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If this is Rafael Nadal's last French Open, it should be similar to Serena Williams' last U.S. Open

Spain's Rafael Nadal poses with the cup after defeating Switzerland's Roger Federer during the men's final match of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday, June 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler) Spain's Rafael Nadal poses with the cup after defeating Switzerland's Roger Federer during the men's final match of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday, June 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
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If this is, as expected, Rafael Nadal's final French Open, it will be one that everyone — the 37-year-old Spaniard included — surely will remember vividly.

No matter how healthy the guy everyone calls “Rafa” might be. No matter how long his stay in the bracket lasts. No matter whether he somehow adds another championship at Roland Garros to the record 14 he owns.

Narrator: Not even Nadal truly believes that is possible. Indeed, as of Wednesday morning, he had not announced definitely whether he would be in the field, although he showed up on-site to practice.

“I am not negative,” he explained. “I am just realistic.”

Think back just a couple of years ago to Serena Williams' farewell at the U.S. Open. That's the sort of atmosphere and adoration likely to be on display whenever Nadal swings a racket or simply strolls around the compact-for-a-Grand-Slam-grounds in the southwest section of Paris where the clay-court tournament begins Sunday.

“I cannot predict what kind of emotions I am going to have there,” said Nadal, who has been saying for a while that he thinks 2024 will be his final season before retirement. “I just want to enjoy every day.”

That's been difficult lately because of hip and abdominal muscle injuries that limited him to 20 matches, and a 9-11 record, over the past 20 months.

Nadal missed nearly all of 2023 after hurting his hip during a loss at the Australian Open that January. He had surgery almost exactly a year ago and sat out the French Open for the first time since making his debut there in 2005, when, naturally, he claimed the trophy at age 19.

A torn hip muscle this January forced Nadal to miss the Australian Open; an ab problem sidelined him later. He returned in April, but in three places he's won a total of 27 titles — Barcelona, Madrid, Rome — Nadal made it no further than the fourth round anywhere and called himself “unpredictable.”

That stretch was capped by a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Hubert Hurkacz at the Italian Open, a result so dispiriting that Nadal wondered aloud whether he should bother showing up at Roland Garros, although did say he was reluctant to skip “the most important event of my tennis career.”

The 22-time major champion is not able to run at full speed or compete with full force. He does not have the match-readiness required to succeed.

“For him to feel like he’s going in with his ‘C’ game — not ‘B’ game; ‘C’ game — and maybe fearing almost that he could lose first or second round?” said Chris Evert, who won seven of her 18 Grand Slam titles in Paris. “He’s been such a perfectionist on that surface, why would he want to expose himself at that level?”

No man has won even half as many French Opens as Nadal. His winning percentage there is .974. He had streaks of five championships in a row, four in a row and three in a row.

This says it all: There's already a statue of him near the main stadium.

“It’s really a paramount challenge to play him in Roland Garros," said Novak Djokovic, whose 24 major trophies make him the only man with more than Nadal. "He’s an incredible athlete. The tenacity and intensity he brings on the court, particularly there, is something that was very rarely seen, I think, in the history of this sport.”

Djokovic — who formed, with Nadal and the now-retired Roger Federer, the so-called Big Three — and Iga Swiatek are the defending champions in France and both are ranked No. 1. Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner are the emerging stars of men's tennis; Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff have that status in the women's game.

But all eyes — of spectators and of other athletes — will be on Nadal for however long he stays in the field.

“He’s probably the only player that when I practice on the court next to him, I would literally zone out of my practice to watch him,” said Gauff, the 20-year-old American who won last year's U.S. Open. “The way he carries himself is just great. His legacy is going to be something that is almost unmatched when it comes to just the intensity in which he approaches everything. That's something that the players will miss and the fans will miss.”

So this represents a chance to say “Merci” and “Au revoir.”

No one — maybe not even Nadal himself — knows how many more times he will play, whether at Roland Garros, which also is set to host tennis at the Summer Olympics (he already owns singles and doubles golds), or anywhere else.

So plenty of standing ovations await. Likely a post-match ceremony, too. Might even be the sort of requests seen at a recent tournament: One opponent asked for the shirt off Nadal's back after facing him; another asked if they could snap a photo together.

Swiatek, an unabashed Nadal supporter, was asked whether she ever did that sort of thing after a match.

“Not really,” she replied, “but if I would play against Rafa, for sure, I would ask for a T-shirt.”

___

AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.

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