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    Tuesday, July 16, 2024

    Rafael Nadal says he is feeling better, this might not be his last French Open

    Paris — Rafael Nadal smiled. He joked. He sounded upbeat. He's been playing well and feeling better in practice. He is eager to get going at Roland Garros after dealing for so long with hip and abdominal problems.

    Oh, and then there's this little tidbit he dropped during a pre-tournament news conference Saturday: This French Open might not turn out to be the 14-time champion's last appearance, after all, at his favorite event, one he called “magical.”

    Because of his age — he turns 38 on June 3 — and his injuries, not to mention past statements about figuring 2024 would be his last year on tour, everyone from other players to fans to the media has been assuming it will be his farewell appearance at the French Open.

    Asked whether that's accurate, Nadal grinned and replied: “Don’t assume that.”

    “It’s a big, big chance that it’s going to be my last Roland Garros,” Nadal said. “But if I have to tell you it’s 100% my last Roland Garros? Sorry, but I will not. Because I cannot predict what’s going on.”

    The Spaniard missed much of the last two seasons because of health problems, including hip surgery that forced him to sit out the French Open a year ago, his first absence there since he made his debut as a teenager. He is just 7-4 in 2024, and he expressed a bit of doubt after a lopsided loss at the Italian Open two weeks ago — he called it a “disaster” on Saturday — as to whether he would even enter the clay-court tournament in Paris at all.

    But he did show up and has been training in front of loud, supportive crowds this week. Because his ranking is so low after such little activity — once No. 1, he is No. 276 currently — Nadal did not get the benefit of a seeding and was drawn to face No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev in a showdown that will be the focus on Monday, Day 2 of the tournament.

    “Ideally, I would have liked to play him in the later stage of the tournament, but it is how it is now. He is unseeded this year; I am seeded,” Zverev said. “You know, it’s a tough draw, but it’s a tough draw for both of us. We’ll see how it goes.”

    Nadal said he can move more confidently than he has been and gets the sense he can play with anyone now, a sensation that has been fleeting for a while.

    “I probably will say is the first week since I come back playing tennis that I am able to run the proper way without having a lot of limitations," he said. "That encourages me.”

    Zverev is coming off a title in Rome and might be a popular pick as the most talented player yet to win a Grand Slam trophy. He was the runner-up at the 2020 U.S. Open and was at the top of his game two years ago at Roland Garros, when he took on Nadal in the semifinals but had to stop after tearing ligaments in his right ankle and was taken out of Court Philippe Chatrier with a wheelchair.

    When Zverev's brother, former player Mischa, informed him of the draw's outcome on Thursday, Zverev said he figured it was a joke.

    And Zverev — whose ongoing court case related to accusations of domestic abuse by a former girlfriend will resume with a hearing in his native Germany next week — said he can't go into Monday's match thinking about facing a diminished Nadal.

    “For me, in my mind, I’m going to play peak Rafa Nadal. That’s what I expect him to be. I expect him to be at his absolute best,” Zverev said. “I expect him to play the best tennis he’s played in a long time on this court.”

    Nadal wound up winning his 22nd major championship at the 2022 French Open while playing on a left foot that hurt so much he needed nerve-numbing injections. So competing at something less than perfect health is nothing new.

    He hurt his hip during a second-round loss at the Australian Open in January 2023, and later had an operation. A comeback this January was stalled by a tear in a hip muscle near that original injury. A recurrence of an abdominal issue hampered Nadal later this season.

    And while Nadal has often intimated retirement is beckoning, he said Saturday that he doesn't “want to close, 100%, the door,” because he is enjoying playing tennis, he likes traveling with his wife and young son and, he added, “I was not able to explore yet the proper way how I will be able to play, being in, again, more or less healthy conditions, playing without limitation.”

    He asked Saturday for a halt to questions about his future while he figures things out. About a possible return to the French Open. About how much longer he will be on tour.

    “Give me some time,” Nadal said. “Maybe in one month and a half, I'll say, ‘OK, it’s enough. I can’t keep going.’ But today, in some way, I cannot guarantee that that’s going to be the last one."

    Spain's Rafael Nadal trains at Roland Garros stadium on Saturday in Paris. The French Open starts Sunday. (Jean-Francois Badias/AP Photo)
    Spain's Rafael Nadal looks up during a training session at Roland Garros stadium Saturday in Paris. The French Open starts Sunday. (Jean-Francois Badias/AP Photo)
    Spain's Rafael Nadal kisses the trophy as he celebrates winning his 10th French Open title against Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros stadium in Paris on June 11, 2017. (Christophe Ena/AP File Photo)

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