The announcement of Rafa Nadal that he will move away from professional tennis for several months leaves out of Roland Garros the absolute dominator of the clay. His slow recovery from a muscle injury allows us to glimpse the end of a career as suffered as it was awarded: "My intention is that next year is the last and I can play the tournaments that have marked me," explained the Spaniard on Thursday, two weeks before turning 37, leaving his retirement on hold. The Balearic is tied with Novak Djokovic as the tennis player with the most Grand Slam in history, with 22 titles. He leaves a high bar for the immediate future, after competing for almost two decades to raise the figure that today measures excellence in the sport of racket and that the Serbian can take advantage of to beat. When Roger Federer won his first major in 2003, the bar was in Pete Sampras' 14 trophies and the podium could be accessed with nine titles, but the price has skyrocketed: in two decades of dominance, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal successively raised it to 20, 21 and 22 trophies.
"I live my day to day and my concerns are different from being the best in history or tiebreaking. I mean it, it's not a pose. We have coincided three players who have achieved special things for the history of our sport, and if any of us ends up winning more, then fantastic, "explained Nadal in February 2022 at the Australian Open, after being the first tennis player in the world to lift 21 majors. Until that moment, Rafa had been in the slipstream of the Swiss, who since 2018 led the classification, and slightly ahead of the Serbian, who by winning the last Australian Open would finally reach the Mallorcan. With the step aside of Nadal opens the possibility of imposing himself in this particular competition to Djokovic, who is about to turn 36.
Nadal's career remains at the moment with 92 titles in the showcases. The Manacor has bitten the four great trophies of tennis, especially his fetish tournament: 14 Roland Garros, 4 US Open, 2 Wimbledon and 2 Australian Open.
The fullness of the manacorí is already behind, in 2010, the year of its consecration. Of the four majors only the one played in the southern hemisphere was left without it. A minor injury to his right knee led him to leave the court in Australia during a match against Andy Murray. The injury kept him from doing that season with the culmination that a tennis player reaches when he prevailed in the big four in the same calendar year. The ailment was but one more of those that have been undermining the professional career of the Spaniard until his retirement: to the chronic injury in the left foot have been added the pain in the left pectoral or the discomfort in the iliac psoas, the propeller muscle of the hip that ended last January in a "very big breakdown", according to the tennis player himself.
Rafael Nadal, during his participation in the tournament Les Petits As (France), in 2000. He was 13 years old. Manuel Blondeau - Corbis (Corbis via Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal hits the ball at the Hamburg Masters on May 14, 2003. Friedemann Vogel (Bongarts/Getty Images)
Nadal, during a match against Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open held in Melbourne, on January 24, 2005. Clive Brunskill (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 24, 2005. ADREES LATIF (REUTERS)
Rafael Nadal, on a ball serve during the match against tennis player Lars Burgsmuller at the French Open in Paris, France, in May 2005.FRANCOIS LENOIR (REUTERS)
Nadal, during a match against Brazilian Ricardo Mello at the Canadian Masters in August 2005. Robert Laberge (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal bites the Roland Garros trophy after his victory in Paris (France), on June 5, 2005. Clive Mason (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal plays Czech Jan Hernych at the Indian Wells, California tournament on March 12, 2006. Donald Miralle (Getty Images)
Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Finnish Jarkko Nieminen in the quarterfinal match of the Australian Open played in Melbourne, on January 22, 2008.DENNIS M. SABANGAN (EFE)
Rafael Nadal bites the Wimbledon trophy after beating Swiss tennis player Roger Federer in 2008.Julian Finney (Getty Images)
A bead of sweat runs down Nadal's forehead during the match against Japan's Nishikori Kei at the French Open in Paris on June 3, 2013.THOMAS COEX (AFP)
Nadal, during the trophy ceremony after losing the final to Serbian Novak Djokovic at the Sony Open held in Florida, on March 30, 2014. Al Bello (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal, during a match against Slovakian tennis player Martin Klizan at the Wimbledon tournament held in London (United Kingdom), on June 24, 2014. Al Bello (Getty Images)
Nadal moments before the start of the match against tennis player Kevin Anderson at the Paris Masters, on November 5, 2015.Dean Mouhtaropoulos (Getty Images)
Nadal, during the final of the Mutua Madrid Open played against Andy Murray in Madrid, on May 10, 2015. Juan Carlos Hidalgo (EFE)
Nadal celebrates victory over Fabio Fognini at the Barcelona Open in April 2016. Manuel Queimadelos Alonso (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal, in a training session at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where he won the gold medal. KEVIN LAMARQUE (REUTERS)
Nadal lifts the cup after beating Swiss tennis player Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros in the final played in Paris (France), on June 11, 2017. David Vincent (AP)
Rafael Nadal, during a match played at the Australian Open in Melbourne, January 22, 2019.Fred Lee (Getty Images)
Rafa Nadal in action against Swiss Roger Federer (right), during the semifinal of Roland Garros held in Paris (France), on June 7, 2019.JULIEN DE ROSA (EFE)
Nadal hits the ball against Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas during the Nitto ATP Final in London, UK, on November 19, 2020. Clive Brunskill (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal against Britain's Cameron Norrie during the third round match of the Australian Open played in Melbourne, on February 13, 2021. DEAN LEWINS (EFE)
Nadal in action during the match against Italian Fabio Fognini at the Australian Open held in Melbourne, on February 15, 2021. EFE DAVE HUNT (EFE)
Nadal against Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios at the Indian Wells tournament (California), on March 17, 2022. Clive Brunskill (Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal celebrates victory against tennis player Botic Van De Zandschulp, at the Roland Garros tournament, on May 27, 2022. ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (AFP)
Rafael Nadal, during the match against Mackenzie McDonald, at the Australian Open 2023. Marc GIAMMETTA (Getty Images)
Nadal, serving in the match against Jack Draper in the first round of the Australian Open. Erick W. Rasco (Sports Illustrated via Getty Ima)
The absolute God of clay
Nadal leaves a brutal milestone on his favorite surface, the earth, where he has dominated with unprecedented emphaticness. Clay is the ideal surface for Nadal's game, where the left-hander gives free rein to the ball spin that has given him so much success. His lifted on clay has always printed such an effect on the ball that it overflows the rivals by the height it reaches after the boat.
Only the Borg of the seventies can approach Nadal's record, and even so, he observes it in the distance from his six Musketeers' Cups. A look at the Balearic Elo rating leaves no doubt, a metric that calibrates strength, based on results that updates a player's points with each duel. The injury of last January and the tournaments that the Mallorcan has had to miss these months have ended a streak that goes back to the times when he got enough points to lead this classification in 2005. Since then he had barely let go of the lead except for a wrist injury that kept him out of the Parisian competition in 2016.
A life in the elite
Federer retired at age 41. It is not unreasonable to think that Djokovic, winner of the last major disputed, that of Australia, rises with some more and ends up surpassing the Spaniard, but the end of the career of the three greats of tennis is already glimpsed. It has been a struggle in which Nadal has had one of the leading roles: he entered the number 100 of tennis without turning 17 years old. He was placed among the 10 best tennis players of the moment before turning 19, in April 2005, and has remained on that list, uninterruptedly, for almost 18 years, until last March. Almost half a life in the elite of the racket. It's something the stars of the previous generation can't say. By comparison, Sampras did not reach the age of 11, or Agassi barely exceeded five.
Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have spearheaded a transformation of tennis in recent decades: they have extended their careers to ages that were considered unimaginable before their appearance on the circuit. There are not many tournaments left to the tennis career of the Balearic, who was the first of the three giants to emerge. He reached the top 10 one year younger than Djokovic and two years younger than Federer.
Previous experience foreshadowed that Nadal's game, tremendously intense and physically demanding, would lead him to a short career: that it would be a powerful but ephemeral whirlwind. Nadal painfully took it upon himself to prove the prophecy wrong. In his career he has faced injuries (like all those who demand his body to take them to number 1), he has adapted again and again his game to stay at the top of an increasingly professional circuit. He has done, in short, what is necessary to continue 18 years and push a little higher the bar of trophies that now sits.
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