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‘Maybe, maybe not’: Nadal goes cryptic before uncertain French Open | French Open 2024


‘Maybe, maybe not’: Nadal goes cryptic before uncertain French Open | French Open 2024

French Open 2024

With top seeds struggling or recently injured, the men’s draw is hard to call while Swiatek has few serious rivals

Sat 25 May 2024 12.40 EDT

As Rafael Nadal expressed his satisfaction at being able to return to Roland Garros once again, a flurry of laughter circled the room. This coming fortnight could be a truly significant moment, the 14-time champion’s final appearance in Paris and one that could well end with his first-round meeting against Alexander Zverev. In reality, though, not even Nadal has a clue if this is the end.

“Maybe the last one, maybe not,” he said, smiling. “I hope to be clear. I don’t want to create a big confusion, but I’m enjoying what I am doing. Sorry, but I am feeling competitive in the practices.”

Nadal had been moved to explain why he could not be certain this would be his final appearance at the French Open, despite his own comments this year. After his farewell ceremony at the Madrid Open, Italian Open organisers had planned their own surprise event, but Nadal quickly left the court after his dire loss to Hubert Hurkacz and did not return.

Later, he noted he was not sure it would be his last appearance there. The French Tennis Federation may be well served to temper any plans for a grand farewell.

A month ago in Barcelona, Nadal’s future seemed grim. The 37-year-old had competed in one tournament in the previous 15 months and he was still struggling physically in the days before the Madrid Open, unsure if his body would let him perform properly. Since then, he has been able to train and compete for four weeks without any significant problems.

With many hours spent on the court, Nadal has felt himself progressing. He said he is competitive with top players in practice matches and, as of this past week, has finally been able to move with freedom. “In some way I don’t want to close 100% the door, because of a very simple thing,” he said.

“First, I am enjoying playing. Second, I am travelling with the family. They are enjoying. I am enjoying sharing all this process with them. And third, I was not able to explore yet the proper way how I will be able to play being in more or less healthy conditions again, playing without limitation.”

In a perfect world, this process would have happened a few months earlier, allowing Nadal an opportunity to find his feet throughout the clay season before Roland Garros. But time is not on his side and Zverev, the fourth seed, awaits.

“It’s a super tough first round,” said Nadal. “Maybe I repeat the disaster of Rome. It’s a possibility. I don’t want to hide that. But in my mind is to do something different and play much better and give myself a chance to play competitively.”

Beyond Nadal, the men’s draw is the most open grand slam in years. While Novak Djokovic, the top seed, is struggling badly with motivation and form, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz, seeded second and third respectively, arrived recovering from injuries. Among the rest of the field, whoever is healthy, bold and ready to produce their best may be rewarded with the tournament of their life.

After years of order with the men and unpredictability with the women, the roles have reversed. Iga Swiatek returns as the overwhelming favourite, seeking her third consecutive French Open title and a fourth in her past five appearances. Swiatek has dominated the clay season, becoming the first player to win the Madrid-Rome double as a four-week format.

In both finals, Swiatek had to hold off Aryna Sabalenka, the world No 2 and clear second favourite, and their rivalry continues to grow. While the Madrid Open final was an instant classic, decided on a final-set tie-break after Sabalenka missed three match points, Rome was perhaps a better example of how difficult it is to hang with Swiatek in slower clay court conditions.

Elena Rybakina, the fourth seed, is clearly another contender after defeating Swiatek in the semi-finals of Stuttgart and narrowly losing a spectacular battle with Sabalenka in Madrid, but she appears to be struggling with her immune system as she has been unable to remain healthy.

Coco Gauff, seeded third, has found her form in recent weeks but her 1-10 record against Swiatek is a monumental obstacle now she has been drawn in the Pole’s half.

Beyond the top four, the Americans Danielle Collins and Madison Keys stand as more peripheral contenders after recent performances. Still, while there are numerous players performing at an extremely high level, it remains to be seen if anyone can slow down this era of dominance Swiatek continues to establish.

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