Former world No 5 raises questions over Rafael Nadal’s clay-court hopes

Shahida Jacobs
Rafael Nadal in action

Rafael Nadal is gearing up to play a full clay-court season despite his recent injury setbacks, but Jo-Wilfried Tsonga feels there is a “there’s a real unknown” when it comes to the King of Clay’s hopes on the red dirt this year.

Fourteen-time Roland Garros winner Nadal missed the entire clay-court campaign last year as he spent the bulk of the year on the sidelines due to a hip flexor injury.

He finally made his comeback at the Brisbane International at the start of 2024, but things have not gone according to plan since then as was forced to miss the Australian Open and Qatar Open.

After coming through an exhibition match against Carlos Alcaraz in Las Vegas last week, there were high hopes that Nadal would play at the Indian Wells Open, but he withdrew from his first-round match against Milos Raonic just hours before the encounter.

In a statement he explained: “I don’t find myself ready to play at the highest level at such an important event.

“It is not an easy decision, it’s a tough one as a matter of fact but I can’t lie to myself and lie to the thousands of fans. I will miss you all and I am sure the tournament will be a great success.”

READ MORE: Rumours swirl over Rafael Nadal’s future after Indian Wells withdrawal

Nadal has made no secret of the fact that the clay season was always going to be his priority and he has plenty of time to prepare as his next event likely to be the Monte Carlo Masters, which gets underway on April 7.

The Spaniard has been a dominant figure on the red dirt since he made his breakthrough in 2005, but former world No 5 Tsonga says there is a “real unknown” this time around due to his long absence.

“The real unknown is what Rafa is capable of doing on clay,” he told L’Équipe. “Today, on hard court, we know. From what we’ve seen, we honestly know that he doesn’t move as well, that he’ll never perform as well as he did before.

“On clay today, there’s a real unknown. He had such a margin over the others. Will he be able to hold his own in a tough match today? That’s the real unknown.”

Tsonga also spoke about Nadal’s decision to continue playing despite his recent injury woes, saying the 37-year-old has something left “to prove to himself”.

“He’s got nothing left to prove. That’s over. He just wants to reassure himself, to say ‘okay, that’s it, I can go’,” he said.

“He’s looking for validation so that he can leave. In truth, he’s been a shadow of his former self for quite a few months now. I think he just wants to prove it to himself, to say to himself now, ‘I’m safe to leave, I’m at peace’.”