There was a sombre tone over the Foro Italico as fans, journalists and players still left in their respective draws at the Italian Open reacted to the news of Rafael Nadal being absent from the Roland-Garros tournament. Nadal confirmed he would not be defending his French Open title this year due to injury and has suggested he will only be part of the professional tour for one more year.
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The king is dead… long live the king?
The phrase is metaphoric and dramatic in many ways but the news that men’s tennis’ greatest ever clay-court player, Rafael Nadal, will NOT feature at this year’s Roland-Garros has sent melancholic shockwaves across the tennis world and opened the door for a rare, different name to hold aloft La Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2023.
The reigning champion and 14-time winner’s announcement at a press conference held at his Academy in Mallorca on Thursday afternoon is hugely significant on so many levels.
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For some it was expected while others were just hopeful the 22-time major winner would somehow find a way to grace Court Philippe Chatrier once again. The 36-year-old hasn’t beaten the clock in his race to be fit in time to play in the French capital this time around and the news has just raised further questions.
Is it pretty much the end for the former world No.1? Will he ever play on Parisian clay again? What will it mean for the all-time Grand Slam race and who is going to benefit at this year’s Roland-Garros now that the King of Clay has vacated his thrown and will not be in his Kingdom for the first time since 2004?
Paul Hassall took to the Foro Italico grounds and reached out to Spain to gauge the reaction.
A dark collage of grey cloud hovered threateningly over the Foro Italico on Thursday which was symbolic of the mood in Rome both on and off the court right now.
There is a clear sadness away from sport with a significant proportion of the population dramatically hit by the floods in Emilia-Romagna. A minute of silence was held ahead of each of the scheduled tournament matches as a show of solidarity and to honour the memory of the people who have sadly lost their lives.
In terms of tennis there was also a sombre tone as fans, journalists and players still left in their respective Rome draws, reacted to the news of Nadal being absent from the Roland-Garros tournament he has been synonymous with for the past 20 years.
The confirmation inside Court Centrale came in the final moments of the first set of Daniil Medvedev’s routine win over German qualifier Yannick Hanfmann. The Russian was in irrepressible form, but the press box was full of journalists glued to their phones, watching live streams of Nadal announcing he would be out of his favourite Grand Slam tournament.
Around the grounds there was a similar focus on events elsewhere in the Balearic islands and it wasn’t hard to find Rafa fans despite his absence, with the 10-time champion here clearly close to their hearts.
Rome native, Fabio Pierfederici has been a regular at the Foro Italico over the years, witnessing Nadal triumph time and time again.
He heard the news while watching Fabio Fognini practice on Court Pietrangeli alongside his son Carlo, a staunch tennis fan and player who has also been competing in an U12 tournament on the grounds.
“Everyone loves Rafa here,” says Pierfederici senior.
“It has been very sad not to see him play in Rome this year and now we know he won’t be at Roland-Garros either. I have watched him lift the trophy many times over the years here. It is strange when he is not around but we will all have to get used to it.
“Tennis is so physically demanding nowadays. The body needs rest and over the years Rafa’s has suffered so much.”
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Carlo has grown up as a Nadal fan and has even modelled his left-handed forehand on the Spaniard. He added: “I am too young to remember a time before Nadal. He has always been someone I have watched winning in Rome and Roland-Garros.
“It is disappointing news and we just have to hope he can play a full 2024 season to say goodbye in style. Now it is a year for someone else to win both tournaments. It is strange but exciting at the same time.”
There was clear sadness in Spain too, mixed with a belief that the path is now free for Carlos Alcaraz to continue to wave the country’s flag and claim a maiden French Open – and second major title – of his fledgling career.
Ana Valeria Reyes, a Valencia-based reporter who also writes for Hispanic Sports, said: “Paris and Nadal are like one. His loss is sensitive and difficult to accept. For years he has prioritised Roland-Garros over any other tournament on the calendar, and it is remarkable and magical that he has been able to win it even through injuries.
“While the clay of Paris will cry for the loss of its king, Djokovic has the table set to become the biggest winner of Grand Slams. That is, if the new generation allows it. The Serbian has not flourished in the clay swing, and the youngsters have the opportunity to make a significant mark.
“Alcaraz will go into his first Grand Slam as number one in the world, and although there can be a burden of pressure, it could also be a monumental moment for him. Holger Rune and Stefanos Tsitsipas will also feel the same sense of opportunity.
“Paris tearfully demands a new winner now, but Rafa will always be the king.”
Reaction from a French perspective was similarly dismayed and L’Equipe journalist Quentin Moynet took time out of covering the action – and this story on Nadal – to give us some insight.
“It may sound extreme, but I think you could argue Rafael is more important than the French Open in a way,” he said during a chat in the Rome Open press room.
“You don’t see many statues of players in any sport outside a stadium while they are still playing. That’s a real statement of the impact he has made on tennis in our country and in sport as a whole.
“It’s funny because I don’t think he was loved by the French crowds in the early years when he was winning. In France we like an underdog sometimes and he was just too good on Chatrier, even for Roger Federer.
“But over the years that appreciation and adoration has grown. There was one year I recall him in tears following another title and the fact that he had finally, fully endeared himself to the French public once and for all.
“Now, we are all scared that this could be it. He wants to return and play one more time in 2024 and I hope he can do it so he can say goodbye properly.
“Knowing Rafael, it wouldn’t be a first round defeat either. You wouldn’t bet against him in 2024 if he is fit, but there is no doubt this year’s tournament is going to be weird without him.
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“It’s hard for us all to take. First Roger (retires) and now it feels like Rafa is almost gone. The world of tennis almost feels over!”
Reaction of the players still involved in Rome will understandably be considered and carefully phrased, with the praise showered upon Nadal’s achievements a veiled cover for the unspoken thoughts that the top stars on Tour will now have; that this year’s French Open is wide open and very much up for grabs.
As one Rafael Nadal fan club put it, Roland-Garros without Nadal would be like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger.
Well, sadly, we are about to find out just what that looks and feels like… Get well soon, Rafa.