Rafael Nadal on Thursday withdrew from the French Open because his hip injury has not healed and, in a bigger development, said that he expects 2024 to be his final year in professional tennis.

“It’s not a decision I’m taking, it’s a decision my body is taking,” said the 36-year-old Spanish superstar, who has played at the clay-court major every year since 2005 and won it 14 times. The King of Clay has been dominating Roland Garros since his debut and it is one of the greatest dominant streaks in any sport at a single event.

The official Roland Garros account wrote: “We can’t imagine how hard this decision was. We’ll definitely miss you at this year’s Roland-Garros. Take care of yourself to come back stronger on courts. Hoping to see you next year in Paris.”

In the press conference, Nadal also said that he was taking a few months off before starting to play again.

“It’s probably going to be my last year (2024) on the professional tour, I can’t say this 100 percent because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

The Spaniard said that he hoped to play the Olympics because that will be played at Roland Garros as well. The main thing now is that he was taking a few months off, without training, meaning he will also definitely miss Wimbledon and most likely the US Open, before starting to play again.

“I can’t say 100% that it is going to be like this because you never know what can happen. But my idea and my motivation is to try to enjoy and try to say goodbye to all the tournaments that have been important for me in my tennis career during [next] year and just try to enjoy that that, being competitive and enjoying being on court,” Nadal said.

“[That is] something that today is not possible. I really believe that if I keep going now, I will not be able to make that happen. I don’t know if I stop if I will be able to make that happen, but I think the chances are much higher if I stop [and take a break now].”

There was little optimism to be found in the lead-up to his favourite Major, as he scratched warm-up events from his calendar like dominoes tumbling, after the problem he sustained in January at the Australian Open.

First, he skipped hard-court Masters events in the US, Indian Wells and Miami, but Nadal was still not ready for the clay season, missing Monte Carlo, Barcelona and then the Madrid Open.

The Italian Open presented a last chance for Nadal to prove his fitness ahead of Roland Garros, but the 36-year-old was forced to pull out, even though he said his new treatment programme was making some progress.

King of Roland Garros

Nadal has a stunning 112-3 record across 18 career appearances at the major (one mid-tournament withdrawal).

“The injury I suffered in Australia has not healed as we hoped,” he said.

“Roland Garros became impossible. I will not be there after many years, with everything that (tournament) means to me.”

Nadal said he will not set a date for his return, but said the Davis Cup in November could be a potential target.

Nadal said he would keep an eye on this year’s French Open and was philosophical about not being able to defend his title at the tournament he has dominated at.

“Roland Garros will always be Roland Garros, with or without me, it will keep being the best event,” added Nadal.

“There will be a Roland Garros champion and it won’t be me, and that’s life.”

Former world number one Nadal has not played since the Australian Open in January where he picked up a hip injury in a shock second round loss to Mackenzie McDonald of the United States.

He was expected to recover inside six weeks, comfortably in time to launch an assault on a record-extending 15th title at Roland Garros.

However, with his 37th birthday little over two weeks away and having skipped Masters events in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, Nadal is stepping away to try and find fitness.

After a career plagued by knee, wrist and foot injuries in particular, the alarm bells have been ringing ever louder over the last year.

Nadal’s undefeated start to 2022, which saw him pick up a second Australian Open title, ended with a chest injury at Indian Wells.

He swept to a 14th French Open in June but only after revealing he had required daily pain-killing injections in his foot.

Weeks later, his dream of a third Wimbledon title ended in a semi-final withdrawal due to an abdominal strain.

Nadal’s lengthy absence this year has also seen him drop out of the world’s top 10 for the first time in 18 years.

His record at the French Open is unlikely ever to be broken. Since his 2005 championship winning debut, he has racked up 112 wins and only been defeated three times. Two of those losses came against great rival Novak Djokovic in 2015 and 2021. The other was to Robin Soderling in 2009.

Djokovic, who shares the men’s record of 22 Slams with Nadal, will start as French Open favourite this year alongside world number one Carlos Alcaraz.

Alcaraz, who idolises Nadal, tweeted: “Very painful and sad for everyone that you can’t be at Roland Garros or play anymore this year, but wishing that 2024 will be a great season for you and you can say goodbye as the great champion that you are.”

With AFP inputs