COLUMN: Perhaps Naomi Osaka is the reason hope springs eternal for Rafael Nadal

Despite losing to Alexander Zverev, Rafael Nadal is not ready to accept any goodbye ceremonies on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Photo: Reuters

Despite losing to Alexander Zverev, Rafael Nadal is not ready to accept any goodbye ceremonies on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Photo: Reuters

Published Jun 1, 2024



FRENCH Open action in week one has been dominated by a handful of so-called ‘Comeback Kids’ who fall into various categories.

The categories range from those staging comebacks after being sidelined for prolonged periods of injury, mental health breaks, or maternity leave – namely former No 1s Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka – to those making a habit of digging themselves out of deep holes and fending off match points mid-match – namely current No 1 Iga Swiatek.

Adding to this ambiguous term is the slew of veterans for whom the bell inexorably tolls, obstinately delaying retirement because they firmly believe they can roll back the years and reinvent themselves – probably for the benefit of their young offspring – namely Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Gael Monfils, and yes, again, Nadal.

The Nadal versus Alexander Zverev round-one blockbuster, effectively involving two ‘Comeback Kids’ in that fourth seed Zverev was out of the professional arena for as long as Nadal was, fighting an injury (procured while playing Nadal at the same venue in the 2022 semi-finals), comprehensively and invariably went the German’s way 6-3 7-6 6-3.

Call it divine retribution or a Spanish swansong, or call it what you like, the fact is that Nadal was beaten prematurely in Madrid by Czech Jiri Lehecka, in Rome by Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz and at Roland Garros by Zverev – all Next-Gen, and all better players on the day.

But is Nadal saying goodbye to Roland Garros, like Murray, who is slowly but at least surely bowing out, crushed in round one not by a rising star, but – worse from his point of view – a fellow legend in 39-year-old Wawrinka in their opening match?

No! According to tournament director Amelie Mauresmo, the 14-time title holder is not ready to accept any goodbye ceremonies on Court Philippe-Chatrier. “He wants to keep his options open,” which translates to: “You can expect to see Nadal bounce back in 2025.”

Perhaps Osaka is a reason his hope springs eternal. The four-time Grand Slam champion withdrew from Roland Garros in 2021 under a dark cloud when she was fined heavily for refusing to fulfil her media obligations, citing mental health issues.

Thereafter, she missed most of 2022 and 2023, giving birth to her daughter, and then bounced back with a vengeance this year, very nearly beating defending champion Swiatek in their opener.

And come back from the brink is what Swiatek had to do, dodging a match point and a 5-2 third-set deficit to steal victory – but not before the Japanese sent out a loud comeback call to all opponents waiting (or should we say shaking) in the wings.

As for Wawrinka, Monfils and another resurfacing former Japanese No 1 in Kei Nishikori, none survived round two, despite their admirable fighting spirit, as they were eliminated by next-gen Pavel Kotov, Lorenzo Musetti and Ben Shelton respectively.

More gratifying to witness in terms of genuine comebacks are former women’s No 4 (now ranked 139th) Paula Badosa and reinstated top 10 men’s player Stefanos Tsitsipas pulling their games and over-publicised romance back together and respectively cruising through to round three.

Also comfortably reaching this round were top seed Novak Djokovic, second seed Jannik Sinner and third seed Carlos Alcaraz.

However, eclipsing even the Nadal v Zverev showdown, which the victor said felt like a final, was a classic five-set blockbuster between seventh seed Casper Ruud and Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who displayed an array of volleying skills to rival Roger Federer.

Small wonder that Nadal came to the net more times in his recent denouement than in any other throughout his entire career.