Rafael Nadal’s possible French Open farewell draws fans from all over the world


PARIS (AP) — They traveled from all over — from Europe and Oceania, from North America and South America — to be at Roland Garros on Monday, intent on watching Rafael Nadal play what might be his last French Open match this year. Or ever.

Nadal, who has won 14 of his 22 Grand Slam trophies in Paris, was scheduled to play on Day 2 of the tournament in Court Philippe Chatrier against No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, and tennis fans wanted to be present for what felt like a monumental occasion.

They were there to see Nadal compete, of course, but also to salute him as a player and person, to congratulate him on a remarkable career and, perhaps, to catch one final glimpse of his greatness at a tournament that has helped define his legacy.

“He’s my favorite tennis player. Maybe when he retires, I will find someone new. But I don’t know if I will give that much love to the next one,” said Fiona Li, a 35-year-old who works in luxury fashion in the Netherlands. “His power is that he never gives up. He encourages me when I am really down. He fights until the last minute. That’s what we need in daily life. When you’re sad or something, you watch him play, and everything is solved.”

Li, who said she’s been a Nadal fan since 2005, the year he won his first title at Roland Garros as a teenager, made sure to stop by the 3-meter-tall (about 10-feet-tall) statue of Nadal that was unveiled in 2021 and stands between one of the tournament’s main entrances and the 15,000-seat Chatrier stadium.

Wearing a makeshift tiara fashioned from four yellow tennis balls — each with a letter to spell out “Rafa” — Li posed for photos in front of the statue with three pals, one from Australia and two from China. Each member of the quartet wore a red T-shirt with a capital yellow letter from his first name. One held a red-and-yellow Spanish flag with “King of Roland Garros” stamped on it.

“Vamos, Rafa!” they shouted in unison.

Nadal turns 38 on June 3 and had indicated, amid a series of injuries to his hip and an abdominal muscle, that he would be retiring at some point in 2024. When told by a reporter on Saturday that most folks are assuming this will be his French Open adieu, he smiled and said: “Don’t assume.”

So who knows what the future holds? The whole thing has a bit of the same vibe as at the 2022 U.S. Open, when the world was well aware that Serena Williams was participating in what would be her last event, and she was feted by enthusiastic crowds.

Similarly, plenty of people yearned to soak up the atmosphere and get as close as possible to Nadal, or even just symbols of Nadal — whether by visiting that larger-than-life steel monument to him or catching a peek of a practice or buying merchandise.

The main on-site store has a special section of its main floor with Nadal-branded items, including an array of hats that come in six colors and go for 35 euros each (about $38).

Even Julio Parada, a 49-year-old Bolivian in banking, wanted a photo at the statue — while wearing a green hat with “RF” on it, representing Roger Federer.

“I like both. Actually, I prefer Roger, but Rafa was the most difficult rival he ever faced,” said Parada, attending his first Grand Slam tournament with his wife, Karina, and son, Julio, who is a student in Germany. “We made the effort to see Nadal, because we are aware that this is maybe his last French Open.”

Also holding tickets for Nadal vs. Zverev were Barbra Chambati, 49, and her daughter, Crystal, 25. Mom wore a salmon-colored top with Nadal’s bull horns logo. Crystal had on a white T-shirt — bought two days ago on the Champs-Élysées avenue — showing a photo of Nadal pumping his fist.

They tried to watch a training session at Court 3 a few hours before Monday’s match, but could not get in because it was too crowded. Still, it was a thrill simply to see him walk past afterward.

“He has a lot of money, but you wouldn’t know it because of his humility. He relates to anyone,” said Barbra Chambati, a food factory manager who said she is originally from Zimbabwe and has lived in New Zealand for two decades. “We are so grateful that, for so many years, he has given his all for our enjoyment.”

Their trip included a 17-hour flight from Auckland to Dubai, a stopover, and a 7-hour flight from Dubai to Paris.

“A bit long, but worth it,” Barbra Chambati said. “We wouldn’t change it for anything.”

They were part of a tennis tour group that included Cathy Davis, a 75-year-old retiree from Toronto, who was wearing a purple hat with the bull logo.

She proclaimed herself a “Rafa supreme fan.”


“He’s a shot-maker. I love the overhead smash; he’s the king of that. His down-the-line forehand. Cross-court backhand. And now he comes to the net,” Davis said. “On the court, intensity-plus. Off it, very humble. Kind. He’s one thing on the court and someone a little bit different off.”

As with Williams a little less than two years ago in New York, no one knows for sure how long Nadal will remain in the draw over these two weeks.

Li, for one, was prepared. She said she purchased tickets for the full event.

“No matter how far he goes,” she said, “I will be there.”


Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich


AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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