The King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, is starting to show some frailty following his second loss within a week, this time at the Rome Masters where his third-round exit is the earliest he has suffered in the Italian capital where he has been the Champion on ten occasions.
It's a pain that comes and goes," he added. "Sometimes stronger, sometimes less. Today was crazy. Maybe in two days, it will be better. I don't know how it will be in two days, in a week -- I really don't know Rafa Nadal
In Madrid last week after a six-week rib injury lay-off, he was beaten in a marathon three-hour plus epic three-set match with his heir apparent Carlos Alcaraz, the eventual champion. Now the foot injury which ended his 2021 season prematurely last August, has returned to hamper his preparations for the French Open which starts a week on Sunday.
Denis Shapovalov, who Nadal described as a ‘dangerous player’ on the eve of their match, took full advantage of the situation to progress into the quarter finals 1-6 7-5 6-2.
Initially there were no signs of any problems with Nadal dominating the Canadian 13th seed and world No.16, but in the second set, the Spaniard, a favourite for the title, started to show signs of a problem. But he never called for a trainer.
“It started to hurt me again in the middle of the second set, and it became unbearable,” he revealed in his post-match interview.
“It’s a pain that comes and goes,” he added. “Sometimes stronger, sometimes less. Today was crazy. Maybe in two days, it will be better. I don’t know how it will be in two days, in a week — I really don’t know.”
It’s certainly a worry for the 35-year-old Spanish icon with Roland Garros, his favourite tournament (having won it a record 13 times) just a few days away
“I’m not injured, I’m a player who lives with this injury,” he continued. “There’s nothing new. Unfortunately, my daily life is difficult.
“Even so, I do my best. Of course, sometimes I find it hard to accept the situation. It’s frustrating sometimes when I can’t train normally for several days.”
He now lives with the injury which has been revealed is a rare degenerative foot condition known as Mueller-Weiss Syndrome which became public last year forcing him to miss Wimbledon. However, he remains determined to make the Roland Garros draw.
“I have to accept the situation and fight,” he said. “I can’t say anything more. I don’t know if I should rest or train, but I still have a goal in a week and a few days. I will dream of this goal.”
While his injury dominated the post-match questions, Nadal was quick to point out that his opponent deserves the credit for a very positive win.
“I don’t want to take away credit from Denis that he deserves… Today is for him,” the third seed said.
In fact Shapovalov, having suffered in the first set, fought back in the second opening up a 4-1 lead before Nadal responded to nearly force a tie-break by which time the foot injury was starting to hamper the Spaniard.
Shapovalov now faces Casper Ruud of Norway, who comfortably took out the American Jenson Brooksby 6-3 6-4 with the winner expected to take on the new title favourite, the top seeded Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, the Serbian world No.1 having defeated his old rival the 37-year-old currently ranked 361, Stan Wawrinka, 6-2 6-2.
In some ways a satisfying victory for Djokovic who had faced Wawrinka in two Grand Slam finals and lost both! However, the Swiss himself is on the come-back trail having undergone surgery on his left foot.
“It is great to see Stan back and winning. He won two tough matches,” Djokovic said. “You can see he is still not physically where he wants to be. But nevertheless, he is Stan Wawrinka and he can hurt you if you give him time.
“I managed to do well from the beginning. I really moved him around the court and held my serve comfortably except for that loss of my serve in the second set.”
Up next for Djokovic is another Canadian Felix Auger Aliassime, the eighth seed who ousted American Lucky Loser Marcus Giron 6-3 6-2.
“I have known Felix for quite a few years,” Djokovic added. “He is an established Top 10 player, so is right up there. He is as hard worker on the Tour that you see, and he is a nice guy. His all-around game is improving. He is improving on clay. I know his game and what is expected.”
Like Nadal, Djokovic – who is chasing his sixth title in Rome and first of the season — has his eyes on the French Open and is building up a head of steam for his campaign in Paris having now won seven of his last nine matches and overall success in Rome would certainly lift his confidence and raise his prospects for a third French crown.
Meanwhile Stefanos Tsitsipas, seeded four, rallied from a set down to defeat the Muscovite Karen Khachanov 4-6 6-0 6-3 to progress further, and now will have to get past the local hero and a partisan crowd, namely Jannik Sinner who in turn eliminated Filip Krajinovic of Serbia 6-2 7-6(6) for his second Masters title of the seson.
Finally former champion Alexander Zverev of Germany, last week’s finalist in Madrid, ousted Australia’s Alex De Minaur 6-3 7-6(5) and declared his performances were improving.
“My performance was better than yesterday. I managed to keep my focus,” Zverev said.
“Alex is a great player and he is a great returner, so losing your serve here and there can happen.
“I need to work on serving out a little more. I tried to stay aggressive. I had to hit my shots quite hard against Alex and it worked out well today.”
Awaiting the second seed in the quarters is Chile’s Cristian Garin, a 6-3 4-6 6-4 winner over the Croatian former US Open campion Marin Cilic.