By Tushar Bhaduri

The countdown has officially started. While Rafael Nadal’s absence from this year’s French Open is significant news in itself, the Spaniard’s admission that he is on the final lap of his long and unbelievable career should make all tennis lovers pause and reflect on what they are going to miss when he leaves the scene.

Nadal has faced innumerable challenges – both in terms of injury and personal setbacks – and always come back stronger than before. But the stubborn hip flexor injury and the advancement of Father Time may have finally caught up with arguably the most superhuman of tennis champions.

While a tally of 22 Grand Slam titles – the joint-highest with Novak Djokovic, including as many as 14 Roland Garros crowns – is enough for him to be included in every conversation about the very best in the all-time history of the sport, it’s the way he collected those honours and the attributes he exhibited, both on and off the court, on the way that should be cherished even more.

With Nadal, no point was lost until the ball had bounced twice, no match was a lost cause, no matter how dire the situation. There have been countless matches that he turned around just because he refused to go away, and because the opponent developed self-doubts on the cusp of victory because of who was standing across the net. There he was charging all around the court, getting to seemingly-unreachable shots. When Nadal lost a rally, it was not because the opponent hit an unreturnable shot. It was because he ran out of court. Grit and sweat have seldom been more breathtaking, providing a visceral thrill to the viewer. It seemed that for the left-hander from Mallorca, the struggle and effort were a reward in itself, apart from the match result. It was, and still is, always a matter of getting the best out of himself. In that sense, the tussle was also played out within himself.

Thorough gentleman

But in Nadal’s case, the fight was always with the ball and within the confines of the court – it never got personal with the man on the other side of the net, no matter how high the stakes. The respect with which he treated all his opponents, even those who may have rubbed him the wrong way, and the lovely Latin accent, won fans around the world.

Of course, Nadal’s career cannot be discussed without mentioning his two greatest peers and rivals. Roger Federer called time on his playing days last year when he was well past 40. Novak Djokovic is still going strong and was even World No. 1 a week ago. A whole host of younger challengers are prowling the circuit, and are winning more frequently than before. But they are merely stepping into the breach left by the Holy Triumvirate, who have transcended their sport and become global icons on and off the court. The encounters between them have more or less defined men’s tennis for the better part of two decades. Federer was the undisputed king of the court when Nadal emerged to challenge him, first on clay and then on every surface. Djokovic then came to make it a trinity, and later often dominated the other two.

But the Serb has struggled to evoke the kind of love and affection that Federer and Nadal have – if one doesn’t consider people in his own country.

Endearing superhero

Paris this summer won’t feel the same. Nadal has not missed a French Open since his first victorious campaign in 2005 and has only been beaten three times on its red clay. His statue near the entrance of the main arena at Roland Garros will forever be a testament to what he has achieved there. The bandana, the bulging biceps, and the incomparable topspin forehand where the racquet makes a full circle in the air before finishing the swing behind his head will not be seen this summer. It will open the door for several other contenders, but tennis will be poorer in Rafa’s absence.

The superstitions of putting his water bottles at just the right places by his seat during matches, taking care not to step on the lines of the court, and that energetic and bouncy stretching and warm-up routine have become integral parts of the experience of watching Nadal in action.

He has not put a timetable on his return, but it is likely that he will take as much time as possible to get ready for the 2024 season, which he expects to be his last on tour. So, one will not be surprised if he misses the remainder of 2023. Less than a fortnight from turning 37, the body has taken a lot of wear and tear, and Nadal would like to be in a condition “to try to enjoy and to try to say goodbye to all the tournaments that have been important to me in my tennis career.”

His absence for the rest of the year may open the door for Djokovic to break the all-time Grand Slam record, or for Nadal’s compatriot Carlos Alcaraz, the current World No. 1, to add to the US Open title he won last year. But as familiar faces leave the stage after decades-long stints, the new world order may need time getting used to.

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