For quite some time, the vultures, in the shape of physiotherapists and medical professionals, have been circling above Rafa Nadal. 

It seems inevitable that in the end, these predators, or to be more accurate, those evaluating and assessing Nadal’s physical state, will prevail.

The 37-year-old’s body has been crumbling for a while now.

For a player who has invariably been regarded as one of the most physically adept athletes that tennis has ever seen, his body has never quite played ball.

Or, perhaps, it’s because he’s quite so physical that his body has never quite played ball.

After all, it’s hardly surprising that when an individual plays every single point like their life depends on it – whether in competition or in training – their body will break down occasionally.

This is what’s happened to Nadal over the years but now, the injury lay-offs are outnumbering the periods of fitness.

What’s so notable about the Spaniard’s current injury predicament is that it’s not merely signalling the end of his career, it’s signalling the end of an era, the like of which no other sport has ever witnessed.

The Herald: Rafael Nadal was a winner in Barcelona (AP)

Nadal will, it seems likely although he’s yet to confirm definitively, take to the court at the 2024 French Open, which begins at Roland Garros in Paris today, with his first round as tough as they come having been drawn to face Alexander Zverev.

The next two weeks will almost certainly be the last time we’ll ever see Nadal on the clay of Roland Garros and while in almost all cases, a single athlete is never bigger than a sporting event as a whole, it’s arguable Nadal and the French Open is the one case in which this theory does not apply.

Nadal’s record at the French Open is, I would suggest, the greatest record in the history of not only tennis, but sport as a whole.

His stats at Roland Garros are truly unparalleled.

The Spaniard played his first French Open in 2005 at the age of just 18 – and won it.

It was the first title in what would turn out to be a truly incredible run at the tournament widely considered to be the most physically demanding grand slam in the tennis calendar.

After that inaugural tournament victory nineteen years ago, Nadal successfully defended his title three times, equaling Bjorn Borg’s Open Era record of four consecutive titles at the tournament.

A surprise fourth-round defeat to Swede Robin Söderling in 2009 was but a mere blip in Nadal’s French Open record.

From 2010 until 2022, he won ten titles at Roland Garros, losing only twice – both times to Novak Djokovic (in 2015 and in 2021) - while he withdrew from the 2016 tournament having progressed to the third round.

As things stand, Nadal has 14 French Open titles and boasts a win-loss record of 112 wins and only three losses at the tournament, prompting Roger Federer to call Nadal’s French Open record “one of the greatest achievements in sport”. 

The Herald: Rafael Nadal

It’s impossible to disagree, which is why the impending end of Nadal’s career, and the prospect of a Nadal-free French Open, is quite so hard to fathom.

The French Open without Nadal is almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around. We had a taste of what it would be like in 2023 when the Spaniard was absent due to injury but a year ago, there was always the sense that he’d be back.

This year, the feeling that he’ll return is nowhere near as strong and so we must begin preparing for Nadal departing Roland Garros for the last time.

It would, of course, be the fairytale ending if Nadal could win his fifteenth French Open title in a fortnight’s time. 

At first glance, such a suggestion seems entirely outlandish given the season he’s had.

The 37-year-old’s past year has been decimated by injury – he’s played only four tournaments and not reached even a semi-final in any of them.

He’s lost to players that, a few years ago, wouldn’t have troubled him in the slightest, particularly on clay. 

And so logic suggests this French Open campaign will be less of a tilt at the title and more of a farewell to the tournament that has seen Nadal become as close to unbeatable as anyone has ever been in sport. 

Court Philippe-Chatrier, on which Nadal has won all fourteen of his titles, has become the Mallorcan’s second home.

People talk about certain athletes having an aura in particular arenas and never has that been more true than Nadal at the French Open.

Only a select few players have ever had the belief they could defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, and even fewer have actually done it.

And so this final swansong of Nadal’s will truly be the end of an era. 

The French Open as a tournament will go on without Nadal, but it will be years before his name stops being mentioned on a regular basis. In fact, it’s likely his name will always be recalled on a regular basis on the grounds of Roland Garros as it’s a certainty that his record of 14 French Open titles will never be surpassed. 

Such consistency and long-lasting success in sport is unspeakably hard to achieve and while some claim it’s boring to watch one person win title after title, I’d argue such prolonged greatness is infinitely more interesting to watch than the variability that comes with a different winner each year.

Many people can win one title, fewer can win several and only one can win fourteen.

The odds are that Nadal won’t win a fifteenth on his finale at Roland Garros. But the odds also were that no one would win fourteen titles and look what happened.