For a decade, Rafael Nadal ruled Roland Garros the way no other man has dominated any Grand Slam site.
On Friday, his powerful left wrist wrapped in a blue brace, Nadal delivered the surprising news he was withdrawing before his third-round match at the French Open because of an injury that would prevent him from delivering the whiplike, spin-heavy forehand that carried him to a record nine championships and a 72-2 record on the tournament’s red clay.
“To win the tournament, I need five more matches,” Nadal said, his face expressionless, his arms crossed in front of him, “and the doctor says that’s 100 percent impossible.”
His announcement, at what he called “one of the toughest press conferences in my career,” overshadowed everything else going on around the grounds on Day 6 of the French Open, from the straight-set victories by defending champion Stan Wawrinka and No. 2-seeded Andy Murray, to the out-of-nowhere 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-0 upset of two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova by 108th-ranked Shelby Rogers, a 23-year-old American.
No. 15 John Isner, the last U.S. man in the field, found out about Nadal’s abrupt departure about 15 minutes after winning a five-setter to set up a showdown with Murray for a berth in the quarterfinals.
“It was a shock,” Isner said. “I had no idea.”
It robbed the event of more star power, coming a week after 17-time major champion Roger Federer pulled because of lingering back problems.
It cleared one potential obstacle from the path of No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who is attempting to win a fourth consecutive major title and his first in Paris — and could have faced Nadal in the semifinals.
And it raised more questions about how long Nadal, who turns 30 in a week, can continue to ply his intensely physical brand of tennis and remain among the sport’s best. In the past, he has dealt with problems to both knees and to his right wrist; this is the first time his left wrist has been an issue.
“I mean, it’s a bummer for the tournament,” Isner said. “I think a lot of people had him playing Novak in the semis on that side of the draw. It’s a shame.”
He knows he’ll have his own work cut out for him against Murray, a two-time major champion who has won all five of their previous matchups. Other fourth-rounders established Friday included No. 3 Wawrinka against No. 22 Viktor Troicki, No. 5 Kei Nishikori against No. 9 Richard Gasquet, and No. 8 Milos Raonic against unseeded Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
Women’s fourth-round matches will be Rogers against No. 25 Irina-Camelia Begu, No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska against unseeded Tsvetana Pironkova, No. 4 Garbine Muguruza against No. 13 Svetlana Kuznetsova, and No. 6 Simona Halep against No. 21 Sam Stosur.
Kuznetsova won the tournament in 2009; Halep and Stosur have both been runner-up.
Nadal won the French Open four times in a row from 2005-08, then another five straight from 2010-14. His only losses came against Robin Soderling in 2009, snapping a 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros, and against Djokovic last year, ending a 39-match run.
Nadal, owner of 14 Grand Slam titles overall, said the wrist pain first developed during a match on clay in Madrid this month, then subsided, before growing worse this week. Nadal got a painkilling injection before his second-round victory Thursday, but by the time he awoke Friday, he couldn’t move his wrist and went for an MRI exam.
“He did not practice this morning, so I figured there was a problem,” tournament director Guy Forget said.
When Forget got a phone call from a member of Nadal’s entourage, he knew for certain something was wrong. Nadal’s exit means the man who was supposed to be his next opponent, Marcel Granollers of Spain, gets a walkover into the fourth round; win that, and Granollers will reach his first quarterfinal in 35 appearances at majors.
“Unfortunately, it is happening right now and it is impacting the tournament. It’s impacting you and me,” Forget said. “I think we’re all conscious that he is one of our best ambassadors. Unfortunately, what counts now is health.”
Nadal said the injury involves an inflamed tendon and might not require surgery if he rests the wrist. But he can’t practice for the time being and is not sure what his status will be for Wimbledon, where play begins in one month.
“Now is a tough moment,” Nadal said, “but (it) is not the end.”
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