The easiest thing is to write off Nadal and Djokovic

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (PC: X)

Not often will fans find a picture of two tennis champions on the same flight together, notably in the middle of a major tournament. This was exactly what stirred up a hornet’s nest, as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were spotted flying out of Indian Wells together

For Djokovic, the loss to Luca Nardi, a rank outsider, was a shocker. The winner of 24 Grand Slam titles has looked fallible in 2024, and this was not the first instance. For years, the Serb has looked rock-solid, unbeatable at the Majors. He has been the Teflon-coated champion who did not show too many emotions in the years preceding 2024.

Now, Djokovic looks beatable. Being bumped out of the Australian Open by Jannik Sinner in the semi-finals was a shock for his fans. And before the Indian Wells tournament began, easily one of the biggest stops on the ATP calendar, he had spoken of Nadal, his on-court foe, as well.

Djokovic had hinted that the era of dominance of the Big 3 – Roger Federer is already long retired – was coming to a close. For him to suggest this was possibly the last flicker produced a whirlpool of emotions. At the same time, when Nadal flew all the way to Indian Wells well in advance to adjust to the time zone on the Pacific side of the USA, it was a sign that nothing was being left to chance when it came to preparation.

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The picture Rafael Nadal uploaded to announce his retirement
The picture Rafael Nadal uploaded to announce his retirement (Credit: Rafael Nadal)

But Nadal, hero of millions, pulled out of Indian Wells, which, of course, offered a chance for Sumit Nagal to enter the main draw as a lucky loser. Each time Nadal has withdrawn from a tournament in recent times, the words he posts on social media resonate. There are words of of pain, agony, of being unable to cope with what could happen.

The situation is pretty confusing, to be honest. Almost on a weekly basis, one sees Nadal posting images of himself in training, bulked up, and hitting those groundstrokes with his sleeve-ripping arms. Nadal has been training, but the fear continues to lurk in his mind that his body will not cooperate. Like an old jalopy, it may break down and need to be towed to the garage.

Nadal faced a most painful time in 2023, when he was bounced out of the Australian Open by Mackenzie McDonald. Unable to play, Nadal went away from the tennis world. Images and news snippets were posted, for fans eager to hear from him. Before the 2023 French Open, he posted a long message on social media about how he hoped to take a long break and return in 2024, the Olympic year.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (PC: X)

It’s easy to be an armchair critic and pronounce loudly on social media that ‘Nadal is finished’. If that is the respect he commands after winning 22 Grand Slam titles in a glittering career, it is sad.

The Spaniard did show up in Australia, early in 2024. He played in Brisbane, and the rust seemed to have been scraped away. But just when all appeared to be good, he pulled a muscle and did not compete in the Australian Open.

Despite the extent of Nadal’s efforts to regain match fitness, the air of uncertainty won’t go away. He showed up at Indian Wells and said: “It is with great sadness that I have to withdraw from this amazing tournament at Indian Wells. “Everyone knows how much I love this place and how much I love to play here. That’s also one of the reasons why I came very early to the desert to practise and try to get ready.”

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (PC: X)

There is also an ever-louder buzz about Djokovic’s decline. But this is an Olympic year. Djokovic will do whatever it takes to compete on clay, twice, at the French Open and the Olympics. Win or lose, no one can predict. For the record, he did win the Grand Slam in straight sets on clay last year. This needs to be said, as public memory can be short at times.

As for the image of the two titans on a flight together, is the end really near? If you are a pessimist, the answer is probably yes. Djokovic will still slog and destroy many players on court. A loss to Nardi does not change that.

Similarly, Nadal wants that one last fling, notably on clay in Paris. To win seven matches and pocket the French Open title looks impossible. It’s also his dream to play the Olympics, even if just the doubles with Carlos Alcaraz. Nobody should deny him that swansong, even though doubles has hardly been his forte in a storied career.

Also Read: Teamwork behind the scenes made the Conclave possible

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