True to his competitive spirit, Rafael Nadal, 14-time champion on the red clay at Roland Garros, wants to play one final time if only he feels his body will allow him to be competitive. It is a stiff ride given that his contemporary, Novak Djokovic, is looking to breathe life into his own ambitions to extend his Grand Slam title run against the rise of the young brigade.

Speculation has run rife about whether Nadal whose run in Paris is unprecedented to say the least would be fit in time for the clay court season. Arguably the run has not been great in the build up to the French Open. Given his ruthlessness he can be on the baseline and in defending his favourite turf, it was expected that the Spaniard would not take to the court unless he felt he could give it his everything.

Battling a hip injury or an abdominal tear over the past couple of years did not stop him from competing. Though there were times when he was tested such as against Alexander Zverev in the 2022 French Open semi final before the German himself suffered an ankle ligament injury during play time, requiring surgery and lengthy rehabilitation that has not always had him at full tilt.

Admitting that the 6-1, 6-3 defeat against the No. 9 ranked Hubert Hurkacz in only the second round of the Italian Open in Rome was insightful not two weeks away from the start of the French Open, Nadal told reporters, “The decision, as you can imagine, is not clear in my mind today. But if I have to say what’s my feeling and if my mind is closer one way or the other, I am going to say ‘be in Roland Garros and try my best’.”

He added, unable to hide how he felt about his favourite and most successful tennis court, “Physically I have some issues, but not probably yet enough to say not playing in the most important event of my tennis career… If I feel ready, I am going to try to be there and fight for the things I have been fighting the last fifteen years, if now seems impossible.”

Impossible is an interesting word he used, because it is not often one hears words even symbolising defeat from champions of his era be that Roger Federer or Novak Djovokic or even Andy Murray who has had to fit incredible odds and still dares to compete and hurt some of the contemporary contenders in the game.

The Phillipe-Chatrier court which has seen Nadal lift that iconic trophy – the second and arguably the most physically gruelling Grand Slam of the year – a record 14 times sees for the first time a publicly sceptical Nadal, whose retirement has also been weighed in the media given his long absences. That it is now weighing heavily on Nadal’s mind is the first sign that Djokovic might soon become the sole runner in the race for the most Grand Slam titles in one’s career.

Not participating in the French Open might not necessarily end Nadal’s career, but it will certainly be close to a curtain call on a very indomitable era. But tennis fans might still hope in a Nadal come back for another year.

It is keeping hope alive, at a distance far removed from present reality. And even if it might come with a premature defeat, fans are hoping they get to say farewell to one of the beloved sons of the red soil while on court rather than off the landscape altogether.

At the same time, Nadal showing up at the French Open seems more imperative than ever, for the sake of the sport. It keeps the aura alive of hopefuls versus established champions and keeps tennis in high focus.

Djokovic has not had it easy, being upstaged by the likes of another young Spaniard in Carlos Alcaraz and again, exposed by Sinner’s rather clinical approach at the Australian Open earlier this year.

While Nadal was blowing hot and cold, Rome proved tricky for his contemporary from Serbia as well. Djokovic has had a dramatic week, that one began by being hit unexpectedly on the head by a water bottle while signing autographs for fans to suffering a blistering defeat in the third round to Alejandro Tabilo by a 6-2, 6-3 margin.

As if losing the tournament he has won six times, Djokovic is now in danger of losing the No. 1 ranking should Sinner make it to the end at Roland Garros. As the 36-year-old Serbian seeks his 25th Grand Slam title, it might still not be enough to continue world domination. Meanwhile the 22 year old Italian, nursing a hip injury from Madrid, missed his home tournament.

Sinner was the spoilsport in Australia, stopping Djokovic from making it 11 Grand Slam titles down under. The winner of three of the four Grand Slams last year is not showing many signs of dominance either yet ahead of the French Open and the Paris Olympics where he will be without his long time coach, Goran Ivansevic, from whom he split.

Djokovic’s shaky preparations for red clay have not inspired much confidence in whether he can remain the sole torchbearer for his era of giant winners and Grand Slam champions, losing as he did to Casper Ruud in the semi final at Monte Carlo. Not winning a clay court tournament in the run up to the French Open, Djokovic is suitably cautious of making it four at Roland Garros when it comes to Grand Slams.

So, in the face of the rise of the young guns who are making it hard to keep alive a solitary Grand Slam title in their time, leave alone multiple, amongst the generation that encapsulated the likes of Andrey Rublev and Stephanos Tsitsipas, it seems that Nadal bowing out, should he choose to close out his career on his preferred turf, seems rather appropriate and worthy of tennis history, should he feel it is time to call it.

But whether that sunset comes with another trophy that makes the dream that much more difficult to realise for the generations still in the game has never been more uncertain.