Rafael Nadal's French Open glory: A tale of numb foot, pain, and warrior's grit
If there is one thing Rafael Nadal hates more than losing, it is making excuses. Or even seen to be doing so.
The champion who has made it a habit of looking debilitating injury in the face and staring it down added another glittering feather to his already overflowing cap with a remarkable triumph on his beloved Philippe Chatrier court in Paris on Sunday. A straight-set demolition of the young man who trains at Nadal’s academy in Spain, Norwegian Casper Ruud, powered the magnificent Spaniard to a record-extending 14th French Open title and boosted his number of Grand Slam crowns to 22, two more than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Staggering as those accomplishments are, they pale in comparison with the strength of mind Nadal was able to summon during the fortnight of Roland Garros. Where ordinary mortals might have thought twice, and then some more, about whether, at this stage of their career, it was worth putting themselves through sheer torture, Nadal knuckled down silently to do what he does best – rule the red clay with an iron fist, like he has done since 2005 when he lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires (The Musketeers Cup) trophy for the first time.
Spirit of a warrior
Throughout the tournament, Nadal had hinted that every match could have been his last. He didn’t dwell on that because that’s not his style, but it was clear that something was wrong. Physically, that is. But his spirit was intact, visibly so. The spirit of a man who doesn’t know what it is to quit, of someone used to living by his own rules. The spirit of a warrior. Match after a gruelling match, he ground it out, battling against fitter, younger, fresher men with the bit between their teeth. More than one felt they had Nadal’s number. Without fail, all of them bit the dust as the famed Nadal forehand claimed one victim after another.
It wasn’t until after he had dashed Ruud’s dreams in the final that Nadal revealed the extent of the chronic left foot injury that might hasten the end of his career – admittedly an odd choice of phrase that, given that he turned 36 last Friday, the day he won his classic-in-the-making semi-final which ended prematurely when Alexander Zverev retired hurt with a horrific ankle injury. Nadal’s empathy and genuine concern for a fellow warrior had been all too apparent as he barely celebrated another entry into the final. It was Nadal just being Nadal, but it was also more than that because only he and his team knew what he was going through.
Nadal had started 2022 in a blaze of glory, unexpectedly going all the way at the Australian Open which he had won only once previously and stacking up an unprecedented 20-0 record at the start of the year. Then, disaster struck in the final of the Indian Wells event in March when he went down to American Taylor Fritz. During the match, he complained of breathing difficulties. Scans revealed that he had a stress fracture of the ribs, which prevented him from even sleeping for several days, let alone get back to doing basic aerobic work.
Plethora of injuries
When he returned six weeks later at the Madrid Open in early May, he was short on match practice and predictably lost in the quarterfinals to compatriot Carlos Alcaraz, the teenager who is touted to be Nadal’s heir apparent, especially on clay. The following week in Rome, at the Italian Masters, Nadal again exited in the last eight, beaten by Canadian Denis Shapovalov. The defeat came at a great cost – grimacing in pain and limping between points, Nadal felt the full impact of the return of the left foot injury that left his career hanging by the most tenuous of threads.
Nadal had nothing to prove. He had more Grand Slam crowns than any other male, it is unlikely that anybody would emulate his French Open exploits at any Grand Slam. He had held the No. 1 ranking for more than 200 weeks, he had conducted himself with great dignity, he had elevated the profile of the sport, and he had orchestrated the most incredible comebacks, both on the court and off it. His body was ravaged by the passage of time, his gruelling, all-out, uncompromising game and the plethora of injuries that clung on to him like unwanted houseguests. Give it up, Rafa, you might have said.
‘Give it up?’ he would have queried. ‘What does that mean?’
And so, Nadal didn’t. He worked tirelessly to regain rhythm and confidence even as his doctor and a team of professionals tried to manage his pain. It wasn’t straightforward, though, and things looked dire post his second-round win in Paris, after which he could barely walk.
Playing with a ‘sleep’ foot
Nadal’s medical team was left with no option but to resort to anaesthesia. He played each of the next five rounds with the nerves of his left foot under anaesthetic. Before every match, he would be injected with the anaesthetic to ‘sleep‘ the foot. Consequently, forget the pain, he couldn’t even feel his foot; he was playing with a numb left foot!
Essentially then, on one good leg, a desperate desire to win and the fierce will to reclaim the kingdom he had briefly surrendered to Djokovic last year, Nadal mounted a campaign for the ages. Having breezed through the first three rounds – masking his pain and discomfort in masterly fashion – he was forced to stretch every sinew in his next three. Felix Auger Aliasimme, the Canadian, took him to five sets in the fourth round, and Nadal needed four sets to dethrone Djokovic in the quarters, both matches lasting more than four hours. He and Zverev had scrapped it out for three hours and hadn’t even completed two sets when the German had to retire in agony. What made Nadal tick? What was he made of?
The game of a winner, the heart of a champion and the spirit of a fighter? Simplistic, maybe, but the truth is often all too simple. The conquest of Ruud made Nadal the oldest men’s titlist at Roland Garros. Chances are that, at this stage, the old warhorse might have played his last French Open, but hey, remember who we are talking about. It will take a brave person to rule out a return to the French capital next year in quest for No. 15, in the relentless and sustained pursuit of ultimate excellence. If he hasn’t already achieved that, it won’t be a bad idea to fasten the seatbelt and savour the ride of a lifetime.