New Delhi: When Rafael Nadal lost to Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16 at the Italian Open in Rome last month, the situation looked grim regarding his prospects at the French Open 2022. After all the French Open was just around the corner, and Nadal had to enter the tournament with his doctor because of a chronic foot injury, medically known as Mueller Weiss Syndrome or Brailsford Disease.
It’s a rare disease that occurs in adults not before 40. It impacts the navicular bone and is progressive at times and is linked with severe pain and disability. Imagine a tennis player entering a major tournament with disability in the foot.
It’s no surprise that when Nadal met Novak Djokovic in the quarter finals at Roland Garros, tennis experts did not put the 13-time French Open champion as the favourite. Novak was fitter and more hungry after his Australian Open denial earlier in the year and Rafa was doubtful to even make it to the tournament.
However, many experts forgot that it was not the first time that Nadal had not been considered the favourite at the French Open.
In 2005, when Rafa Nadal was 18 years old, and playing his first French Open, he ran into Roger Federer in the semis. For the first and last time on clay, it was Federer who was considered the favourite, and rightly so. It was the first time Nadal was on the grand stage. Federer had more experience at big stage matches. Nadal had none. Yet, Rafa defeated Roger easily to establish one of the greatest supremacies on clay.
However, this time in 2022, Nadal was truly with his back against the wall. He was injured to begin with, and unlike in 2005 against Roger, when he had been only 18, this time he was 36 years of age, and pitted against a much better player on clay, in the form of Novak.
The quarter final was indeed a mouth-watering contest. As in 2005, Nadal defied the odds and defeated the World no.1 and favourite, Novak. In a late night thriller, Nadal defeated Novak to win 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6 (7-4).
Seventeen years later (since defeating Federer in 2005) Rafael Nadal demonstrated once again why he is the greatest player in French Open history by beating long-time rival Novak Djokovic.
It is incredible to imagine that Rafael Nadal is in the semi finals and going for his 14th French Open title. Boris Becker, who knows a thing or two about winning a grand slam, says it’s almost impossible to win the La Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy even once, let alone 13 times. The hard-serving Boris Becker failed to reach the final in his nine appearances.
Until Federer came along, Sampras — with 14 titles — held the most slams won by a man. But despite his multiple titles at other majors the best server in tennis history could never lift the Musketeers trophy.
The great Jimmy Connors has a title from each of the other slams, but never reached the final in Paris. Like his two fellow Americans who never won in Paris, even the genius John McEnroe was never able to win on clay. The great Swede Stefan Edberg lost to teenager Michael Chang and could never lift the trophy in Paris.
Three great women players Venus Williams, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters could never win even once at Roland Garros. It is in this context we should view and understand the true greatness of Rafael Nadal.
Rafael Nadal turned 36 Friday. Today is the day to both honour and celebrate not just one of the greatest tennis careers, but one of the greatest sporting careers of all time.
Setting an example — on and off the court
Nadal is one of the greatest athletes of all time. His work ethic, fighting spirit and tenacity is as good as any international sportsperson in history. But there is one aspect that truly sets him apart in the most unique way amongst all sports persons ever. His ability to handle and recover from injury is truly sensational.
Few players in history have managed to play so well with injury for such a long time as Nadal.
In 2005 he won the Madrid Open in spite of a broken foot. Those who follow the sport of tennis closely would have realised that after his foot surgery in 2021, regardless of talent and tenacity, the 20-year-long career of Nadal was surely coming to an end.
Amazingly, a year later in 2022, Nadal won the Australian Open men’s final, after five and a half hours and five sets. Nadal emerged victorious against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, winning the tournament for only the second time in his career and becoming the first player in men’s tennis to reach 21 Grand Slam singles titles in the twilight of his career.
His honesty is remarkable compared to any other sports player. In this year’s French Open he has repeatedly said that every match could be his last match at Roland Garros. After his great win against Novak, during the post match interview on the court, Marion Bartoli pleaded with Rafa to try and keep coming back at Roland Garros. A humble Rafa jokingly said it’s enough for him to come back for the next match in two days’ time.
One can imagine how physically tough it must be for him to play with permanent injury.
What is even more heartening is the way Rafael Nadal has conducted himself both on and off the court. He never throws tantrums on court and almost never has thrown his racquet in anger or disgust. He applauds every player he defeats on court and is one of the most popular players on the ATP circuit. But above all this it is his work with his foundation in India that makes Rafa a unique champion.
To have the heart to do so much good work in a far away land in India proves that Nadal is an exemplary human being. Ask anyone in Anantapur, India, and they will tell you that Rafael Nadal Parera is not just a great Spanish professional tennis player, but much beyond that.
The Nadal Foundation has 23 centres and schools in Spain and India, where in the last ten years, thousands of children and young people have been taken care of. Rafael Nadal’s charitable initiative began in 2010, with the establishment of the ‘Nadal Educational Tennis School’ in the remote village of Anantapur in India. The school’s main aim is to help kids from disadvantaged economic communities.
On Wednesday, as Rafa Nadal celebrates his 36th birthday, wishes will pour in from all over the world but none more sincere, than from the children and parents who have gained from the Rafael Nadal Foundation in Anantapur.
As he plays his semi final Wednesday these wishes may bring him is 14th French Open Title. Remember the fact that Sampras, Becker, Connors, Edberg and John Mcnroe don’t even have one.
Kush Singh @singhkb is founder, The Cricket Curry Tour Company. Views are personal.