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14-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal goes into the tournament unseeded

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Well, it might be hard to believe, but 14-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal goes into the tournament at Roland Garros unseeded. That's because injuries led him to miss a lot of tennis over the last couple of seasons. The tournament begins Sunday, and he's back to compete on his favorite surface. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated has followed his illustrious career. He joins us now. I mean, when it comes to clay and Nadal, it's like a fish in water, right? So how big of a deal is it that Nadal is back?

JON WERTHEIM: It's great that he's back. It's less great that he is unseeded. It's very strange. He's won this event 14 times. He's won this event twice as many times as John McEnroe won majors combined, for perspective. But yes, he is unseeded. He is to clay what - we're trying to come up with analogies - what, you know, Taylor Swift is to stages or what Michael Phelps is to water. But, you know, not being seeded - he turns 38 midway through the tournament. He's had some injuries. And he will have his work cut out for him, to put it charitably, if he wants to win a 15th title.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. He's got a very tough draw considering he's a 14-time champion, right?

WERTHEIM: He plays a seeded player, Alexander Zverev of Germany, who just won a big tuneup event in Rome and is one of the real contenders right off the bat. It's probably just as much a misfortune for Zverev as it is for Nadal, but this is what happens when you leave fate to the draw gods. And yeah, it's just - it looks like a typo. I mean, seeing Nadal as - in the draw at the French Open unseeded is bizarre, and he will have his work cut out for him if he wants to survive until the second round.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Nadal might have the crowd on his side in this tournament, I think - just a guess on my part. I know he's been out on the court practicing, Jon. How's he looking?

WERTHEIM: He's looking pretty good. It's been a bit hard to tell this year from his practice because he's had a series of injuries. And when it's - you know, when it's the back, he hasn't served much, it's been a little bit of deception to watch him practice. But I also don't think he goes to this event if he doesn't feel relatively healthy. Again, 38 is a big number, and especially for a professional athlete. And he's been injured for - really for much of the past two years. But just the mere fact that he's out there playing and in the draw practicing, I think, is a good sign that at least he's going to give it a shot.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, there's speculation that this could be Nadal's last French Open, but I don't know. I mean, Jon, what if he plays well? What if he wins, looks good doing it? I mean, what have you heard?

WERTHEIM: I think he genuinely is asking himself the same question we all are. And I honestly don't think he knows. I mean, sometimes athletes, tennis players say, you know what? This is it. This is my omega. We're done. I think Nadal is leaving open the possibility. I think some of this is to take pressure off himself. I mean, again, he turns 38 on June 3. At some point, the ride has to end, but he is so accomplished on the surface, I think history matters. He sees that Djokovic isn't the Djokovic of old. I think he's leaving the possibility open.

Rationally, it's probably his last Roland Garros. But who knows? And I don't think - I mean, he's not coy about these things. I don't think he is particularly strategic. I think he is asking himself these same questions that we are, and I don't think he has a real plan.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. It's tough, though. I mean - right? I mean, you've been doing something for so long, and then all of a sudden, that thing that you do is too tough on your body, and you've got to make that choice.

WERTHEIM: Yeah. I mean, you know, he will retire, and he will never be as good at anything else in life as he was at tennis, and he wants to retire on his terms, not because his body isn't cooperating.

MARTÍNEZ: That Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim. He'll be in Paris for the French Open. Jon, thanks a lot.

WERTHEIM: Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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