By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
On June 3, 2022, his 36th birthday, Rafael Nadal reached his 14th French Open final. Unlike the 13 other times when he’d made it this far in the major where the Spaniard has swatted away adversity with a simple flick of his forehand, this year was different. In 2022, the journey to the final was more like a scene in which Rafa was slowly trudging along, trying to complete a pilgrimage he had to undertake regardless of the personal costs asked of him.
Beginning with his fourth-round match against Felix Auger-Aliassime, these costs have been accumulating for the 21-time major champion. Then again, while he was able to narrowly avoid a worst-case scenario in his semifinal against Alexander Zverev due to the German’s freak ankle injury, the three hours and 13 minutes he spent on court still took a lot from Nadal.
The injury, in its remarkable timing, embodied the theatrical term “break a leg” in the (un)luckiest of ways. Not that Nadal, the other man in the fray, would want to think of the result as being “lucky,” though.
Given what Nadal had endured with a recurrent foot injury that has continued to trouble him since the Rome Open, the former No. 1’s reaction to Zverev’s injury was devoid of any emotion other than humane empathy.
“(To) see a colleague on the tour like this – even if, for me, it’s a dream to be in the final of Roland-Garros – of course, that way is not the way that we want it to be… If you are human, you should feel very sorry for a colleague,” the Mallorcan observed.
But while not counting himself lucky, the athlete within Nadal was understandably relieved of having reached the final. His own prospects were clouded in uncertainty before the tournament began, despite all that he was willing to undertake to make it happen.
Part of this was his health. Most of it was being drawn in Novak Djokovic’s quarter.
It wasn’t surprising to hear him say, “I was not very positive after (Rome) about my foot, but I was positive that I will be able to play here. And here I am. I played, I (fought), I did all the things possible to give myself at least a chance to be where I am. Happy of course to be able to give myself another chance to play on second Sunday here in the final of Roland Garros. That means a lot to me. And even (with) all the sacrifices and all the things that I need to go through to try to keep playing, it really makes sense when you enjoy moments like I’m enjoying in this tournament.”
In the end, “it really makes sense” is what Nadal’s willingness to put himself through excruciating pain is about. He does this so that he can make the trip to the final Sunday in Paris. He isn’t distancing himself from reality; far from it, if his statement to the Spanish press after the Zverev match is anything to go by.
“I’d prefer to lose the final and have a new that permits me to be very happy in my everyday life. Winning is beautiful and fills you with momentary happiness. But life moves on and that’s most important. I have a life ahead and would like to play amateur sports with my friends and this right now, is unknown.”
Thus, while the whole wide world of tennis might be agog about Nadal’s dominance at the French Open, even if he’s not at his best, the man’s success is a result of walking on this high rope drawn across the two poles of personal hopes and realism.
Each time he has fallen while atop this rope, the Mallorcan has picked himself up, shaken off the dust he might have collected during his fall, and started over, with nothing to prove to anyone but himself. This has held him in good stead, not only in the years he won the French Open but also in those when he didn’t.
This facet of Nadal’s character is a microcosm of what he has done in the entirety of his career and why he’s been so consistent throughout. It has not been easy and it’s not a trait every player can display.
Rafael Nadal is not like any other player.
That’s because he willed himself to be different, irrespective of whether he was winning easily or had to stand his ground, with his mind willing his already-bruised body into another pursuit of a treasured championship.