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Inside the Line...


by Mike McIntyre

April 25, 2023

Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and storylines from the world of men’s tennis.

As we near the halfway mark of the clay-court season and draw nearer to the second major of the year at Roland-Garros, fans of both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic must be getting nervous as injury concerns hover over both legends.

Nadal, the undisputed King of Clay, hasn’t played a match since the Australian Open back in January as he’s been hampered by a hip injury that originally was supposed to take 6-8 weeks to heal but is still keeping him down. Djokovic for his part seems to have encountered a more recent roadblock, as he was seen favouring his elbow at the recent event in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Neither player has been able to get their clay court games rolling at anywhere near their usual pace by the end of April, which must be of great concern in both camps as the pair usually head into Paris with a succession deep runs to their name on the surface.

Nadal will turn 37 in June and has been battling numerous injuries in recent years as he clearly is getting closer to the finish line of his illustrious career. Last year it was his abdominal issues, his ribs, as well as his ongoing foot issue that he’s struggled with throughout his career that kept him out of action for stretches of the season. In a video message the Spaniard posted recently, he provided the following update to his fans:

“As you know, I suffered a major injury in Australia, in the psoas [muscle]. Initially, it had to be a six-to-eight week recovery period, and we are now on 14. The reality is that the situation is not what we would have expected. 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.”

Djokovic also has a birthday approaching as he turns 36 a week before the French Open begins. He had seemed to delay the effects of Father Time in recent years but is now dealing with a part of the body that derailed his progress back in 2017 and forced his season to end prematurely that year after Wimbledon.

After going 2-2 in his first two clay events this year, Djokovic has recently withdrawn from the Madrid Masters 1000 event, a tournament he has captured three times before. For those who want to see the best players in the world healthy and competing, especially at the Slams, hopefully this is just a preventative measure for the World No. 1 in order to be able to compete when it matters the most.

Djokovic didn’t seem too concerned when speaking about his withdrawal from the event in Madrid:

“There are still several weeks to practice and play. In the previous seasons, I’ve always had an unsatisfying and slow start on clay and then played better tennis in the final stages. I hope to repeat the same pattern this year.”

Nadal’s injury struggles are more concerning given the length of time he has already been sidelined for as well as his recent statement about having to try a new course of action after not finding the success he had hoped for with Plan A.

“I was training, but 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.”

With Nadal and Djokovic both tied at 22 career Majors, there’s a lot on the line at this year’s French Open, a fact that both players are keenly aware of. And while the two are sorting out their injury issues, there’s a whole crop of players who won’t shed a single tear should they not be able to compete at Roland-Garros.

Even if both Nadal and Djokovic are healthy in time for the French Open, the 2023 edition is going to feel like the most wide-open draw we’ve seen there in perhaps the last twenty years. 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who has already beaten both Nadal and Djokovic in his young career, is considered the current favourite by many regardless of whether or not the two members of the Big Three are present at the event. With Nadal also ranked outside the top ten, he likely will have to face a top-ranked player far earlier than anticipated.

Fans of Nadal and Djokovic can take comfort in the fact that both players have managed to win Roland-Garros in the past without having their full clay court lead-up going according to plan. Once they get there, both have shown the ability to be able to raise their games, draw on past experience, confidence and their intimidation factor that also surely plays to their advantage.

Nadal won his 13th and 14th titles in Paris with very little pre-tournament preparation. In 2020 he only managed to play in four events all year long prior to the unusual Fall version of the tournament and also failed to win a single clay court event leading up to it. A year ago, he only made the quarter-finals in Madrid and the round of 16 in Rome before again striking gold in Paris.

Meanwhile Djokovic went out early in Monte Carlo in 2021, did not compete in Madrid that year either and still managed to capture Roland-Garros. Having a little extra rest before a best-of-five competition can’t hurt, if one wants to take a glass half-full look at the current situation that both players are facing. With 16 of the past 18 titles in Paris in their pockets (albeit heavily slanted in Nadal’s favour by a 14 to 2 margin) an optimistic outlook isn’t out of the question for their chances should they be able to play.

At their age, long-term thinking needs to also be taken into account. Rush back too soon and risk losing out on the rest of the season with another injury setback. We wish them both the best of luck on returning to the courts sooner rather than later and at full health.