“There comes a time when your body raises a white flag”

May 21, 2023

Rafael Nadal on his withdrawal from Roland Garros, a tournament he has elevated as much as it elevated him

“There comes a time when your body raises a white flag”

“You can’t keep demanding more and more from your body, because there comes a time when your body raises a white flag,” Rafael Nadal said in a press conference at his academy in Mallorca last Thursday.

According to Rafa, his almost-37-year-old body has finally flown that flag. He has endured dozens of injuries, to many different parts of his frame, over the course of his 20-year career. But however serious they were, he has always made sure he was ready to play Roland Garros, the tournament that has meant more to him than any other.

Twice as a teenager, in 2003 and 2004, Nadal missed the French Open, first with a shoulder issue and then with a foot injury. In 2016, he had to pull out midway through with a wrist problem. Otherwise, the clay-court season, and Paris in particular, have served as elixirs for anything that was ailing him. Whatever struggles he may have had in the early part of a season, he could start fresh in Monte Carlo in April, knowing that he was still miles ahead of the competition on clay. Two months later in Paris, he would prove that no one had come any closer to catching him on that surface, and that no one ever would.

This year, finally, was different. After injuring his hip early in the season, Nadal missed Monte Carlo, as well as Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. On Thursday, he said would also miss Roland Garros.

“Even though your head wants to keep going,” he said, “your body says this is as far as it goes.”

But Nadal went further in his presser. He said (1) That he’s abandoning his training for the next few months, to allow his hip to heal and allow himself to play without pain; and (2) That 2024 will “probably” be his last year on tour. Provided his body eventually cooperates, he’ll make one last lap around the tennis globe.

“My motivation is to try to enjoy and try to say good-bye to all the tournaments that have been important for me in my tennis career,” he said, “and just try to enjoy that, being competitive and enjoying being on the court, something that today is not possible.”

Nadal was waving his body’s white flag in public for the first time. The chase for ranking points, tournament titles, Grand Slam trophies: Those are essentially over. The pain, and the ever-increasing time he has to spend away from the tour recovering, weren’t worth it anymore. It’s a telling word that he repeated: “enjoy.” He said that since the pandemic interruptions of 2020-21, his body hasn’t been the same, and that, despite the significant victories he notched over the last two years, he hasn’t relished the process, or the practice, that goes into winning major tournaments.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that he made it this far, that he’ll return for 2024, and that, body permitting, he has a chance at a victory lap. Nadal will retire having left no stone in his career unturned, and no major trophy missing from his case. He’s the undisputed King of Clay; a career Golden Slammer; and one of just three men in the Open Era to win each major twice.

For me, Rafa’s win at the 2022 Australian Open was the perfect, poetic, career-capping finale. He hadn’t won there in 13 years. He had lost four finals, including two from a break up in the fifth set. He was down two sets to love to Daniil Medvedev in the title match.

He blew another fifth-set lead. But he won anyway. And all of it happened on a hard court, rather than his preferred clay. It’s a title that should leave him with no regrets when he walks away.

Of course, the French Open will be the major most closely linked with Rafa, and we’ll feel his absence the most there, especially this season. The tournament will be much more wide open without him, obviously, but it will also lose some of the gravitas that he has given it. Roland Garros helped elevate Nadal, as he’s the first to say, but Nadal also elevated Roland Garros. Before him, it was typically the terrain of the clay-court specialist. Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer both skipped it later in their careers to prepare for Wimbledon. Rafa is the ultimate clay-courter, yes; but he is also an all-surface champion and a No. 1 player, and he values the French Open enough to have won it 14 times.

Nadal says he’ll play for enjoyment next year. That may not come naturally for a man who is as serious about competition and achievement as he is, and who rarely flashed so much as a smile while he was on court.

The body has waived its white flag, he says, and he’s more than earned a farewell tour. But would you be surprised if, once the blood starts flowing and the fists start pumping, Rafa has a few more victories left in him in his final lap? –Tennis.com

“There comes a time when your body raises a white flag”