Tennis: Somdev Devvarman on Rafael Nadal’s French Open swansong – ‘Retirement is inevitable’

Men’s tennis is entering an interesting phase unlike what it has had so far this century. For the last 24 years and a bit more, the four Grand Slams – the pinnacle of tennis – and the Olympics as well has shared its winners among three great players – Novak Djokovic from Serbia, Rafael Nadal from Spain and Roger Federer from Switzerland, Britain’s Andy Murray being the most notable mention outside the Big Three.

It was the end of one era when Federer announced his retirement from the sport in 2022. The world’s greatest grass court player and a darling of Wimbledon fans, the Swiss player broke hearts when he hung up his racket.

As Djokovic continued to scale new heights and break records, he had Nadal to challenge him sparsely. Murray’s injuries caught up with him and the new generation began breaking through slowly.

But as the world gears up for two months of packed schedules in the sport with the French Open and Wimbledon along with the 2024 Paris Olympics, two of the remaining three who dominated the sport for a large portion of the 21st century so far are also ready to call it time on their careers.

Former India no 1 Somdev Devvarman has watched both Nadal and Murray on tour and has played the latter in his hey-day. Therefore, during an online interaction ahead of Roland Garros 2024, Devvarman was full of praise for the duo along with Dominic Thiem, another player who attempted to challenge the stronghold the Big Three and Murray (to an extent) had on the tour.

“What we’re seeing right now is inevitable,” said Devvarman when asked about the possibility of uncertainty creeping into men’s tennis with the eventual retirement of Nadal and Murray.

“We got at least three more years from Rafa [Nadal] than I expected, to be honest. Novak [Djokovic] is also likely to retire soon, but the question is how much more does he have in him to continue?”

“But also you have to look at the last few champions of Grand Slams like [Carlos] Alcaraz and [Jannik] Sinner. So I think in this next phase of men’s tennis, we’re going to see more Grand Slam champions than we did in the past 20 years or so.”

Although it has been a while since Devvarman himself was a competitor on the ATP tour (the men’s professional circuit), the few memories that the Indian commentator and broadcaster has of Murray and Nadal is enough to paint a picture.

“Andy [Murray] has had a great career,” remarked Devvarman, who played against the three-time Grand Slam champion twice – at the 2011 US Open and the 2014 ATP 250 Shenzen Open.

“I feel like the guy dissected the game in a way that very few people had seen before. The grit and IQ he played with, those were the things that stood out to me first. But when I played with him, I realised how physical and strong he was.

“He was a different breed – how well he saw the court and how few weakenesses he had, his amazing attack from different positions, his court awareness and the smarts,” he added.

While many may refrain from including Murray in the Big Three to extend it to the Big Four, Devvarman explained that despite not winning that many majors, the Brit’s level of competition was on par with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.

Out of the four, Murray is the only player to have won three Olympic medals – two gold in men’s singles and one silver in mixed doubles with Laura Robson. Nadal has one gold in men’s singles and Federer has one gold in men’s doubles with Stanislas Wawrinka.

When asked about how Nadal could fare in what will be his swansong on his favourite court at the French Open, Devvarman remarked on the dominance that the Spaniard has had on this surface.

“[Nadal is arguably] the greatest clay-courter ever, tennis is lucky to have him,” said the 39-year-old.

Nadal has been drawn to play world No 4 Alexander Zverev from Germany in the opening round on Court Philippe Chatrier in Roland Garros.

“You always expect a dramatic match when it comes to Rafa [Nadal], you expect him to fight and give himself a chance to win,” said Devvarman. “Especially on Philippe Chatrier which is his most successful court and against Zverev who is going to be uncomfortable playing despite having success recently in Rome.”

Terming it as ‘a popcorn match for the ages’, Devvarman reckoned that fans of the sport should be grateful that they got to witness ‘an unbelievable career unfold right before their eyes’.

As is expected when greats like Nadal approach the finish line, the question of who is the next Nadal or Federer inevitably crop up. But Devvarman cautions against making early comparisons and also advises against taking those words to heart, especially for the youngsters.

“I feel like the comparisons will be made naturally, but that kind of gets old quick,” explained the former India player turned broadcaster. “Much like with Iga Swiatek who has been compared to Serena [Williams] or [Steffi] Graf, what is required is improvement and not to focus on what the chatter is all about.

“So these players [Alcaraz, Sinner], despite being young, one of the reasons that they’re good is because they’re very mature and don’t let a whole lot of things get to their head,” he added.

With inputs from Samreen Razzaqui.

The French Open 2024 will be broadcast live on the Sony Sports Network starting on May 26.

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