On May 12, 2022, merely 10 days before the start of the French Open, Rafael Nadal found himself in a precarious position. Facing Denis Shapovalov in the Italian Open round of 16, he felt “unbearable” pain in his right foot during the third set after breezing through the opener.
“I’m not injured, I’m a player who lives with this injury,” Nadal went on to say after that 6-1, 5-7, 2-6 defeat. “There’s nothing new. Unfortunately, my daily life is difficult.”
The Spaniard had enjoyed a stellar run in the first quarter of the season. He won the Melbourne Summer Set and the Mexican Open, and between that clinched the Australian Open for his 21st Grand Slam title, going past his great rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic on the men’s singles all-time leaderboard.
Heading into Roland Garros, though, the odds didn’t seem in his favour despite his otherworldly record at the tournament. The three Masters 1000 clay events ahead of the French Open – the Monte Carlo Masters, the Madrid Open and the Italian Open – had been won by Stefanos Tsitsipas, Carlos Alcaraz and Djokovic respectively.
But more importantly, it was the sight of him limping and grimacing in pain during his Italian Open loss that raised questions about his future.
“I have to accept the situation and fight,” Nadal had added after losing to Shapovalov. “I can’t say anything more. I don’t know if I should rest or train, but I still have a goal in a week and a few days. I will dream of this goal.”
And lo and behold, on June 5, 2022, merely 24 days after that agonising defeat in Rome, Nadal was at the top of the French Open podium yet again. It was his 14th Roland Garros title and a record-extending 22nd men’s singles Grand Slam triumph. He had said he would dream of this goal and with his indomitable spirit, he went on to achieve it.
However, as one would imagine, it was hardly an easy ride to the trophy. After his second round win against Corentin Moutet, Nadal “couldn’t walk” due to the foot injury. But he kept marching forward and survived the first week of the tournament without dropping a set.
Then came ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in the round of 16 – a player 14 years his junior, who was being coached by Uncle Toni. Nadal lost the opener, then won the next two sets, before Auger-Aliassime fought back to force a decider. Nadal led 4-3 in the fifth and it seemed the match could go either way, but he produced two sensational points to get the break before closing out the match.
“Every match I play here, I don’t know if it will be my last,” said Nadal after that win, continuing to be haunted by the pain in his foot.
But he needed to recover quickly as his quarterfinal opponent was Djokovic. The defending champion and reigning World No 1 had not lost a set in the first four rounds but more importantly, he had beaten Nadal in the 2021 French Open semifinals and would’ve fancied his chances once again.
Nadal, however, was a man on a mission and delivered a masterclass against all odds. After he stormed through the opener and Djokovic responded by levelling things up, Nadal found another gear even as most would’ve thought Djokovic would run away with the contest. The Serb was serving to take the match to a decider but was faced with incredible resistance and went on to lose in four.
Nadal’s semifinal opponent was expected to be the in-form Alcaraz, but the teenage sensation lost in the quarters to an inspired Alexander Zverev. The third seed put his crushing defeat to Alcaraz in the Madrid Open final behind him to win in four sets. He was at the top of his game and was expected to provide a stern test for the fifth seed in the semis.
And the match, for as long as it lasted, did live up to its billing. Zverev started strong but Nadal turned things around to clinch the first set tie-break 10-8. The second set too kept going back and forth, with the players trading heavy punches. It had been three hours and 13 minutes since the match started and it seemed both players were in with a shot. But just then, Zverev suffered a devastating ankle twist and had to withdraw from the match at 6-6 in the second set.
It was an unfortunate end to what had been a hard-fought battle. And despite Nadal not wanting it to be this way, he was through to the French Open final for the 14th time.
In the final, he was up against eighth seed Casper Ruud. The Norwegian had won two ATP 250 events, both on clay, in 2022 – the Argentina Open and the Geneva Open in the week leading up to Roland Garros. He had never faced Nadal on the tour previously but had trained with him during his stint at the Spanish superstar’s academy in Mallorca.
Ruud got an early break in the second set after struggling to find his rhythm in the opener. But that was that for the final as Nadal won 11 games in a row from 1-3 down in the second to close out a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 win. Ruud, despite what must’ve been an overwhelming occasion for him, did try to put up a fight. But Nadal wasn’t going to be stopped, not after the sacrifices he had made in the prior weeks.
After the final, Nadal finally gave a clearer picture of his injury. And the words he spoke gave an all new perspective to his historic triumph.
“I was able to play in these two weeks with extreme conditions,” said Nadal in the post-match press conference. “I’ve been playing with injections on the nerves to make the foot go to sleep. That’s why I was able to play, because I had no feeling on my foot. My doctor was able to put anaesthetic injections on the nerves. That took out the feeling on my foot but at the same time, it’s a bigger risk. You could turn your ankle over or aggravate the injury.”
He added: “Of course, Roland Garros is Roland Garros. Everybody knows how much this tournament means to me, so I wanted to keep trying and give myself a chance here. And this was the only way to do it, so I did it. I couldn’t be happier and can’t thank my doctor enough for everything he’s done for me throughout my career... but it’s obvious that I can’t keep competing with the foot asleep.”
The applause was, of course, loud but there was also a sense of bewilderment at Court Philippe-Chatrier after Nadal’s victory on Sunday. After all, Ruud had won just eight points in the third set of the final. Here was a 36-year-old who had beaten four top 10 players and lost just four sets in the tournament. And he had done all this with an excruciatingly painful injury which just 24 days earlier, had nearly forced him to retire from a match.
At that point, there were just two choices you were left with. Either keep scratching your head to make sense of how he did it, or resign to this fact – Rafa Nadal, at Roland Garros, is inevitable.