Rafa Nadal at Roland-Garros in 2022. GETTY IMAGES

It’s been a rough couple of seasons for Rafael Nadal, and this Wednesday was no different. The all-time tennis great, now 37 years old and marred by injuries, announced that he will only play at the upcoming French Open, his signature tournament, if he feels "capable enough to compete well".

The undisputed Paris crowd favourite and 14-time Roland Garros champion conceded that if the action in the French capital were to kick off today, he would not be able to participate. "I will not play in Paris if I am the way I am now. If Paris were today, I wouldn't take to the court. That’s the reality," he told a group of reporters at the Madrid Open.

Nadal has spent most of the year on the mend nursing a chronic psoas injury that has limited his action to a handful of matches for the season; and his awaited comeback, last January in Brisbanne, fell short because of what he called “a micro muscle tear", during his match against Australia's Jordan Thompson.

The Spanish player, who had hip surgery last summer, did manage to return to the clay courts, where he has historically excelled, last week in his home country for Barcelona's annual tennis tournament. The ramp-up attempt to Roland Garros, however, was less than stellar, as Nadal was eliminated in the second round by Alex de Miñaur, another Aussie.

Now in the Spanish capital, Nadal is set to face 16-year-old American Darwin Blanch in his Madrid opener on Thursday. "I don't think I'm ready to play at my 100 percent but I'm prepared to go out and play tomorrow. It’s important for me to play one last time here in Madrid. For me it means a lot. A few weeks ago, I didn't know if I will be able to play again on the professional tour. So today I'm playing," the two-time Olympic gold medallist insisted.

Back to his much-anticipated Roland Garros bid, the former world number one vowed to keep fighting for the chance to play at his most successful tournament one last time. "I don't know what's going to happen in the next three weeks. I will keep fighting and doing the things I believe I have to do so I can try to play in Paris. And if I can play, I play. If I can't, I can't." 

In Madrid, Nadal attended the Laureus awards on Monday and shared the limelight with the newest tennis wonderboy, fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, and long-time rival, Novak Djokovic. The Serb ace and current Grand Slam leader with 24 major trophies lifted his fifth Laureus Sportsman of the Year award to even with Swiss legend Roger Federer, who had retired in 2022 in 2022 after two decades of brilliant duels with the Spaniard and 'Nole'.

Nadal, a Laureus two-time SOY recipient himself, put on a brave face, but he admitted that his farewell tour hasn't been as enjoyable as he would have hoped. "It's not perfect, of course, but at least I'm playing and I can enjoy myself again, especially in the few tournaments that are so emotional for me. I enjoy that I can say probably good-bye on the court," said the 22-time Grand Slam winner who, at one point during 2023, considered retirement. "I couldn't have a normal life and enjoy playing golf or doing normal things with my friends or with my family," he said in before playing in Brisbanne.

Nadal considers he's not playing bad, hitting the ball well when he is able to be on court, but it's about more body limitations. "That's not allowing me to compete the way that I would like to do. I went through a lot of things last year and a half, two years", he lamented.The global sporting icon has won de Madrid Open a record five times, yet he last lifted the trophy in 2017. "I don’t lose hope. I just accept the situation that I have today," he said.

Unless unforeseen injuries surface in the following weeks, Alcaraz and Djokovic, last year's winner over Norwegian Casper Ruud, are due to compete in Roland Garros. No doubt, it will be a special edition of the French Open, with its final scheduled on Sunday 9 June, just a month and a half before the Olympics' much-advertised Opening Ceremony in the river Seine. Whether the Serb gets to distance himself from Nadal in the all-time list or he is allowed one magical last dance with the Paris fans that have adored him for so long remains to be seen.