ever since he suffered a hip injury at the 2023 Australian Open and missed the rest of the season, Nadal’s tennis future has been a huge question mark. The 22-time Major champion has not been very optimistic himself, for he perhaps knows that at nearly 38, and with an injury ravaged body that has allowed him to play just 12 times this year, the end is near. Yet, that has not stopped him from taking to the court with childlike enthusiasm. He played in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome — places where he has collectively secured 27 trophies — soaking in the fans’ adulation in what has come to resemble a much-deserved victory lap.

To be sure, Nadal has not closed the door on returning to his favourite stomping grounds on the red dirt in 2025. His immediate target is the 2024 Paris Olympics, whose tennis event will be held at Roland-Garros in late July-early August. But there is little doubt that the ground he once guarded with an iron fist is fertile for an almighty jostle to anoint a new king. World No.1 Novak Djokovic, the 24-time Major and three-time French Open champion, would have been the obvious favourite if his form had not nose-dived. He is without a title this season and has revamped his entire support staff to jump-start his year. Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz are both coming in after recovering from injuries. Alexander Zverev, who won the Rome Masters, seems dialled in but will have to deal with a domestic abuse trial in parallel. Casper Ruud, who won Barcelona and Geneva recently, will hope to go all the way after two straight runner-up finishes at Roland-Garros. Among women, three-time champion Iga Swiatek is the overwhelming favourite, and is expected to be challenged by Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff. For India, the singles challenge ended prematurely with Sumit Nagal’s loss, but Rohan Bopanna and Yuki Bhambri will aim to fly the flag high with their respective doubles partners.

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