ROME – Quick and dominant in the first set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was quite the opposite down the stretch at the Italian Open on Thursday night.
Late to the ball. Limping between points. Grimacing and wincing even on changeovers. His distress was so visible as double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the final set that even Canadian fans were sitting high in the center court offering up sympathetic applause for Nadal as his compatriot Shapovalov put on his final touches, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the round of 16.
Shapovalov, an elastic and explosive left-hander ranked No. 1 16, has the tools to trouble even a healthy Nadal. He beat him in their first match in 2017 when Shapovalov was still a teenager, and should have beaten him in last year’s round of 16 at the Italian Open when he failed to convert two match points. He also pushed Nadal to five sets at this year’s Australian Open.
But this was far from a healthy Nadal, with his chronic left foot problem, known as Müller-Weiss’s disease, resurfacing on his favorite surface. With the French Open looming, his mood in the aftermath was as downbeat and pensive as I can recall in his career of nearly 20 years following.
“I imagine there will be a time when my head will say ‘Enough,'” Nadal, a 10-time Italian Open champion, said in Spanish, pursuing 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 too much pain. “
Nadal said he was also taking live with “a ton of anti-inflammatories daily to give myself the ability to train.”
“That is 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 question now is that even though the most successful clay-courter in history will be able to play at the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament has won a record 13 times.
“I’m going to keep dreaming about that goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The downside is it’s not possible to play for me today, but maybe in two days things are better. That ‘s the thing with what I have on my foot. “
The French Open will begin in nine days on May 22, although Nadal may not play until May 24 because the French Open, which starts on a Sunday, stages its first round over three days.
Although Nadal, who will turn 36 next month, has often shown astonishing fighting spirit and recuperative powers, this will be a challenge for him in Paris in the springtime.
“Definitely tough to see him in pain there at the end; I never wanted to see that, especially with a great legend like Rafa, “said Shapovalov, who was still producing bold tennis and big serves to win on Thursday. “Hopefully he ‘s OK. He brings so much to our sport. Hopefully he ‘s fit and ready to go for the French. “
The only time Nadal has triumphed at Roland Garros without winning a clay-court tournament earlier in the year was 2020, the pandemic-shortened season when the French Open was moved to October and nearly the entire clay-court season was canceled. General Chat Chat Lounge
This year, the schedule has been back to normal but not for Nadal. After a torrid start to the season, with 20 straight victories and a record 21st Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, his clay-court campaign was delayed by a stress fracture that kept him from competing or practicing normally for six weeks. General Chat Chat Lounge
He returned for the Madrid Open this month and was upset by the 19-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals and has now experienced his earliest defeat at the Italian Open since 2008, when Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former no. 1 who is now Alcaraz’s coach, surprised Nadal in the second round.
Nadal went on to win the 2008 French Open anyway, overwhelming his archrival Roger Federer in the final, but Nadal had already won titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg that year.
This season, he’s been short on matches and victories while establishing threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and new ones like Alcaraz, who have established firmer footing.
“Ultimately even the greatest players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stine, the veteran American coach now working with Tommy Paul. “It’s getting to that point for Rafa. What he did in Australia was beyond exceptional, but I think we’ve seen the collateral damage of his great start to the season. If healthy, he is still a favorite week in and week out, but if that is a big one. ‘If the body breaks down’ is not included in Kipling’s poem. “
That is a reference to “If,” an excerpt from which is posted at the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Center Court.
It’s difficult after watching 15 years of Nadal almost always prevail over adversity and the opposition at Roland Garros to imagine he truly shouldn’t find a way to pose a challenge.
“I will fight for it,” he said grimly. “I will continue to believe during this week and a half.”
What is clear is that, for a change, he should not be the favorite. “No way,” said Mark Petchey, the veteran coach and analyst. “Lots of co-favorites and players with genuine chances to win.”
His longer list includes the defending champion, Djokovic; Last year’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 finally hobble on Thursday, was a reminder that nothing is eternal, not even Nadal on the surface that he has made his own.