Nadal set for emotional French Open farewell, Djokovic worried over form – Sport

PARIS: Rafael Nadal will bring down the curtain on his 19-year French Open career with the likelihood of adding to his 14 titles greatly diminished before he leaves behind a record and reputation unlikely ever to be matched.

The great Spaniard, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, won his first title at Roland Garros as a teenager in 2005. A week on Monday, he will celebrate his 38th birthday.

A former world number one, who is now at 276 in the world, Nadal has only played 15 matches since January last year as a hip injury and then a muscle tear were added to a depressing litany of physical ailments which have forced him to miss 12 Grand Slam tournaments in his career.

Unseeded this year, his farewell to arms may be brief after he was drawn to face world number four Alexander Zverev in the first round with the match set for Monday.

The Spaniard skipped last year’s tournament due to a hip injury that needed surgery and has said he expects to retire at the end of 2024. But he wasn’t ready to repeat those words on Saturday.

“If I have to tell you it’s 100% my last Roland Garros, sorry but I will not, because I cannot predict what’s going on. I hope you understand,” Nadal told a packed press conference.

“I don’t want to close 100% the door, because it’s a very simple thing. First, I’m enjoying playing tennis,” he said, adding that he was “more or less healthy… and playing without limitation”.

“Maybe in one month and a half I’ll say ‘OK, it’s enough, I can’t keep going’. But today I cannot guarantee that it’s going to be the last one. This place is magical for me.”

And if 2024 turns out to be Nadal’s French Open farewell? “I just can say thanks to all the love I received from all the players, from the organisers, from the tournaments, from all the community of tennis and sport. I feel very proud that probably I leave a positive legacy there.”

As well as 14 titles in Paris, Nadal can boast a record of 112 wins and just three losses, two of which came against career-long rival Novak Djokovic.

Zverev, who arrives in Paris having won the prestigious Rome Open title, has only beaten Nadal once in six clay-court meetings. When they met in Paris in 2022, the German was forced to retire from their semi-final after sustaining a serious ankle injury.

Nadal isn’t the only A-list talent under a Paris cloud ahead of the tournament start on Sunday.

Defending champion and record 24-time Grand Slam title winner Djokovic, whose three titles in Paris put him alongside Gustavo Kuerten, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, is enduring a title dry spell unseen since 2018.

Back then, he also reached May without a trophy before crashing to a shock quarter-final defeat at the French Open to unheralded Marco Cecchinato of Italy.

This season, Djokovic has lost his Australian Open title and has yet to make a final.

In an attempt to gather a degree of clay-court confidence, Djokovic, who turned 37 on Wednesday, grabbed a late wild card in the ongoing Geneva tournament. That ended in a shock semi-final loss to 44th-ranked Czech Tomas Machac on Friday.

“Of course I am worried… I haven’t been playing good at all this year,” Djokovic, who starts his campaign on Tuesday against home wildcard Pierre-Hugues Herbert, told reporters on Friday.

Asked about his title defence at Roland Garros, Djokovic said: “[I’ve had] some [good] matches here and there but it is what it is. You have to accept it. I don’t consider myself a favourite there. I have a lot to work on. Im going to take it match by match and see how far I can go.”

World number two Jannik Sinner, the man who succeeded Djokovic as Australian Open champion, has been laid low by a hip injury which caused him to skip the Rome Open. Sinner has an extra incentive to progress deep in Paris as he could depose Djokovic as world number one.

Carlos Alcaraz, the reigning Wimbledon champion, also skipped Rome to nurse an arm injury. The world number three meets American lucky loser J.J. Wolf in his first round.

SWIATEK EYES PLACE AMONG GREATS

On the women’s side, world number one Iga Swiatek could become the first player to lift three successive titles in Paris since Justine Henin in 2007.

Swiatek can also become only the fourth woman to win four Roland Garros singles titles in the Open era and is a strong favourite after dominating on clay again this season, arriving in Paris off the back of WTA 1000 victories in Madrid and Rome.

The only female player in history to complete a Madrid-Rome-Roland Garros treble in the same season is Serena Williams.

But the 22-year-old Pole, who faces French qualifier Leolia Jeanjean in the first round, is not daunted by what she could achieve.

“I would lie if I would say I’m not nervous, because everybody is, I think,” Swiatek told reporters on Friday. “There is a lot of pressure, especially when you play well and you already know that you can achieve this step, people are expecting it to happen again and again and again.

“So there is pressure, but I wouldn’t say I’m more nervous than usual… I’m also pretty confident with how I’m playing right now and with the work we have been doing.”

The biggest obstacle standing in her way is Aryna Sabalenka.

The Belarusian missed three match points before losing to Swiatek in a thrilling Madrid final and will be hoping to get another crack at her rival after a one-sided loss in Rome.

Sabalenka, the two-time reigning Australian Open champion, has reached at least the semi-finals in each of the past six Grand Slam events.

Elena Rybakina, the only player to defeat Swiatek on clay this year, was being touted as part of a new ‘big three’ 12 months ago.

But the Kazakh has failed to make the last four at a Slam since losing the 2023 Australian Open final to Sabalenka and has been passed in the rankings by US Open champion Coco Gauff.

American Gauff, playing in a major for the first time since turning 20, will be hoping to go one better than when she lost the 2022 French Open showpiece to Swiatek.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2024

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