PARIS – Rafael Nadal was a doubt to even play at the French Open due to a chronic left foot injury, but the ‘King of clay’ ended the fortnight in Paris with a record-extending 14th Roland Garros crown.
The 36-year-old has carved out one of sport’s greatest-ever careers despite persistent injury troubles, a pattern that has continued in 2022.
He took his career tally to 22 Grand Slam titles on Sunday, thrashing Casper Ruud 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in the final, moving him two clear of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the top of the all-time list.
Nadal said earlier in the week he would rather have a new foot than another French Open trophy, but vowed to fight on after lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires again.
"I never believed I would be here at 36, being competitive again, playing in the most important court of my career one more time in a final," Nadal said during the trophy presentation.
"I don’t know what can happen in the future, but I’m going to keep fighting to try to keep going."
The left foot problem caused Nadal to miss last year’s Wimbledon, US Open and Olympics in Tokyo and he did not return until the build-up to the 2022 Australian Open, which he went on to win for the second time.
But after losing to Taylor Fritz in the Indian Wells final, the Spaniard had to skip the start of the clay-court season in Monte Carlo and Barcelona with a rib stress fracture.
He returned on home soil for the Madrid Masters, but was knocked out by teenager Carlos Alcaraz before losing to Denis Shapovalov in the Rome last 16.
Nadal arrived in Paris with question marks over his fitness and title credentials, only to still come through long matches against Felix Auger-Aliassime, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev en route to the final.
Whether or not he is back in the French capital next year for a tilt at a 15th title, depends on his troublesome left foot.
"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," Nadal has admitted.
LONG INJURY HISTORY
Many pundits consistently predicted Nadal would struggle to enjoy a long career due to his gruelling style of play and he has proved them wrong time and again since.
Nadal’s first injury-enforced absence from the ATP Tour came as a 16-year-old in 2003 when he hurt his elbow in a fall during training and had to miss the French Open.
He has been forced to sit out at least one tournament in every year of his career since.
Nadal has suffered a series of knee and foot injures, as well as hamstring pulls, a wrist tendon tear and an abdominal muscle strain, among other issues.
He even played briefly with bandaged fingers after burning himself accidentally at a restaurant in 2011, while he also missed the end of the 2014 season due to appendicitis.
Despite missing so many events, Nadal’s will to win has seen him lift 92 ATP titles and win 1,058 matches on tour.
When he failed to reach a Grand Slam semi-final in 2015 and 2016, many wondered if his career was winding down, but he has since won another eight Slam titles.
"For me, it’s incredible to play here," he added. "It’s an incredible feeling."
Focus will now turn to whether Nadal is fit enough to play at Wimbledon, where he would arrive still on course for a calendar Grand Slam for the first time in his career.