PARIS — Rafael Nadal has always worn his emotions plainly on his face.
On Friday afternoon, about five minutes after a news conference had been hastily arranged and announced, he sat in the main interview room at Roland Garros with his mouth drawn in an unmistakable frown. Arms crossed, he waited pensively for reporters to fill the room.
And then Nadal dramatically withdrew from the Grand Slam tournament he has won an astounding nine times and dominated like no other player in Open era history. A tendon injury in his left wrist that pained him with every stroke forced him to abandon the French Open after only two matches.
A week before his 30th birthday, here is the most recent empirical evidence that Nadal’s body continues to disastrously break down. Over his career, Rafa’s consistent effort on the court — and in practice — has been exemplary.
Is it possible he’s tried too hard?
His mental toughness is celebrated by his fans and peers. But when does it congeal into something that approaches unwise — or, even, senseless?
The injury, first suffered earlier this month in Madrid, grew progressively worse in Rome — yet Nadal continued to play until he was eliminated in the quarterfinals. He played Thursday after being injected with a painkiller but did not practice Friday. A doctor, he said, told him continued play would lead to a completely torn tendon.
“So there comes a time when I can’t hit the ball anymore,” a dejected Nadal said. “I can’t do this at all. I couldn’t hit a single ball. I was ready to run the risk all the way to the limit, but there comes a time where you simply can’t go on.”
His inflamed tendon, the doctor said, couldn’t withstand five more matches. If it tore completely, Nadal explained, it would have meant “months off the circuit.”
It is typical of Nadal that he tried to play here at less than 100 percent. Perhaps this experience will teach him to listen more closely to his deteriorating physical condition. But, fully aware that his window to win a 15th major is closing, that might be an optimistic thought.
The overwhelming atmosphere in that charged news conference was sadness.
“The real thing is today is one of the toughest press conference in my career, probably,” Nadal said. “Having to pull out of probably the tournament that I have — well, it’s obvious that the tournament that is more important, more important tournament in my career. And at the same time a tournament that I feel that if I am well, I always have my chances.”
But the real thing is, Nadal — a scintillating 72-2 at Roland Garros — is not well.
When Nadal won back-to-back clay-court events in Monte Carlo and Barcelona earlier this spring, the idea of a 10th title at Roland Garros seemed quite possible. And now, we are left to wonder whether he will ever win another major.
“But it’s what happen,” Nadal said. “The only thing that I can say is bad luck, and that’s part of our life.”
But it’s not bad luck, really. Nadal, in retrospect, is a victim of his own physical — and mental — strengths.
Even as he became the best player in tennis, there were questions about the toll the furious physicality of his game was taking on his body. British ballistic instruments once verified that rotation of his forehand was significantly faster — and ultimately heavier — than that of any of his opponents.
That phenomenal torque was what beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2008, one of the greatest matches ever played. In retrospect, it has also been a leading factor in a continuing series of injuries.
The disturbing thing? Nadal has had wrist issues before but in his right wrist. This, he reported, is a new injury.
In 2006, he missed the Australian Open with a left foot injury and Wimbledon in 2009 with knee tendinitis that has become something of a chronic condition — and can be traced to his grinding, hard-charging style. In 2014, the right wrist injury knocked him out of the US Open.
“Now is a tough moment, but is not the end,” Nadal said bravely. “I feel myself with the right motivation and the right energy to be back in Roland Garros the next couple of years, and I really hope to keep having my chances in the future.”
Nadal is not sure whether he’ll be ready for Wimbledon, which is only one month away. The hope is that he will, like Federer, who withdrew before the French Open after a series of knee and back injuries, make a wise decision.
With emphasis on the word hope.