The first tennis racket I ever had was a red Wilson junior. Every racket I’ve owned since then has been a Babolat — all because of Rafael Nadal.
In fact, the only thing I remember from when I started playing tennis at age 5, aside from the grueling long summer days training on clay, has been Nadal. From the moment I watched him on the court, I was all about Nadal.
Aside from Roger Federer, of course, the Spaniard has been the one constant presence in my life, at least when it comes to tennis. And not to be dramatic, but Nadal missing out on Roland Garros this year marks a seismic shift in tennis as I know it.
Nadal, the “King of Clay,” has been an absolute monster at Roland Garros, racking up 14 titles since 2005. To be more specific, he’s won in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022.
Now that’s a list.
On Thursday, Nadal announced that he was going to be missing out on this year’s Roland Garros, otherwise known as the French Open, because of a hip injury he sustained earlier in the year at the Australian Open. This is the first time Nadal has been absent from the tournament since 2004. What’s more, following Federer’s retirement last year, this will be the first French Open without either of the two giants since 1998.
When I started playing tennis in 2006, Nadal had already won his first French Open title, which was also the first Grand Slam of his career. By the time I was 11, I was waking up at any and all hours of the night to watch Nadal play. I would, regrettably to my 22-year-old self, spam my Facebook page with jubilations or rants that no one cared about, all depending on how Nadal was doing on any particular day.
This is all to say that I’ve never known tennis without Nadal.
In the same press conference that he announced his absence from Roland Garros, Nadal said that 2024 will likely be his last year playing professional tennis. To be honest, the fact that he would some day retire never really crossed my mind. He was so omnipresent in tennis that I have never considered a future in tennis without him.
I know that people disagree with me about the “Big Three” — I think that they’ve done wonders for tennis. Of course, I don’t think that every future generation of tennis players should be compared to them, nor should analysts or the media try to tag any young champion as a member of the “next Big Three,” a title that will follow them around until their inevitable mid-20s slump. But the era of domination from Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic is one that will be sorely missed.
Why? The pure achievement of Nadal and Djokovic’s record-tying 22 Grand Slam titles, the three’s collective high level-dominance throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the amicable and sportsmanlike relationship they seem to have on and off the court. It’s nothing short of admirable.
The Big Three’s eventual departure from the sport is not an unwelcome development in tennis. But, for me, there will never be anyone else like Nadal on clay again, and that’s a tough one to accept.
Four years ago, in a press conference, Nadal gave one of his most famous quotes: “What happened in Monte-Carlo happened, and what happened in Barcelona happened and what happened in Madrid happened — and here we are. We are in Rome.”
Last weekend, this year’s iteration of the Italian Open — otherwise known as the Rome Masters — concluded. Just before it, we watched Madrid, and before that, Barcelona and Monte-Carlo. And what happened at all those tournaments? There was no Nadal.
Then, “we were in Rome” — still no Nadal. And what a noticeable absence that has been.
This isn’t to say that there is no one who can take his place. Lord, you just have to watch Carlos Alcaraz play for five minutes — or even Daniil Medvedev’s lanky and at times disorganized-looking defense — to know that tennis is in good hands. But, for me, at least, Nadal’s absence had an impact, and it’ll definitely take some getting used to.
There’s just something about the pure athleticism, the unbelievable tennis instinct and that monster of a forehand that allows for perfectly constructed points on clay that no one else can match. The era of the “King of Clay” has been something truly special — he is an inspiration for the sport and one of the greatest people to ever hold a tennis racket.
I owe my 17 years of watching and playing tennis to Nadal. And while his absence in Paris marks another step towards the end of an era — in more ways than one — I can’t wait to see the next generation of clay court specialists pick up the torch and battle it out for the title.