ROME — Quick and dominant in the primary set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was quite the alternative down the stretch on the Italian Open on Thursday night.
Late to the ball. Limping between points. Grimacing and wincing even on changeovers. His distress was so visible because the double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the ultimate set that even the Canadian fans sitting high in the middle court stands were offering up sympathetic applause for Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov put the ultimate touches on his victory, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, within the round of 16.
Shapovalov, an elastic and explosive left-hander ranked No. 16, has the tools to bother even a healthy Nadal. He beat him of their first match in 2017 when Shapovalov was still a young person, and may have beaten him in last 12 months’s round of 16 on the Italian Open when he did not convert two match points. He also pushed Nadal to 5 sets at this 12 months’s Australian Open.
But this was removed from a healthy Nadal, together with his chronic left foot problem, often known as Müller-Weiss disease, resurfacing on his favorite surface. With the French Open looming, his mood within the aftermath was as downbeat and pensive as I can recall in nearly 20 years of following his profession.
“I imagine there’ll come a time when my head will say ‘Enough,’” Nadal, a 10-time Italian Open champion, said in Spanish, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “Pain takes away your happiness, not only in tennis but in life. And my problem is that many days I live with an excessive amount of pain.”
Nadal said he also needed to live with taking “a ton of anti-inflammatories each day to provide myself the power to coach.”
“That’s my reality,” he said. “And there have been many days, like today, when the moment comes that I can’t do it.”
He finished with 34 unforced errors and just 13 winners on Thursday, and the query now is whether or not essentially the most successful clay-courter in history will even give you the chance to play on the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament he has won a record 13 times.
“I’m going to maintain dreaming about that goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The negative thing is today it’s impossible to play for me, but possibly in two days things are higher. That’s the thing with what I even have on my foot.”
The French Open will begin in nine days on May 22, although Nadal won’t should play until May 24 since the French Open, which starts on a Sunday, stages its first round over three days.
Though Nadal, who will turn 36 next month, has often shown astonishing fighting spirit and recuperative powers, this shall be a challenge like no other for him in Paris within the springtime.
“Definitely tough to see him in pain there at the tip; I never need to see that, especially with an ideal legend like Rafa,” said Shapovalov, who still had to supply daring tennis and massive serves to win on Thursday. “Hopefully he’s OK. He brings a lot to our sport. Hopefully he’s fit and able to go for the French.”
The one time Nadal has triumphed at Roland Garros without winning a clay-court tournament earlier within the 12 months was in 2020, the pandemic-shortened season when the beginning of the French Open was moved to October and nearly the complete clay-court season was canceled.
This 12 months, the schedule has been back to normal but not for Nadal. After a torrid begin to the season, with 20 straight victories and a record twenty first Grand Slam singles title on the Australian Open, his clay-court campaign was delayed by a stress fracture in his ribs that kept him from competing or practicing normally for six weeks.
He returned for the Madrid Open this month and was upset by the 19-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz within the quarterfinals and has now experienced his earliest defeat on the Italian Open since 2008, when Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former No. 1 who’s now Alcaraz’s coach, surprised Nadal within the second round.
Nadal went on to win the 2008 French Open anyway, overwhelming his archrival Roger Federer in the ultimate, but Nadal had already won the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg that 12 months.
This season, he is brief on matches and victories on clay while established threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and latest ones like Alcaraz, have established firmer footing.
“Ultimately even the best players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stine, the veteran American coach now working with Tommy Paul. “It’s attending to that time for Rafa. What he did in Australia was beyond exceptional, but I feel now we have been seeing the collateral damage of his great begin to the season. If healthy, he remains to be a favourite week in and week out, but that if is an enormous one. ‘If the body breaks down’ shouldn’t be included in Kipling’s poem.”
That could be a reference to “If,” an excerpt from which is posted on the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
It’s difficult after 15 years of watching Nadal nearly all the time prevail over adversity and the opposition at Roland Garros to assume that he truly won’t discover a technique to pose a challenge.
“I’ll fight for it,” he said grimly. “I’ll proceed to consider during this week and a half.”
What is obvious 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 possibilities to win.”
His longer list includes the defending champion, Djokovic; last 12 months’s other finalist, Tsitsipas; Alcaraz; Alexander Zverev; Casper Ruud; and the young Italian Jannik Sinner.
Nadal, since losing to Djokovic in a four-set semifinal in Paris last June, has played just five matches on clay, losing two of them.
Watching him struggle, then eventually hobble on Thursday, was a reminder that nothing is everlasting, not even Nadal on the surface that he has made his own.