Hopes for Rafael Nadal to compete for a 15th French Open singles title this spring took a major hit on Thursday.
Nadal, 36, of Spain, announced that the injury to the psoas muscle in his lower abdomen and upper right leg that he sustained at the Australian Open in January had not healed as he and his doctors and trainers had expected. In his statement that he would miss his third clay-court tournament — the Madrid Open, which begins next week — Nadal said he did not have a timetable for when he might be able to play competitive tennis again.
“The injury still hasn’t healed, and I can’t work out what I need to do to compete,” Nadal said in video released Thursday on social media. “I was training, but now a few days ago we decided to change course a bit, do another treatment and see if things improve to try to get to what comes next.”
Losing Nadal for the French Open would be a major blow to the sport and the tournament, where he has long been a top attraction. There is a statue of him outside the main stadium.
It would give Novak Djokovic a major opportunity to move ahead of Nadal in the race to win the most Grand Slam singles titles. Both players have won 22, with Djokovic winning Wimbledon last year and the Australian Open in January. Djokovic is the last player to beat Nadal in Paris, which is among the rarest of feats in tennis. He defeated him in 2021 in the semifinals. Nadal’s record at Roland Garros is 112-3.
Nadal’s injury occurred during his loss in the second round of the Australian Open to Mackenzie McDonald. Nadal pulled up lame as he chased a shot deep in the corner of the court. He immediately turned to his coaches seated courtside at Rod Laver Arena and then crouched in the corner to catch his breath. He completed the match but struggled with his movement for the rest of the afternoon and said later that his disappointment was indescribable.
“I can’t say that I am not destroyed mentally this time because I would be lying,” he said at the time.
Within days, though, Nadal’s team said he would be able to compete in six to eight weeks, a time frame that suggested he would most likely miss the hardcourt swing in the United States in March and early April but would be ready to play when the tour began its clay-court segment in Europe in the spring.
But as those tournaments began, Nadal’s name was missing from the draw, despite images he had posted on social media of his practice sessions. He pulled out of tournaments in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and on Thursday announced that he would not be able to play next week in Madrid. That leaves the Italian Open in Rome, which begins May 8, as the only major tuneup available ahead of the French Open. But that tournament also now seems in doubt.
“The reality is that the situation is not what we would have expected,” Nadal said. “All medical indications have been followed, but somehow the evolution has not been what they initially told us, and we find ourselves in a difficult situation.”
Nadal’s current struggles are the latest in an 18-month battle with injuries that have plagued the twilight of his career. Initially he was able to overcome them and play some of his most startling tennis.
He returned from a flare-up of his chronic foot injury in late 2021 to win the Australian Open last year, then recovered from a cracked rib in time to win his 14th French Open.
At Wimbledon, though, an abdominal muscle tear forced him to default his semifinal match against Nick Kyrgios and to miss much of the summer. He returned for the US Open, but was far from 100 percent and lost to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round. Then came the tear to the psoas muscle in Australia.
Injuries to the psoas, even mild strains and less severe tears of the muscle fibers, can send pain through the buttocks or shooting down the leg and groin, or even make it difficult to shift from sitting to standing upright. Competing in tennis at the highest level is something else altogether.
Even if Nadal misses the French Open, Djokovic’s quest for his third singles championship there will be plenty difficult. Winning is likely to require getting past Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish sensation who won the US Open last year to become the youngest man to achieve the No. 1 ranking in the sport. Like Nadal, Alcaraz grew up playing on red clay in Spain.