Why Nadal’s unexpectedly expected French Open triumph was his toughest yet

Let’s go back to that May 12 evening in Rome, when Rafael Nadal was putting on quite a show in his Round of 16 tie against Denis Shapovalov. The Canadian fought back in the second set after being blown away in the first, setting up a mouthwatering deciding set. At 2-2, while chasing a ball to his forehand, Nadal’s left foot twitched a bit. Limping immediately, Nadal stood crestfallen near his towel rack for a good few seconds.

Nadal’s foot issue had flared up again at perhaps the worst possible time—10 days shy of the French Open. However, there was another worrying fact for the Spaniard than just his physical uncertainty; which he has struggled with—and heroically overcome—quite a number of times in his injury-plagued career. That defeat was his earliest Italian Open exit since 2008, and it marked the first time in a season that Nadal had not won a title on clay heading into the Roland Garros (discounting the pandemic-disrupted 2020 which saw the entire clay swing wiped off).

And this is what makes his 14th French Open title all the more remarkable, and perhaps the most unanticipated of them all. Not only did the 35-turned-36-year-old win it with an “asleep” foot, but also with a sedate build-up. The kind he hadn’t experienced in any of his previous 13 triumphs in Paris.

“For me to have this trophy next to me again means everything. An emotional victory, without a doubt. Unexpected, in some way,” Nadal said in his post-match press conference.

“Especially as everyone knows in the world of tennis, the preparation was not an ideal one,” he told Eurosport.

Right from his first Roland Garros title in 2005, Nadal has won at least a couple of tournaments on clay from the bunch that precedes it on the ATP calendar. In most seasons, it’s been more than just a couple; like in 2005 (4 titles on clay), 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2017 and 2018 (3 each) and 2013, in which he won five of them.

Even on the rarest of the rare occasions where he hasn’t mesmerized the Court Philippe-Chatrier with the trophy in his arms, Nadal has tasted a tournament victory on clay. In 2009, he won in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome before the shock defeat to Robin Soderling in Paris. From both the 2015 and 2016 seasons in which he grappled with a drastic drop in form and fitness, Nadal still had a couple clay titles to show. Last year, he came to the French Open with victories in Barcelona and Rome before an inspired Novak Djokovic beat him in the semi-finals.

Indeed, this year was truly uncharted territory for Nadal. A stress fracture to his rib applied the brakes on his high-flying start to the season that began with the Australian Open title and stopped at the Indian Wells final in March. It made the Spaniard sit out of the Monte Carlo and Barcelona tournaments. Back in Madrid, he ran into an unstoppable Carlos Alcaraz in the quarter-final and limped out of Rome in the Round of 16. For a man used to building his rhythm and level with titles aplenty on the red dirt heading into his favourite Grand Slam, Nadal played all of five clay-court matches before this French Open.

“Honestly, the way I played since the beginning, I was improving every day,” Nadal said of his French Open run. “I just keep going step by step, practice by practice and always with a clear goal to improve something. That’s my mindset during my tennis career. Go on court in every practice with a goal to improve something in my game. I don’t understand the sport in any other way.”

A major part of that step-by-step progress involved the problematic left foot, and feeding the nerves in it with anaesthetic injections before every match so that, as Nadal put it, “the foot was asleep”. Nadal was clear he didn’t wish to carry on playing whatever tennis is left in him the same way, adding that his team will look for a different solution.

For now, though, it’s about cherishing the unexpected 14th for Nadal. About that smile sitting on his chair after winning the last point in Paris, a picture of contrast to when he sat with his face (and pain) hidden underneath the palms in Rome.

Surely, Slam No 22 must have left him surprised too? “For sure, it’s a surprise,” Nadal said with a smirk, before adding, “If it doesn’t surprise you that you win 14 Roland Garros or 22 Grand Slams, it’s because you are super arrogant. I am not this kind of guy.”

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