ROME — Quick and dominant in the first set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was quite the opposite down the stretch at the Italian Open on Thursday night.
Late to the ball. Limping between points. Grimacing and wincing even on changeovers. His distress was so visible as the double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the final set that even the Canadian fans sitting high in the center court stands were offering up sympathetic applause for Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov put the final touches on his victory, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the round of 16.
Shapovalov, an elastic and explosive left-hander ranked No. 16, has the tools to trouble even a healthy Nadal. He beat him in their first match in 2017 when Shapovalov was still a teenager, and should have beaten him in last year’s round of 16 at the Italian Open when he failed to convert two match points. He also pushed Nadal to five sets at this year’s Australian Open.
But this was far from a healthy Nadal, with his chronic left foot problem, known as Müller-Weiss disease, resurfacing on his favorite surface. With the French Open looming, his mood in the aftermath was as downbeat and pensive as I can recall in nearly 20 years of following his career.
“I imagine there will come a time when my head will say ‘Enough,’” Nadal, a 10-time Italian Open champion, said in Spanish, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “Pain takes away your happiness, not only in tennis but in life. And my problem is that many days I live with too much pain.”
Nadal said he also had to live with taking “a ton of anti-inflammatories daily to give myself the ability to train.”
“That is my reality,” he said. “And there have been many days, like today, when the moment comes that I can’t do it.”
He finished with 34 unforced errors and just 13 winners on Thursday, and the question now is whether the most successful clay-courter in history will even be able to play at the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament he has won a record 13 times.
“I’m going to keep dreaming about that goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The negative thing is today it’s not possible to play for me, but maybe in two days things are better. That’s the thing with what I have on my foot.”
The French Open will begin in nine days on May 22, although Nadal might not have to play until May 24 because the French Open, which starts on a Sunday, stages its first round over three days.