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Even if we don’t get to watch Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, he’s always worth listening to in “tough moments” like these
“It’s time to accept the situation and fight. That’s it,” said the 21-time Grand Slam champion after a foot flare-up in Rome left him limping in defeat.
Published May 13, 2022
INTERVIEW: Rafael Nadal after his injury-impacted loss in Rome
“Unfortunately, my day to day is difficult, honestly,” Rafael Nadal said on Thursday in Rome, after limping, with foot pain, to a three-set loss to Denis Shapovalov.
In Nadal’s case, “day to day” isn’t an exaggeration. So far, his 2022 has swung as wildly as an athlete’s season can swing.
Rafa came into the year with Covid and chronic foot pain, but by the end of January he had won the Australian Open for the second time, and pulled off the greatest comeback of his career to do it. Through March, he had built up a three-tournament, 20-match win streak, which was snapped when he cracked a rib in Indian Wells. Now, after a two-month recovery from that injury, just when it looked like he was rounding into shape for Roland Garros, his foot has flared up again.
It’s particularly painful and unfortunate that it happened when it did. For the first seven games on Thursday, Nadal appeared to have regained his top-level timing; the harder a Shapo shot came in, the harder Rafa sent it back. Watching him win the first set 6-1, and reach break point early in the second set, I thought he was destined to win the tournament, and that we would have a full, three-way race in Paris between an in-form Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz. Instead, he’s back to taking it day by day, and praying he’ll be ready.
“What can happen in the next couple of days, I don’t know,” Nadal said. “What can happen in one week, I really don’t know.
“Negative thing and toughest thing for me today is honestly I start to feel myself play much better. I started the match playing much better. My practice was much better, the warm-up, than the other day.”
You might say this is par for the course for any athlete who is less than a month from his 36th birthday. And it is. But it’s also par for the course for Nadal. He has had the same foot problem for years, which morphed into a chronic knee problem that threatened to end his career. He has also had wrist issues, abdominal-muscle issues, pulled hamstrings, a bad back, appendicitis and probably a dozen more ailments that I can’t remember. Watching Nadal launch himself across the court as a teenager, Andre Agassi famously said that he was “writing checks that his body can’t cash.” Two decades later, Rafa has long since proven Agassi wrong, but his longevity has been hard won, and his health always precarious.
Will he be ready for Roland Garros? It seems like a long shot right now. The last time we saw him limping around the court, at the Citi Open in the summer of 2021, he didn’t reappear for six months. That leaves the French very much in flux, for Nadal and for the men’s event. Depending on what happens this weekend, Alcaraz or Djokovic might be the co-favorites, but it’s also possible that Nadal will find a way play his best. Two weeks before the Australian Open, few would have put money on him to win the title.
If we don’t get to see Nadal at Roland Garros, we’ll be robbed of seeing one of the ultimate athlete-in-his-element scenarios in all of sports. No one has dominated a venue the way he has there. Yet this isn’t all that makes Nadal important. The way he plays on clay is always worth watching, of course, but the head-on way he handles moments like these—“tough moments,” in his vernacular—is always worth listening to as well. That was true again on Thursday, when he discussed his foot flare-up with reporters.
I would love to tell you another stuff, talk about tennis and talk about another thing. But today it’s what there is.
I feel sad about that, that I started to feel again a lot of positive things. But then when these kind of stuff happens, the rest of the things, the rest of the positive things disappears, no?
Yeah, it’s the time to accept the situation and fight. That’s it. Honestly, I can’t tell you anything more now. It’s not about that I can come back and can do treatment, that’s the negative part of this thing. I have to come back.
I don’t know if rest, I don't know if maybe practice. But I still a goal in one week and a couple of days. I going to keep dreaming about that goal.
Nadal acknowledged the crushing disappointment he felt when his foot started to hurt at exactly the wrong moment. Then, in his next breath, he shrugged off that disappointment and began to think about what he needed to do to counteract it. There was no other choice.
Rafa is surely weary of this chain of events, and of having to start from scratch, physically, so often. Someday, probably soon, he won’t want to go through it anymore, and he’ll stop. Fortunately, that time doesn’t seem to have come. He can show us again, as he’s shown us for nearly 20 years, how to accept adversity and fight it.