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With decision to end 2021 season, Rafael Nadal may benefit from post-Roland Garros refresh
With a defeat in Paris likely still on his mind, a chance to start over in 2022 may be just what the 20-time major champion needs.
Published Aug 20, 2021
WATCH: Nadal played his last match of 2021 at the Citi Open, where he fell to Lloyd Harris.
“The foot is not the proper way today,” Rafael Nadal said on Friday, as he announced that he was withdrawing from the US Open and ending his 2021 season.
According to Rafa, his left foot hasn’t been the right way for a while. It’s the same issue that sidelined him and briefly threatened his career back in 2005. Now, 16 seasons later, it has forced him off the tour again.
“During the last year I was not able to practice and prepare myself the way I need to, to be competitive at the standard I want to be,” Nadal said. “So, we had to take that decision, but I am confident that I will recover myself 100 percent and I will be able to fight again for the most important things.”
Can he recover from this injury at 35, the same way he did when he was 19? Obviously, you can never underestimate the power of Rafa’s determination. Whether it was his foot, or his knees, or his wrist, or his pounding style of play, people have been predicting his imminent physical demise since he was a teenager. And here he is, with 20 major titles.
“Honestly I was able to have a career that I never dreamed about,” he said, “so I am confident I will recover again.”
This is, in the most immediate sense, bad news for the US Open. It comes on the heels of withdrawals by Roger Federer and defending champion Dominic Thiem. It’s also not good news for tennis fans in general. Two of the sport’s biggest stars, Federer and Serena Williams, seem as if they’re on the verge of retiring; now, suddenly, Nadal’s future—as a player and especially as a Grand Slam contender—could be in jeopardy as well. He’ll turn 36 next year; that’s how old Federer was when he won his 20th and presumably final major.
Yet there’s also something about this break that feels necessary for Nadal, even if he never would have freely chosen to take it. Surrendering his crown at Roland Garros, after owning that tournament for so many years, was always going to sting psychologically. He has always talked about that tournament as if it were a refuge. Whatever struggles he was having at other events and on different surfaces, if he could win again in Paris he could feel good about his season. It gave him a base, a floor of confidence, and took a little pressure off of him everywhere else.
This year, shortly after he lost that classic semifinal to Novak Djokovic in Chatrier, Nadal gave a speech at a graduation ceremony at his academy in Mallorca. As he was about to start, the wind kicked up and blew his papers all over the place. When he gathered them and got back to the microphone, he smiled and said, “Not a good start. That was like my last match at Roland Garros.”
Honestly I was able to have a career that I never dreamed about, so I am confident I will recover again. Rafael Nadal
It was a funny joke, and showed that he could laugh at his defeat and his foibles. But it also showed that the match was on his mind. It wasn’t his 105 wins at Roland Garros that Rafa remembered most; it was his third defeat there. If you’re a champion, you’re only as good as your last match, and you’re never done proving yourself.
So maybe Rafa can use this time to recover mentally as well as physically, to start fresh in a quest to retake Roland Garros and win a 21st major title in 2022.
As for the rest of 2021, that leaves Djokovic alone on the Big 3 mountaintop, and an even heavier favorite to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam at the US Open. Nadal had won the title there in 2017 and 2019, and Thiem won it last year; neither will be in the draw this time. The man who beat Djokovic in the 2016 Open final, Stan Wawrinka, won’t be there, either.
Can we pencil in Djokovic as a calendar-year Grand Slammer? Not just yet. While he’s 75-12 at the Open, and at one point he reached the semifinals or better 11 straight times, he has just three titles in New York in 15 attempts. He was defaulted in 2020; he retired with a shoulder issue in 2019; and over the years he has lost late-round matches—to Kei Nishikori, Wawrinka, and Andy Murray—that he would love to have back. While Nadal’s withdrawal means there’s one less Top 5 player in his way, Djokovic may also feel more pressure, knowing that everyone will expect him to cakewalk to the title and the Slam.
Back in Mallorca in June, after Nadal picked up his wind-blown papers and made his joke, he said this to the students at his academy:
“Sometimes you will achieve what you’re looking for in a short space of time and sometimes it will take longer, but if you give 100 percent, you will never have any regrets. If there’s one thing I have learned throughout these years it is to always pick myself up.”
At 35, Nadal doesn’t have as much time to pick himself up as he did at 19. But he knows he can’t rush it. What we know is that he’ll give it 100 percent.