Mailbag: Rafael Nadal's Sentimental Exit Headlines the French Open

Jon Wertheim answers your questions from Roland Garros, unpacking the early-round results.
Nadal exited the French Open in the first round, falling to Zverev in straight sets.
Nadal exited the French Open in the first round, falling to Zverev in straight sets. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

As it is written, Wednesday is mailbag day …

• Let’s bang out some questions from Roland Garros, cherry-picking for Q&A that won’t be obsolete before you know it.

• Here’s an ode to Rafa Nadal following Monday’s match.

• Here is the latest podcast episode of Served

• The dreaded ICYMI, but here’s Daria Kasatkina, the bravest woman in tennis for CBS News Sunday Morning.

Onward … 


Hi Jon, 

Lose to a top flight player is ok in round 1. 

Lose to a journeyman player in round 1 is not ok. 

Lose and it’s still ok, well done for doing your best against a top 4 player when we all know you are physically compromised. 

C’est d’accord. 

Merci, 

Dominic Ciafardini, NY

• I was talking to a former player about this today. I am paraphrasing but he essentially said, you have to realize that elite athletes are not normal. You might say, Enough is enough. The writing is on the wall. They didn’t get to where they are with rational thinking. You need a certain level of delusion. And they need a certain quotient of delusional to keep going and will find any reasons to convince themselves they are close to getting the magic back.

I honestly think—and this is semi-informed—that Nadal doesn’t have an ironclad plan. He’s not being coy or holding his cards close to the vest. He’s not made some Faustian bargain for Laver Cup, as some have suggested. Some days, he feels fine. Other days he does not. Some days he’s close to his 2022 form. Other days he is not. Some practices are great. Others are not.

To Dominic’s point … yes, he could walk off the court and say, I have lost in the first round of an event I have won 14 times. I’m almost 38. I have a wife and son and wealth to the point of abstraction. What are we doing here? We’re good. He could just as easily say, in my first best-of-five match in almost 18 months, I lost to the most in-form player in the sport—a guy more than a decade my junior—and had my chances. I won a dozen games. I held up fine physically. My health is improving. Why am I writing off 2025 so fast?

My friend Robbie Koenig put it nicely today: “Time is a thief, Jon. He’s not subtle, he’s a thug … ” I would go even further. Time is not just thuggish, but cruel. He messes with your mind before, inevitably, winning in the end.


Since Rafa committed to the Laver Cup this year, hopefully as a celebration and send-off to his legendary career, wouldn’t it be great if he played doubles with Novak [Djokovic] as his partner in his final match? Just like Rafa helped Roger [Federer] say goodbye, it would be so appropriate if those two legends and rivals did the same thing.  Their legacies are intertwined. For too many years, Rafa and Novak haven’t had the warmest relationship because they were such intense rivals, but now that it’s over, it would be awesome to see the appreciation and respect they have for each other as teammates. With your influence and platform in the tennis world, can you help make this happen? Tennis fans everywhere would love it.  

David Hugus

• I’ll try my level best. Roger Federer closed out his career at the Laver Cup in Europe, playing on the same side of the net as Nadal. It’s only fitting that the symmetry holds.

 Nadal and Federer played doubles together at the 2022 Laver Cup.
Nadal and Federer played doubles together at the 2022 Laver Cup. / Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports

Jon, what happened to your Chile picks!

Bob

• A few of you—quite rightly—roasted me for gassing up both Alejandro Tabilo and Nicolás Jarry before the tournament. They lasted about as long as Chile would last in a widest country contest. Both players were gone on Day 1. A reminder that picks are fun, prognostication is foundational to sports fandom and nothing ages worse than a bad call.

Tabilo beat Novak Djokovic in Rome, which is supposed to be predictive. He took out Karen Khachanov before taking a set off Alexander Zverev in the semis. And, as a seeded player … loses in Paris to a qualifier, Zizou Bergs? Jarry reached the Rome final, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas along the way … and lost to highly talented but highly temperamental Corentin Moutet at Roland Garros? 

A) The margins are small in this sport. 
B) The difference between best-of-three and best-of-five matches can be akin to a difference in surface.
C) Fights with romantic partners. Migraine headaches. Menstrual cycles. Bad sushi. All sorts of variables don’t appear in stat sheets or aren’t obvious to the observer.
D) Sports.


Hey Jon!

Love the return of the mailbag! Any idea who [Bianca] Andreescu is working with [and] any prediction on whether she can win another major?

Thanks! Damian

• Bianca Andreescu—now No. 228—played her first major since Wimbledon, as Nadal wrapped up his 2024 campaign. So Andreescu was lost in the Monday news, but it was nice to see her back, scoring a quality win over dangerous Sara Sorribes Tormo. This is a major champion—one of 13 in the draw—yet is so far off the radar she didn’t make the WTA notes provided on players competing on TV courts.

She has been practicing (with Leylah Fernandez) right near my hovel, and I didn’t notice her coach. My moles tell me she is working with James “J.T.” Nishimura who is also her hitting partner. We are duty-bound not to root, but let’s just say that the sport is in a better place when Andreescu is healthy and channeling her 2019 tennis. She’s off to an auspicious start here.

An underrated factor in the early rounds of these events is timing. There are (happily) so many matches, that it’s easy for results to get lost in the proverbial shuffle. Especially when there are tentpole events like Nadal-Zverev. Sometimes this is interpreted as fans or media “ignoring” certain players. It’s never intentional. But when Nadal is emotionally addressing a crowd, it’s easy to overlook, say, Maria Sakkari (the last player to beat Iga Świątek at Roland Garros) going out to Varvara Gracheva, a Russian-born player who switched her national allegiance to France.

Andreescu's first-round French Open win marked her first match in 10 months.
Andreescu's first-round French Open win marked her first match in 10 months. / Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Jon,

Good to have you back!

There seems to be more and more ‘one-slam’ wonders in the Tennis HOF.  Ok, but pretty soon they should start taking the athletic, flashy, and charismatic Vitas Gerulaitis seriously. I’ve sent you a few earlier emails listing why I would include him. I know he has some serious heavy-weight players from his era endorsing his inclusion (Borg/Connors). Think he’ll ever have a chance? I will always root for him. Also not forgotten, but not heard from for a while ... What is Mary Carillo up to? I miss her voice.

It’s good to have Simona Halep back. Think she’ll be a top 20 player again?

Bret, Utah

• Thanks. 

1) Note the Basketball Hall of Fame. Yes, there are players inducted each year. (Digression: I’m not sure the standards are any tougher than tennis. Was Chauncey Billups a more accomplished basketball player than, say, Michael Stich was a tennis player?) But there are also contributors—coaches, administrators, journalists and treasures—included. If the Hall wants a festive and robust ceremony each year, why not expand this? Induct Vitas Gerulaitis posthumously. Induct Nick Bollettieri. (It eventually happened, but took too long and should have been a no-brainer). Induct Oracene Price …

2) Mary Carillo, happily, is in Paris, working for NBC with John McEnroe and Noah Eagle.

3) I’m not sure Simona Halep is a top 20 player again. Between her age (32), her 18 months without match play and her paucity of wildcards, it‘s gonna be tough …


Hi, Jon - in reference to the comments about seemingly insincere apologies for cheap winners, like off the frame or net cord, I see the raised hand as an acknowledgment that it was a lucky break, not as an apology.

Great to see the ’bag back, as incisive and entertaining as ever.

Clint Swett, Jackson, Wyoming

• Much appreciated. Yeah, this might be overdramatic, but to me, this is essential to a culture—gestures and rituals that might be silly on their faces, but harden into conventions. Do we shake hands after battle? We yell glass after banking in a shot? We don’t serve underhand 10 times a match even though it’s permitted (joke)? I think Clint is right. The raised hand is less a mea culpa than an acknowledgment of luck. I rather like it.


Hey Jon,

Of the Men’s and Women’s Roland-Garros wild cards, who has won a grand slam title (in singles) or been to a Major Finals? I’m generally ok with a 21-year-old or two getting in the draw, and someone coming back from injury. But not a back-from-retirement after giving birth, former No. 1 and slam champion? Or a two-time finalist and Major winner? BTW—I know the answer to my question.
Thanks, as always.

Duane, Washington D.C.

• Thanks. Three thoughts …

A) If we can depart from fairness and math to distribute wild cards—never mind the icky reciprocal wild cards—we should be able to depart from math and give seedings to 14-time major champs.

B) I like Andy Roddick’s suggestion that wild cards are capped at four. Want to give a promising junior a boost? Want to let Richard Gasquet or Alizé Cornet take a final bow? Great. But four is the limit.

C) Sensible as always, Mark Kovacs is onto something when he writes: A one-time exception … “any person that wins the title 14 times will be seeded 8th the first year they drop out of the seedings.”


I saw the Fedal Louis Vuitton ad on YouTube. Touching and funny. “I can’t feel my ears!”. Got me thinking about their legacy not only as individuals but as Fedal. For me personally it’s the civility, respect and affability the players show each other. They fight like crazy to win a match and then the loser has to take that long walk over to shake hands with the winner. And most of the time they do so with grace. And there they are met with an embrace and apparently words of appreciation for a good match. Incredible. It may stand out for me since I remember McEnroe, Lendl et. al. “I did not invite him to the net.”

I need a leaf blower – but for people.

Lucy M.

A) “I need a leaf blower–but for people” is one of the great email signatures I’ve come across.

B) I am admittedly obsessed with rivalry. For me, the overarching beauty of this one has always been the redefinition of the ground rules. You can have a rivalry that meets all the criteria yet retains civility, even fondness. You can have a rivalry where it seems utterly plausible for fans to like both sides. You have a rivalry here where the adversary is not the enemy. 

Nadal holds the head-to-head record over Federer (24–16).
Nadal holds the head-to-head record over Federer (24–16). / Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Dear Jon

There is this guy in Florida who is as gutsy as a critic can get, why don’t you give him a link or a platform, he is simply on the money with everything he says. I think more people need to listen and read him.

Melissa
NJ tennis Mom

• Melissa refers to Javier Palenque. He writes a daily column critical of the USTA and its board. Some of his points are stronger (and more strongly reasoned) than others. You can (and I do) question whether this is the optimal way to make your point. But it’s hard not to respect the guy’s commitment and passion. In the spirit of we report; you decide, here’s the link.

Shots

• Everyone should read this bit of wisdom from Cornet—shared with the Roland Garros media Friday—which encapsulates too much:


Q: What will you miss in the French Open and what will you not miss?

Alizé Cornet: I will miss playing tennis because this is a sport that I still love after all these years. I just like to hit the ball playing tennis. It’s pretty straightforward, basically.

The inner child that is within me still likes to play tennis. What I will miss as well is the emotion that you feel when you win matches. It’s actually pretty addictive. This is what gives us the impetus to do better every day, the adrenaline, this emotion, what you feel during matches, this is something that you can find hardly anywhere else in normal life, so to say.

But this is also what I will not miss at the same time, because when you live it so many times for such a long time, then you grow weary after some time. It’s nice to have ups and downs over so many years but not that many years. From a psychological point of view, it can actually grow on you. It was good to hold my own for such a long time, to stay at such a high level for nearly 20 years, but it also cost me a lot emotionally speaking, and from a psychological point [of] view as well.

And I’m ready to have a life that would be easier. I'm not going to say that I'm going to be a granny now, but I gave my all. I gave it my all and even more. So I deserve it. What I will miss and not miss are pretty much the same thing. 

Also, I’m quite happy not to pack and unpack my luggage every week, to open up the bags and close them again and go and travel all the time. This is something that will help me, because I will rest somewhere. I can find my roots again, which is not the case nowadays. 

• A new era has dawned. One of the longest-running tennis tournaments in the U.S., the Cincinnati Open, is undergoing an extensive, campus-wide renovation planned to improve fan and player experiences before the expanded 2025 tournament. The project is part of a $260 million investment by tournament owner Beemok Capital.

The entire campus will be reimagined, with modern stadium facades and extensive landscaping to create a park-like feel throughout the venue. New fan amenities, courts and player facilities will also be added to increase capacity.


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Jon Wertheim

JON WERTHEIM

Sports Illustrated executive editor and senior writer L. Jon Wertheim is one of the most accomplished sports journalists in America.