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The eternal now of Rafael Nadal: A journey of endurance, patience, and suffering for the Roland Garros title
A year ago, there was concern if Nadal would ever play again. At Roland Garros, once again, here he is — like no one in tennis history, simply and powerfully occupying an eternal presence.
Published Jun 05, 2022
WATCH: Match highlights as Rafael Nadal defeats Casper Ruud in the 2022 Roland Garros final.
Back in the early ‘00s, when Rafael Nadal first burst on the tennis scene, it was easy to compare his swashbuckling playing style to that of a matador, straight out of Ernest Hemingway’s classic book about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon.
As Hemingway wrote, “The individual, the great artist when he comes, uses everything that has been discovered or known about his art up to that point… then the great artist goes beyond what has been done or known and makes something of his own.”
That would be an accurate way to describe what Nadal has done for so long. The duration of his excellence is rare, Nadal joined only by Pete Sampras and Ken Rosewall as men who have won singles majors in their teens, 20s and 30s.
But Nadal’s run to the title this year conjures up another iconic Hemingway work, written more than 20 years after he waxed on bullfighting: The Old Man and the Sea. It’s a story brimming with Nadal-like values: a journey of endurance, patience, and suffering, set amid an activity Nadal greatly enjoys, fishing. In words Nadal might well concur with, Hemingway wrote that, “Pain does not matter to a man.”
Call Nadal’s 2022 Roland Garros title run, The Old Man and the Clay.
Though Nadal at 36 is not old in real-life terms, in tennis, every year of one’s 30s is considered an ominous tick towards midnight—particularly so for someone who has struggled with injuries as often as Nadal. Last year, following his semifinal loss at Roland Garros to Novak Djokovic, Nadal only played one more match in 2021. By last fall, there was concern if he’d ever play again.
Two years ago, Nadal won Roland Garros without the loss of the set. The road was considerably tougher this year. In the last four rounds, every player Nadal beat was ranked in the top ten. Each matchup also had an emotional component. In the round of 16, Nadal took more than four hours to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime, a player now coached by Toni Nadal. Next, a battle of near-similar length versus Nadal’s most formidable rival, Djokovic. There followed a semifinal versus Alexander Zverev, played in sauna-like conditions indoors—more than three hours of play before Zverev injured himself near the close of the second set.
Today came the opportunity to play in yet another major final. There is never any doubt of Nadal’s heart and mind. But in the wake of all he’d been through, how would Nadal’s body hold up?
Alas, Casper Ruud was hardly able to bring his best tennis. Though Ruud and Nadal have practiced together at Nadal’s academy, Ruud was well aware this situation was very different. “I don't think it really got to me until I stepped on court today and saw the full stadium and felt like the atmosphere in the crowd,” said Ruud. “It was a little bit, honestly, a bit tough to find myself too comfortable in the situation in the beginning, but as the match went on, I tended to feel a little bit better and I could calm down and breathe out a little bit more.
“It was challenging because you are playing him, the most winning-slam player ever, and on this court in the final. It's not too easy.” So it was that after being down 3-1 in the second set, Nadal won eleven straight games, taking the match, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0.
“[They] have been emotional victories, without a doubt, unexpected in some way,” said Nadal. “Yeah, very happy, no? Have been a great two weeks, honestly. I played since the beginning, improving every day. Finishing playing a good final. Super happy and can't thank enough everybody for the support since the first day that I got here. Yeah, very emotional.”
Throughout his entire career, Nadal’s gestalt has been this simple: nothing comes easy, not for him or his opponents. Play Djokovic and you will be clinically dissected. Play Roger Federer and you will become a witness to genius. Play Nadal and you will stagger off the court knowing that you have competed—that is, you have engaged in mutual struggle.
This is arguably the year Nadal has struggled the most. Recall that Nadal’s 2022 began with a bout of COVID. There followed his surprising victory at the Australian. In March, came the cracked rib that delayed the start of Nadal’s customary arduous clay court season. Then, a recurrence of the chronic foot injury that has frequently threatened to end Nadal’s career.
Following the match today, Nadal explained that over the last two weeks, he’d had injections to numb the pain and also taken anti-inflammatories. “That's was the only way to give myself a chance here,” said Nadal. “So I did it. And I can't be happier and I can't thank enough my doctor for all the things he did during all my tennis career, helping me in every tough moment.”
Play Djokovic and you will be clinically dissected. Play Federer and you will become a witness to genius. Play Nadal and you will stagger off the court knowing that you have competed—that is, you have engaged in mutual struggle. Joel Drucker
Amid all the physical and accompanying emotional challenges Nadal has faced in 2022, it’s staggering to think that for the first time in his career, he’s now half-way towards winning all four majors in a calendar year—something no one has done since Rod Laver in 1969.
Said Nadal, “I'm going to be in Wimbledon if my body is ready to be in Wimbledon. That's it. Wimbledon is not a tournament that I want to miss. I think nobody want to miss Wimbledon. I love Wimbledon. I had a lot of success there. I lived amazing emotions there. So full credit and respect to the tournament. A player like me, I am always ready to play Wimbledon.
“So if you ask me if I will be in Wimbledon, I can't give you a clear answer. If I want to win Wimbledon, of course. Let's see how the treatment works. I don't know.”
Uncertain as Nadal was about what was to come regarding Wimbledon, he was firmly on-message when it came to assessing what motivates him. “It's not about being the best of the history,” said Nadal. “It's not about the records. It's about… I like what I do, you know? I like to play tennis. And I like the competition.”
Hemingway would have understood.
As he wrote in The Old Man and the Sea, “Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.”
At Roland Garros, once again, here is Nadal, like no one in tennis history, simply and powerfully occupying an eternal presence.