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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