Rafael Nadal: Retirement creeps ever closer after latest injury withdrawal

Spanish great was forced to pull out of Indian Wells, raising further questions about whether this will be his final season

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Rafael Nadal announced on Wednesday night that he has been forced to withdraw from the Indian Wells Masters having not sufficiently recovered from his latest injury setback.

After playing in the 2023 Australian Open, Nadal missed the rest of last season with a hip flexor injury. He made his return at January's Brisbane International but sustained a muscle tear, which has since kept him sidelined.

The Spaniard, 37, played an exhibition against compatriot Carlos Alcaraz in Las Vegas on Sunday and had been scheduled to make his return at Indian Wells, but he has now confirmed that he is not yet "ready to play at the highest level".

"It is with great sadness that I have to withdraw from this amazing tournament," the 22-time Grand Slam champion said in a statement. "Everyone knows how much I love this place and how much I love to play here at Indian Wells.

"That’s also one of the reasons why I came very early to the desert to practice and try to get ready. I have been working hard and practicing and you all know I took a test this weekend but I don’t find myself ready to play at the highest level at such an important event.

"It is not an easy decision, it’s a tough one as a matter of fact but I can’t lie to myself and lie to the thousands of fans. I will miss you all and I am sure the tournament will be a great success."

Nadal's withdrawal marks the latest in a well-documented, two-decade-long battle against injuries that have threatened several times to end his career prematurely.

Yet, while the former world No 1 has fought back with a warrior-like spirit each previous time to reclaim his place at the top of the game, often breaking his own pain barrier in the pursuit of major titles, this time it's different. Nadal has admitted as much himself.

The Spaniard has refused to definitively state that 2024 will be his final season, but he has alluded to it often enough during the first few weeks of the year.

"For me, the priority is to try to get out of Indian Wells unscathed," Nadal said when he still planned to play. "Whatever is left, leave it in the clay season, which may or may not be the last, I have not decided 100 per cent. At the moment things are going that way."

Whether Nadal continues beyond the European claycourt swing will likely depend on his health and how he fares at the French Open.

There is a fairytale scenario in which he lifts La Coupe des Mousquetaires (The Musketeers' Cup) for a record-extending 15th time, dragging his creaking body over the line for one final triumph. What better place from which to glide off into the sunset than at Roland Garros, where Nadal has long cemented his status as the greatest player the tournament and venue has ever seen?

Alternatively, Nadal's physical limitations could see him fall short of that fitting farewell, and aware that he no longer has the capacity to compete for Grand Slam trophies, opts to walk away from the sport anyway.

Only Nadal will know the right time to call it a day but it would seem unlikely that he would be willing to put his body through the rigours of another hardcourt swing in the autumn if he is unable to find a competitive level during his favoured clay season in the spring and early summer.

Nadal's 22 Grand Slam titles – in pictures

There will be plenty of time in the future to pay tribute to Nadal's astounding career and the transcendent impact he has made on tennis. But for now and in light of his latest setback, it's worth highlighting just how much injuries have disrupted his legendary career; in total, Nadal has missed 14 Grand Slam tournaments due to injury. Compare that to his great rivals Roger Federer, who missed none for the first 16 years of his career, and Novak Djokovic – absent for just one (the other two were due to Covid-19 entry restrictions).

Knee injuries eventually took their toll on Federer, which denied him the chance to leave on his own terms. The Swiss legend had planned for a final swansong at Wimbledon in 2022 but a failure to sufficiently recover from multiple knee surgeries meant retirement was forced upon him.

If anyone deserves the opportunity to control when he decides to hang up his racquet, after all his body has endured over the past 20 years and after everything he has contributed to his sport, it's Nadal.

Updated: March 07, 2024, 9:07 AM