Rafael Nadal is at the French Open, but he’s made of stainless steel (2023)


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PARIS — Even after his jarring withdrawal from this French Open on May 18 with an obstinate hip injury, Rafael Nadal remains on the grounds of Roland Garros. He is almost 10 feet tall and composed of stainless steel. People greet him in trickles and droves, posing for photos with him while, true to form, he’s too focused on his groundstroke to flinch.

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He’s airborne, of course.

He’s a two-year-old statue just inside the main gate, and it’s striking how the sculpture has become a must-stop along Roland Garros strolls, with the photo seekers not even close to limited to Nadal zealots. It’s easy to find the giant right down the stairs from the entry, second in order of appearance only to Roland Garros himself, whose bust hovers to the right over the gate with its stylish block letters “STADE ROLAND GARROS.”


Monsieur Garros has died — in 1918 during a World War I dogfight above northern France.

Monsieur Nadal most certainly has not — he might even win this thing next year.

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Yet his statue takes visits as would that of someone who has passed, and now people stop by and stop by and stop by, a reminder that at the 2023 tournament, who’s here is backlit by who’s not. They see Nadal up in the air, held technically by cables but magically by reputation. He’s inside short glass walls that discourage people from jumping in and hugging his calves. People try to impersonate his stance, sort of as if he were the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

To spend three hours at the statue Sunday was to sense a king as kingly as kings get without behaving all kingly. That’s even at the first French Open sans Nadal since 2004, the forgotten year when Argentine men claimed four of the eight quarterfinal spots, three of the four semifinal spots and two of the two final spots.


Unseeded Gaston Gaudio won it from a world ranking of No. 44, prevailing, 8-6, in the fifth set after saving two championship points against No. 3 seed Guillermo Coria. That memory was deluged to bits starting in 2005 with the 18 annual turns of Nadal — 14 titles, a 112-3 match record, 14-0 in finals, seven of those in three sets, seven in four sets and a whopping zero in five sets.

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Might Argentina have sustained its flourish without Nadal, if not so dramatically? It’s hard to tell, but he did beat 10 Argentine men here, among all the nationalities.

“What I want to express with the sculpture of Rafa,” Spanish sculptor Jordi Diez Fernandez told Roland Garros in 2021, “is a synthesis of all his attributes, which can perhaps be boiled down to just one: strength. What I’ve done, then, is create a sculpture of Rafael Nadal that projects his strength. And in actual fact, it’s a monument to human strength. When we watch Rafa Nadal play, he demonstrates all these qualities that in some way inspire us to explore the potential in all of us.”

That’s an unmistakable feeling, even if it might run second at times to the overwhelming urge to get a selfie.

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On this Sunday, another French Open got going, and Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed, got going by winning, 6-3, 6-2, over Marta Kostyuk, then deemed herself “ready more than ever for this kind of court” after not yet surpassing a third round here. No. 24 seed Sebastian Korda topped Mackenzie McDonald, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, in a meeting from among the wealth of that improving lot of male Americans. But while 2021 finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 5 seed, toughed it out in four sets against Jiri Vesely and No. 8 seed Maria Sakkari lost to Karolina Muchova in straight sets, the Nadal absence could seem the biggest presence.

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“The news [of Nadal’s withdrawal] came in a way as a shock to everybody,” Novak Djokovic said Saturday from an interview dais and from his deadlock with Nadal at 22 Grand Slam titles. “People were asking me how I felt when he said that, and I have to say that, you know, I was saying that always he’s my biggest rival. When he announced that he’s going to have his last season of career [in 2024], I felt part of me is leaving with him, too.”

When you play each other 59 times in the highest realm, you start to help define the other. His first-round match arrives Monday.

On a blue-sky Sunday with an upside-down half-moon and a breeze, Nadal gleamed in the sunshine. The sculpture conveys power and motion. Nadal’s clothing has the effect of ribbons. He’s following through on his shot in the pose, and you can almost hear the ball screaming away punished. He wears a headband. Stainless-steel flecks of hair jut upward. His right leg is above ground by somewhat, his bent left leg by more than somewhat.


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It takes three glass panels to list the 14 finals of a dominance too towering to comprehend; it would be minutiae to include that the 98 matches of the 14 title years featured only 21 lost sets. Three kids study the numbers. One counts.

Strangers trade places taking photos of each other. Some people video the whole panorama, a Roland Garros boutique tucked in behind, Philippe Chatrier Court up to the right of the man who took trophies 14 times within it. A photographer of a certain vintage uses a sizable iPad. There is smiling and there is giggling, and there are group photos of people with only cursory knowledge of Nadal’s legacy. People utter phrases such as “très joli,” even if very pretty might not quite grasp the sculptor’s intent.

All the while, it’s possible to sit for hours without any sight of Nadal gear or Nadal-related melancholy, with only one Spain flag quickly brought out and then tucked into a satchel, and with four sightings of “RF” Roger Federer caps paying respects to the living large. It’s clear that Nadal has transcended by far those who followed him fervently from the start in 2005, his first match against Lars Burgsmuller of Germany on the way to a debutant’s title at 19. He’s out there somewhere way up in the consciousness.

The night session pours in. Eight kids line up in a row in front of Nadal. A tour group lines up in multiple lines in front of Nadal. He’s not here and time moves on for everybody, but the enthusiasm around the stainless-steel Nadal reminds that some rare cases make time take its time moving on as the thought of them never gets rusty.

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What happened to Nadal in 2009 French Open? ›

Rafael Nadal was the four-time defending champion, but was defeated in the fourth round by Söderling. It was Nadal's first defeat at the French Open, having won the title in all four of his previous appearances since debuting in 2005 and winning his first 31 matches. His loss guaranteed a maiden French Open champion.

How old was Nadal when he won the French Open in 2005? ›

Nadal won the French Open on his tournament debut, the first man to do so since Mats Wilander in 1982, and was the youngest champion since Michael Chang in 1989, at 19 years and two days old when he won the title.

Is there a big screen at Roland Garros? ›

The outside annex courts with free seating, dining and relaxation areas, giant screens to follow the matches, shops and many events taking place throughout the fortnight complete this offering.

Where is Rafael Nadal from? ›

Rafael Nadal Parera was born on 3 June 1986 in Manacor, a town on the island of Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, Spain, to parents Ana María Parera Femenías and Sebastián Nadal Homar.


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