Smiles, despite everything. Rafael Nadal, who is attempting a final return to the forefront at almost 38 years old despite a battered body, said goodbye to Madrid on Tuesday, April 30 evening, eliminated in the round of 16 of the Masters 1000 organized in the Spanish capital. The Spaniard with 22 Grand Slam titles, who is in his last season on the ATP circuit – barring an improbable twist – lost to the young Czech Jiri Lehecha (22 years old, 31st in the world) with a score of 7-5, 6-4.

“It was a joke, next year I’ll be back!” “, joked “Rafa” during the tribute paid to him on the court following his match. “It was the last time I played” in Madrid, he then confirmed. “It’s been a very special week for me, very positive on many levels. An unforgettable week,” added the man who won the tournament in the Spanish capital five times, a record.

And Madrid wanted to believe it until the end on Tuesday evening. Even when her favorite is broken at the start of the second set, the “Caja magica” shouts: “Si se puede, si se puede”, the Spanish equivalent of “Yes, we can”, she chants. And in almost every game, she resumes her haunting refrain. Once again, more beautifully and with a standing ovation, when Lehecka is about to serve to win the match.

Rome as justice of the peace

“Come on Rafa, we’re in no hurry,” said a spectator a little earlier, at almost midnight. But for the Majorcan left-hander, this fourth match in six days, the second in two days after a duel lasting more than three hours the day before, is too much. Particularly for his second tournament since his resumption (after Barcelona in mid-April), after almost two years without his body giving him any respite, and after another three months on the sidelines between January and April.

His week in Madrid, with three matches won in a row and four played, including one against a top 20 player (Alex de Minaur), nevertheless increased his confidence: he had not experienced such a series of victories since summer 2022.

Will it provide him, at least in part, with the guarantees he wants in the run-up to Roland-Garros, in less than a month (May 26 to June 9)? We’ll have to wait to find out.

Rafael Nadal is now expected in Rome (May 8 to 19), for the last Masters 1000 on ocher before the Parisian Grand Slam. He will only decide after the Italian tournament on his coming to Roland-Garros, the land of his fourteen triumphs. “I have personal goals in the coming weeks and I want to explore if I have a chance of achieving them,” he confirmed Tuesday evening at a press conference. He will only play in Paris if he feels “ready enough”, he repeated throughout the Madrid tournament. “Otherwise it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

« Thank you Rafa »

Up to 5 games throughout the first set, Nadal did more than hold his own: he was even the most dangerous, twice leading 0-30 on Lehecka’s serve and obtaining the first break point of the game, 5 games to 4. In vain. Lehecka then scored ten consecutive points and pocketed the first set.

Nadal’s luck had passed, but the combativeness that made his legend did not disappear. The Spaniard ended up losing in just over two hours, with a final backhand mistake. It was three past midnight.

“Gracias Rafa” (Thank you Rafa) flashed on the screens around the court. “Thank you for all these years of emotions. We love you,” could be read on a Spanish flag hanging from a railing of the stadium.

“You gave me a gift during these twenty-one years [in Madrid] perhaps more important than winning a Grand Slam tournament,” Nadal confided. “The emotions I experienced on this court, in front of the Spanish public, will stay with me forever,” he concluded. For the world of tennis, there are still a few shots and a few emotions left in the Spanish gladiator’s racket.