Rafael Nadal falls to Clay, in time for the French Open

ROME – Rafael Nadal was fast and dominant in the first set against Denis Shapovalov, just the opposite at the Italian Open on Thursday night.

late on the ball. Limp between the points. Grin and wince even when transitions. His plight was so evident as double faults and non-forced errors accumulated late in the final set that even Canadian fans seated in the central stands gave sympathetic applause to Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov finalized his victory, 1-6, 7-5, 6 -2, in the round of 16.

Shapovalov, a resilient, explosive left-handed man who ranks No. 16, has the tools to annoy even the otherwise healthy Nadal. a hit In their first match of 2017 When Shapovalov was still a teenager, he should have beaten him in last year’s round of 16 at the Italian Open when he failed to convert two match points. Nadal also pushed into five sets At the Australian Open this year.

But this was not far from Nadal’s health, as his chronic left foot problem, known as Muller-Weiss disease, surfaced on his favorite surface. With the French Open approaching, his mood in the aftermath was as pessimistic and achy as I can remember in his nearly 20 years of following his career.

“I imagine there will come a time when my head will say ‘Enough’,” Nadal, the 10-times Italian Open champion, said in Spanish, licking his lips and shaking his head. “Pain robs you of your happiness, not only in tennis but in life. And my problem is that I live many days with a lot of pain.”

Nadal said he also had to live with “a lot of anti-inflammatories a day to give myself the ability to train.”

“This is my truth,” he said. “And there were many days, like today, when the moment would come when I could not do it.”

He finished the match with 34 unintentional fouls and only 13 winners on Thursday, and the question now is whether the most successful claycourt player in history will even be able to play in the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament he won a record 13 times.

“I will keep dreaming about this goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The negative thing today is that it is not possible to play for me, but maybe in a couple of days things will be better. That is the thing with what I have on my feet.”

The French Open will start in nine days on May 22, although Nadal may not have to play until May 24 because the French Open, which begins on Sunday, has its first round over three days.

Although Nadal, who turns 36 next month, has often shown amazing fighting spirit and recovery powers, this will be a challenge unlike any other in Paris this spring.

“It’s definitely hard to see him hurt there at the end; I never want to see that, especially with a great legend like Rafa,” said Shapovalov, who still had to make a daring tennis and big serve to win on Thursday. Okay. It brings so much to our sport. I hope he is fit and ready to join the French national team.”

The only time Nadal has won at Roland Garros without winning the clay court tournament earlier in the year It was in 2020the season that was cut short for the pandemic when the start of the French Open was moved to October and the clay season was almost entirely cancelled.

This year, the schedule is back to normal but not for Nadal. After a strong start to the season, with 20 consecutive victories and a record number 21 in the singles Grand Slam tournament in Australian Openhis campaign on clay courts was delayed because of a stress fracture His ribs prevented him from competing or training normally for six weeks.

He’s back at the Madrid Open this month and resented the 19-year-old’s Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in the quarter-finals and now saw his first defeat at the Italian Open since 2008, when former top seed Juan Carlos Ferrero and now coach of Alcaraz stunned Nadal in the second round.

Nadal went on to win the 2008 French Open anyway, defeating arch-rival Roger Federer in the final, but Nadal actually won titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg that year.

This season, he’s lacking matches and victories on clay, while steady threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and new ones like Alcaraz, have proven a more steadfast foundation.

“In the end, even the greatest players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stein, a veteran American coach who now works with Tommy Ball. “It got to that point for Rafa. What he did in Australia was phenomenal, but I think we’ve seen the collateral damage of his great start to the season. If he’s healthy, it’s still a favorite week in every week, but if it’s been a big week. The phrase “If the body collapses” is included in Kipling’s poem.

This is a reference to “If”, an excerpt of which was posted at the players’ entrance to Wimbledon Central Stadium.

After 15 years of watching Nadal always overcome adversity and opposition at Roland Garros, it’s hard to imagine that he really wouldn’t find a way to impose the challenge.

“I will fight for her,” he said shruggingly. “I will continue to believe during this week and a half.”

What is clear is that, for a change, he should not be the preferred candidate. Impossible, said Mark Beachy, veteran coach and analyst. “Lots of common favorites and players with real chances of winning.”

His list includes the longest file Title holder, Djokovic; last year’s post, Tsitsipas; Alkaraz. Alexander Zverev Casper Rudd and young Italian Jannik Sinner.

Nadal, since losing to Djokovic in a Four semi-finals In Paris last June, he played only five matches on clay, and lost two of them.

Watching him struggle, then eventually limp on Thursday, was a reminder that nothing is eternal, and not even Nadal ostensibly made his own.