Rafael Nadal, the 14-time French Open men’s singles champion, will not compete in this year’s edition of the event that has defined his career because of an injury that has sidelined him for months.
Nadal, who has competed in Paris every year since 2005 and has an astonishing record of 112-3 at Roland Garros, made the announcement in a news conference Thursday at his tennis academy on the Spanish island of Majorca. His withdrawal from the French Open, which is scheduled to begin on May 28, was not a surprise. He has not played since suffering an injury to his lower abdomen and right leg at the Australian Open in January. But the reality of the announcement, and his approaching absence from the red clay he has ruled for so long, jolted the tennis world.
“I was working as much as possible every single day for the last four months and they have been very difficult months because we were not able to find the solution to the problem I had in Australia,” Nadal said. “Today I am still in the position where I am not able to feel myself ready to compete at the standards I need to be to play at Roland Garros.”
Nadal said he would further extend his break from the game to try to get healthy and then attempt to play next season, which he said “probably is going to be my last year in the professional tour.”
“That’s my idea,” he said. “Even that, I can’t say that 100 percent it’s going to be like this because you never know what is going to happen, but my idea and motivation is to try to enjoy and to try to say goodbye to all the tournaments that have been important to me in my tennis career.”
Nadal won last year’s French Open to claim his 22nd Grand Slam singles title, and he has repeatedly called the tournament, the year’s second major, the most important of his career. His absence will create a massive void that the statue of him just steps away from the main stadium ensures will be a theme throughout the event.
Nadal made it clear that he did not want to play the tournament with no realistic chance of being truly competitive.
“I am not a guy who is going to be at Roland Garros and just try to be there and put myself in a position I don’t like to be in,” he said.
Nadal said that after pushing himself through pain to try to get ready for the French Open, he will now take an extended break from practice in an attempt to get healthy.
“I don’t know when I will be able to come back to the practice court, but I will stop for a while,” he said. “Maybe two months. Maybe one month and a half. Maybe three months. Maybe four months. I don’t know. I’m not the guy who likes to predict the future but I am just following my personal feelings and just following what I really believe is the right thing to do for my body and for my personal happiness.”
For weeks, as the pro tennis tour has meandered through the European clay season, which he has dominated throughout his career, Nadal’s health and his halting rehabilitation process have been some of the game’s main plot points. The conversation has gotten louder each week his withdrawals — from tournaments in Monte Carlo, then Barcelona, then Madrid — mounted.
His most expansive comments before Thursday came in a video posted on social media last month in which he explained that his ongoing battle to recover from the tear in his psoas muscle in his lower abdomen and upper right leg had not gone as planned. Nadal suffered the injury in January during the second round of the Australian Open, the year’s first major tournament, where he was attempting to defend his title.
In the days following Nadal’s injury in Australia, his team stated that it expected him to miss six to eight weeks, a timetable that would have allowed Nadal to return in time for the spring clay court season in Europe.
The announcement at the beginning of this month that Nadal would not play in Rome, where he has won a record 10 times, sounded major alarm bells. The conditions there are closest to those at the French Open. Over the weekend, the organizer of a challenger event on red clay in France next week said Nadal had not sought entry into that tournament. That meant his opening match at Roland Garros would have to be his first real competition in more than four months.
Nadal had said last month that he planned to seek additional treatment for the injury but did not specify what that treatment entailed and said he had no idea when he would be able to compete again. Throughout a record-setting but injury-plagued career, Nadal has mainly relied on a group of medical specialists in his native Spain, including Dr. Angel Ruiz Cotorro.
It is not unheard-of for Nadal to enter a Grand Slam tournament without having played a tuneup on the corresponding surface. Nadal entered Wimbledon last year without having played a competitive match on grass since the middle of 2019. He made the semifinals but had to withdraw because of an abdominal injury.
The psoas muscle injury is the latest in a string of ailments over the past 18 months — the flare-up of a chronic foot injury, a cracked rib and a pulled abdominal muscle — that have caused Nadal, who turns 37 on June 3, to miss many of the tournaments that are usually on his schedule. It comes at a time in his career when retirement has begun to feel less conceptual and more like a looming reality with each passing week.
Making matters worse, tennis punishes inactivity in a way that can make coming back from long layoffs especially difficult. If Nadal misses the entire clay court season, he will experience a calamitous drop in the world rankings unlike anything he has been through during the past two decades.
In March, Nadal dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in 18 years. By missing the French Open, he is likely to drop out of the top 100 for the first time since 2003. While he will still be able to gain entry into any tournament by requesting a wild card, depending on how long he is sidelined and whether his ranking will qualify for protection, he may not be seeded and is likely to face top players far earlier than he usually would.
That will present a special challenge for Nadal, who has often talked about needing to play himself into form and finding his rhythm with a series of wins against lesser competition. That opportunity will not be available without a higher ranking, and winning matches is the only way to achieve a higher ranking. Andy Murray of Britain, who turned 36 on May 15, is a two-time Wimbledon champion who climbed to No. 1 in 2016 and has been battling this dynamic since his return from major hip surgery four years ago.
Nadal’s absence figures to leave the door wide open for Carlos Alcaraz, the Spanish sensation who turned 20 earlier this month and last year became the youngest man ever to achieve the world’s top ranking after winning the U.S. Open; or Novak Djokovic, who is tied with Nadal with 22 Grand Slam singles titles. Djokovic has had his own injury problems during the clay court season, though he has appeared to be in solid form this week in Rome at the Italian Open.
When he rejoined the tour in April, he aggravated an elbow injury in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Then he withdrew from Madrid so he could rest for Rome, where he has won six times, and Roland Garros, where he has won twice, most recently in 2021.
Djokovic, the world No. 1, missed two important hard court tournaments in the United States in March because he could not gain entry into the country without being vaccinated against Covid-19. The Biden administration has ended that requirement, meaning Djokovic will be able to play in the U.S. Open.