Nadal 'proud and happy' of work he put in

Spaniard celebrates his 36th birthday by reaching another RG final, but not in the way he was hoping to get there

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2022, 36th birthday, semi-final, Amelie Mauresmo, Gilles Moretton© Jean-Charles Caslot/FFT
 - Stephanie Livaudais

It was the outcome he wanted, but 13-time champion Rafael Nadal’s road to another Roland-Garros final took an unexpected detour on Friday afternoon.

Nadal was celebrating his 36th birthday and looking for another signature win on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

After three hours, he was locked in an absorbing semi-final contest with Alexander Zverev that was heading into its second tiebreak.

But Zverev was unable to continue after badly rolling his ankle running after a forehand at 7-6(8), 6-6.

Nadal raced to his opponent’s side of the baseline right away, and the German was eventually helped off the court in a wheelchair.

Nadal, whose own storied career has been plagued by both chronic and acute injuries, commiserated with the 25-year-old and wished him a speedy recovery.

“It's not easy and beautiful to talk after what happened,” said Nadal, who was by Zverev's behind the scenes as the German was getting scans done to invesitage the extent of his injury.

“Only thing that I can say is I hope he's not too bad. Hopefully it's just the normal thing when you turn your ankle, and hopefully nothing's broken.”

It’s a feeling that Nadal knows all too well. According to ATP notes, the last player to retire in the final or semi-final of a Grand Slam was Nadal himself, when the snake-bitten Spaniard was unable to continue against Juan Martin del Potro in their 2018 US Open semi-final due to knee pain. 

Rafael Nadal, Alexander Zverev, demi-finales, Roland-Garros 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“[It] has been a very, very tough match. I think [Zverev] started the match playing amazing,” Nadal added. “I know how much [it] means to him, fighting to win his first Grand Slam…

“[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.”

While Nadal kept his celebrations understandably muted, the newly-turned 36-year-old was pensive after the match as he reflected on the monumental achievement of reaching his 14th championship match at Roland-Garros.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Nadal himself limped off a tennis court. In the build-up to Paris, Nadal was ousted in the third round of Rome, and revealed that he had suffered a worrying flare-up of the chronic condition, Mueller-Weiss Syndrome, that affects his left foot.

It was another blow for Nadal, who had started the season with a 20-0 record, including a 21st Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open, but was halted by a cracked rib suffered in the Indian Wells final. That injury sidelined him for weeks leading up to Roland-Garros, and he had been approaching his best level once again when the foot became a factor again.

Nadal revealed that he was much more surprised by reaching the Melbourne final than this weekend’s final in Paris; he had also been struggling with the foot during the off-season, which required surgery and left him with little time to prepare for the start of the season.

“I was not very positive after [Rome] about my foot, but I was positive that I will be able to play here,” Nadal said. “And here I am. I played, I fighted, 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.”

Here he is indeed.

Improbably, and against all odds, the world No.5 is still on track for a record-extending 14 Coupe des Mousquetaires this weekend – what would be an Open Era-leading 22nd Grand Slam singles title.

He faces first-time semi-finalist Casper Ruud for the title on Sunday.

But during the Spanish portion of his presser, Nadal was asked another question that left him thinking: if a genie appeared before him and offered the choice between the victory on Sunday and a brand new healthy foot… Nadal chose the new foot without hesitation.

Mueller-Weiss Syndrome is not just incurable, but it’s degenerative too: it’s a condition that gets worse with every match and every year on tour. It’s pain that can only be managed – never fully relieved – and that he says affects his quality of life off the court, too.

So why does Nadal continue to play a sport that causes him so much pain? For a player with his Hall of Fame-worthy resume, is there anything left to achieve? What would a 14th Coupe des Mousquetaires prove?

“It's not about things that you need to prove. It's about how much you enjoy doing what you are doing,” Nadal said. “If you like what you are doing, you keep going. For example, if you like to go and play golf, you keep going to play golf.

“If I like to play tennis and if I can handle to keep playing, I keep playing because I like what I do. That's it. And if I am healthy enough to play, I like the competition, honestly. I like to play in the best stadiums of the world and feel myself, at my age, still competitive.

“Means a lot to me, no? That makes me feel in some way proud and happy about all the work that we did.”