Will Rafael Nadal’s 14th French Open final be his last?

Rafael Nadal
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In 2011, Rafael Nadal first detailed the extent of the rare, congenital foot condition that threatened to end his career after one French Open title in 2005 and has him cautioning that Sunday’s final may be his last French Open match.

“Having diagnosed the problem, the specialist delivered his verdict,” in December 2005, Nadal co-wrote in his book, “Rafa,” released six years later. “It could be, he pronounced, that I’d never be able to play competitive tennis again. I might be obliged to retire, at the age of nineteen, from the game in which I had invested my life’s dreams. I broke down and wept; we all wept.

“Everything I’d been building toward all my life was crumbling before my very eyes.”

This story has come into focus this past year, and especially at this French Open. Nadal plays Sunday’s final against No. 8 seed Casper Ruud of Norway on the 17th anniversary of his first French Open title, live on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock Premium.

“Every match that I play here, I don’t know if going to be my last match here in Roland Garros in my tennis career, no? That’s my situation now,” Nadal said last Sunday.

Nadal’s success — a record 21 Grand Slam men’s singles titles, including 13 at the French Open — has been more tied to his uncles — Toni, his longtime coach, and the sports genes from Miguel Angel, a World Cup soccer player. But it was his father, Sebastian, who took charge in that 2005 diagnosis moment and sought out a plan to combat Mueller-Weiss syndrome, a bone condition that causes chronic pain.

“My father provided a tiny glimmer of light,” Nadal wrote. “He said two things: first, that he was confident we’d find a solution — the doctor’s precise words, he reminded us, had been that the injury ‘might’ be career threatening; second, and if all else failed, I could dedicated myself successfully to my new and growing passion, the game of golf.”

At Toni’s urging, Nadal came out of an “irritable, distant, dark” time to train.

He hopped on crutches out to a court and hit balls to, as he wrote, “build a little hope.” Resting the foot entirely caused the pain to ebb away. Nike developed a wider, thicker shoe to cushion the weight on his foot.

“It’s a work in progress,” Nadal wrote. “We still haven’t got it absolutely right. Maybe there is no absolutely right solution. The fact is that years have passed since then, and the tarsal scaphoid bone still hurts me. … It remains under control, just, but we can never drop our guard.”

A decade later, one of the re-emergences of the pain had Nadal considering retirement late in 2021.

“It’s the same injury I’ve been having since 2005,” Nadal said in announcing his withdrawal from last summer’s U.S. Open, after also missing Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics due to the foot. “In that moment, the doctors were very negative about my future career, but honestly, I’ve been able to have a career that I never dreamed about so I am confident I will recover again, and if the foot is better, I am confident that my tennis and my mentality will be there again soon.”

Nadal returned for the start of the 2022 season. He won the Australian Open in what he called the most unexpected achievement of his career.

“Everybody around me, me included, of course, but everybody around me had a lot of doubts,” he said after winning that title to break his tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for the most men’s major singles titles. “Not about Australian Open, no, but about coming back on the tour because the foot was bothering a lot of days.”

This year, Nadal did not win a clay-court tournament title before playing the French Open for the first time in his career. After his last pre-Paris tournament, he delved again into the foot.

“I am not injured. I am a player living with an injury. That’s it. No, no, is nothing new,” Nadal said on May 12. “What can happen in the next couple of days, I don’t know. What can happen in one week, I really don’t know now.”

Nadal said it was tough to practice on consecutive days. It impacted oddsmakers, who put him as the third favorite for the French Open behind Djokovic and 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz. Then the draw came out — Nadal in Djokovic’s quarter and Alcaraz’s half — and for a time he was even with Stefanos Tsitsipas as the fourth favorite.

Yet Nadal marched through a taxing (and not just physically) draw: a five-set win over No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round (Toni now coaches Auger-Aliassime), then Djokovic in four sets in the quarterfinals and advancing from a punishing semifinal when No. 3 Alexander Zverev suffered an ankle injury.

It’s the first time Nadal has played four top-10 players at one major. He has prevailed at this tournament with his longtime doctor, Angel Ruiz Cotorro, on site to help him. He said that he would trade a win in Sunday’s final for a healthy foot for the rest of his life, though he is holding up well physically in Paris.

“I have what I have there in the foot, so if we are not able to find an improvement or a small solution on that, then it’s becoming super difficult for me, no?” he said this week. “So that’s it.”

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At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback

Elina Svitolina French Open

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.

Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.

Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.

“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,'” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.

“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.

Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.

Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.

“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”

Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.

“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”

Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.

“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”

Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name — unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.

“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”

Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.

“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.

“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”

Also Wednesday, 108th-ranked Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis ousted three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in four and a half hours. Wawrinka’s exit leaves Novak Djokovic as the lone man in the draw who has won the French Open and Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as the lone men left who have won any major.

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Marcell Jacobs still sidelined, misses another race with Fred Kerley

Marcell Jacobs

Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy will miss another scheduled clash with world 100m champion Fred Kerley, withdrawing from Friday’s Diamond League meet in Florence.

Jacobs, 28, has not recovered from the nerve pain that forced him out of last Sunday’s Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, according to Italy’s track and field federation.

In his absence, Kerley’s top competition will be fellow American Trayvon Bromell, the world bronze medalist, and Kenyan Ferdinand Omanyala, the world’s fastest man this year at 9.84 seconds. Kerley beat both of them in Rabat.

The Florence Diamond League airs live on Peacock on Friday from 2-4 p.m. ET.

Jacobs has withdrawn from six scheduled head-to-heads with Kerley dating to May 2022 due to a series of health issues since that surprise gold in Tokyo.

Kerley, primarily a 400m sprinter until the Tokyo Olympic year, became the world’s fastest man in Jacobs’ absence. He ran a personal best 9.76 seconds, the world’s best time of 2022, at last June’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Then he led a U.S. sweep of the medals at July’s worlds.

Jacobs’ next scheduled race is a 100m at the Paris Diamond League on June 9. Kerley is not in that field, but world 200m champion Noah Lyles is.

The last time the reigning Olympic and world men’s 100m champions met in a 100m was the 2012 London Olympic final between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. From 2013 to 2017, Bolt held both titles, then retired in 2017 while remaining reigning Olympic champion until Jacobs’ win in Tokyo, where Kerley took silver.

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