Watching Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is a bucket list experience. The fans in the stands of Court Philippe-Chatrier erupt as he walks out. It's his stage.
For so long, he's had the place in the palm of his hand, with his unbelievable record of 112 wins (the most by any men's player at a single major in the Open Era) and 14 of the past 18 French Open titles. With that comes the accustomed staples of the Nadal experience in Paris: the trumpet fanfare welcoming him to the showcase court, the waving of Spanish flags in the stands and the endless renditions of "Bella Ciao."
This year, the drums will still beat, Nadal T-shirts and caps will be worn and memories regaled, but the key protagonist will be absent after pulling out on May 18.
Roland Garros has been his second home. Alongside his 97% winning record at the tournament, Nadal has a host of other incredible statistics from that patch of Paris. He won 90 of those 112 victories in straight sets and took the 2008, 2010, 2017 and 2020 titles without dropping a single one. He has 27 more wins there than Novak Djokovic and 39 more than Roger Federer.
Even those he defeats hold the experiences close.
"I can hopefully one day tell my grandkids that I played Rafa on Chatrier in the final, and they will probably say, 'Wow, did you?'" said Casper Ruud after losing last year's singles final to Nadal in straight sets. "I will say 'Yes.'"
It's going to feel a little empty seeing this tournament play out -- a Roland Garros without Nadal lacks the familiar reference point for both aficionados and casual viewers. "I never want him to stop," Billie Jean King said of Nadal in Paris last year.
The place has already felt the impending exit. On the day of last year's final against Ruud, rumors started circling around the grounds that Nadal was going to announce his retirement after the match. It was believable. And as he stood in the middle of the court, clutching the La Coupe des Mousquetaires, it would have been a perfect storybook ending to his glorious career.
Instead, his speech was about resilience and perseverance, rather than retirement.
Moments later, he detailed the pain he'd played through. He had been suffering with Muller-Weiss syndrome, a rare condition which causes chronic pain in his left foot. He brought his doctor, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, to the tournament, who would numb the foot by injecting a nerve to allow him to play. The doctor later said it was a "miracle" Nadal had defied injury to win.
Since then his body has continued to let him down. He suffered an abdominal tear during Wimbledon, causing him to pull out of his semifinal against Nick Kyrgios. At the US Open, he managed to bloody his nose by hitting himself in the face with his own racket, then lost to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round. The abdominal injury was still not fully repaired.
After briefly playing alongside Federer at the Laver Cup, he started the new year with a defeat to Alex De Minaur in the United Cup but then picked up a left hip flexor injury in his second-round defeat to Mackenzie McDonald at the Australian Open.
"I hope it's not serious because I'm already tired and frustrated with being in injury recovery processes for so much of my career," he said. That was his last competitive game, and despite the odd glimpse on his Instagram page of him practicing, firm sightings of Nadal on a court at full speed were few and far between.
After missing the start of the clay-court season, Nadal released a frank statement on April 20 which threw his participation in Roland Garros into serious doubt. It came via a glum video published across his social media accounts detailing his struggles as he pulled out of the Madrid Open. "I can't give deadlines because if I knew I would tell you but I don't know. This is how things are now."
On May 18, came the confirmation. Speaking from his academy in Mallorca, Nadal faced a small group of media in the room and thousands watching the live stream on YouTube. He announced that he was pulling out of the French Open and Wimbledon, without putting a timeline on his return. He also said 2024 would likely be his last year on tour.
"I don't know if I'll be able to come back in the highest level and compete for Grand Slams," Nadal said. "What I will try to do is to give myself the opportunity to go back to what could be my final year competing at the highest level."
His rivals took notice. Alcaraz tweeted: "Very painful and sad for everyone that you can't be at Roland Garros or play more this year, but I hope that 2024 will be a great season for you and that you can say goodbye like the great champion you are!"
Daniil Medvedev summed up Nadal's dominance: "Even if he wouldn't be 100% physically, but decided to play, he'd be a favorite."
Nadal won the title in his French Open debut in 2005 and has played every year in the nearly two decades since. The crowd will have to adopt a new favorite, likely Nadal's successor to the clay-court throne in Alcaraz.
Alcaraz and Djokovic -- if healthy -- will be favorites. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jannik Sinner, Ruud and Holger Rune will also fancy their chances in what's going to be the most wide-open tournament since Nadal started his reign.
Men's tennis is already one step into the post-GOAT era. At the start of May, while Djokovic and Nadal were trying to work through their various ailments, their old sparring partner Federer was loving retirement. He went from the Met Gala to the Miami Grand Prix and it was on the grid before the start of the race where he summed up succinctly the significance of Nadal's absence at Roland Garros. "It would be brutal, it would be tough for tennis if Rafa isn't going to be there," Federer said.
If the body is able to grant him one last shot at Roland Garros, Nadal will be back. But it's becoming an increasingly tough ordeal. After his 2022 final he promised to "keep fighting to try to keep going." That fight theme has never been far from Nadal's message and it was echoed again in the news conference in Mallorca.
"Tournaments stay forever, players play and leave," Nadal said in May. "Roland Garros will continue to be Roland Garros with or without me. The tournament will continue being the best event in the world of clay. Players stay and leave tournaments."
When Nadal eventually retires, the French Open organizers face a dilemma: How do they pay tribute to the man who has dominated the tournament for nearly two decades? Do they put up another statue of him?
In May 2021, they unveiled a three-meter-high statue of Nadal near the Jardin des Mousquetaires, a permanent reminder of the man who has transcended the clay-court sport. It's rare to mark an athlete with such a gesture while they're still leaving sweat on the surface a few meters away.
But it was the first step in recognizing his legacy and also preparing for a life in that corner of Paris without Nadal. So what do they do next to mark his impact on the tournament? They're unlikely to rename one of the existing prime courts, and the trophy is already named after the French "four musketeers" who ruled men's tennis in the late 1920s, but nothing is off the table.
They hope they won't have to make that call quite yet, but it seems to be approaching quickly -- and this year will offer a vision of the unpredictable post-Nadal era.