Updated May 22nd, 2024 at 10:22 IST

Thousands of fans come to see Rafael Nadal practice ahead of the French Open

Vanessa Peltier got up at dawn and traveled 500 kilometers (310 miles) to Paris from the Creuse region of central France just so she could watch Rafael Nadal practice.

A man takes a photograph of the statue of Rafael Nadal, Tuesday, May 21, 2024 in Paris. | Image: AP
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Vanessa Peltier got up at dawn and traveled 500 kilometers (310 miles) to Paris from the Creuse region of central France just so she could watch Rafael Nadal practice.

Along with thousands of other fans, she lined up outside the main court to catch a glimpse of the Spanish champion at what’s expected to be his final appearance at the French Open, a tournament he’s won a record 14 times.

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“I woke up at 6 a.m. and drove from the middle of France to be here,” said Peltier, 50. “Nadal has always had my support, and the support of France.”

The line stretched for 200 meters (yards) as fans queued up for Nadal’s second day of practice at Roland Garros . Morgan Chevallier said he waited for 45 minutes to get inside the tennis stadium.

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“I could not pass on this opportunity. He is almost bigger than the tournament itself,” he said.

The 37-year-old Nadal was sidelined with injuries for nearly all of last year and much of this season. His loss in the third round of the Italian Open two weeks ago left questions about his fitness. He hasn’t yet said whether he’s ready for the clay-court tournament.

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The fans know this may be their last chance to see him at Roland Garros.

“I skipped work for Nadal,” said Sergiu Popa, 26.

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Nadal started with low-intensity ball exchanges before playing two sets against his sparring partner for the day, Sebastian Korda of the United States. The crowd erupted in cheers and chants of “Rafa, Rafa” after the Spaniard hit a winning shot.

Outside the court, fans took photos in front of the Nadal statue at the entry gate and lined up to pose with a life-size cardboard cutout of him, with a hole where they could put their own faces.

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“This way I can imagine what it’s like to have the same biceps as him,” joked Philippe Charvet as his friend took his picture.

In the Roland Garros gift shop, an entire section is dedicated to Nadal merchandise. Frédéric Caubert and his son Gaspar elbowed their way to buy a hat with Nadal’s signature for 28 euros ($30).

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“It’s not cheap, but it will be a nice memory once Nadal leaves us,” Caubert said. “It’s like he is part of our family. When he’s gone, family dinners won’t feel the same,” he said with a smile.

The tournament begins on Sunday.

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Published May 22nd, 2024 at 10:22 IST