What Next For Rafael Nadal In His Annus Mirabilis?

Rafael Nadal won his 14th French Open title in 2022.
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It may well not be a case of obsessive compulsive disorder, but routine and order are everything for Rafael Nadal and, in the end, everything was perfectly symmetrical for the Spaniard in Paris. He won a 14th French Open title in the city that is almost synonymous with the number 14 (Bastille day being “quatorze juillet”), exactly a week after his football team, Real Madrid, had won a 14th Champions League title in the city; and it made for a total of “22 (Majors) in ’22”. But that perfect numerical symmetry belied the utterly imperfect nature of the triumph, at least in physical terms, because, as Nadal revealed afterwards, he had effectively played in Paris on just one foot.

Nadal’s World of Pain

There is a major irony in Nadal becoming the man with most Major wins in tennis history and it’s because he has always been by far the most injury-afflicted of The Big Three. The biggest physical problem that Novak Djokovic has ever overcome is his gluten allergy, which was finally diagnosed in 2010, rather than any particular injury. And it is only in the twilight of his career, which has now extended for a couple of seasons, that Roger Federer has been consistently struck by the kind of sustained, niggly injuries that are commonplace for most tennis players.

By contrast, Nadal has almost always played (and practised) in a world of pain. Even before his career really began, he himself had doubted whether his already consistent record of injuries would allow him to play the all-action sport of tennis; instead, he wondered whether he should play the infinitely more sedate game of golf instead. Then, throughout his career, his ultra-all-action style of play, with the trademark ‘lasso’ forehand often ending in an almost dizzying series of twirls above his head, has taken a heavy toll, especially on hardcourts.

However, it was only after winning his most recent Major that Nadal revealed the full extent of his latest injury woe; indeed, he acknowledged that it is a condition that he has been struggling with throughout his career. Essentially, the pain in his left foot has been so prolonged and so intense for so long that in order to compete in Paris over the last fortnight he had needed to have pain-killing or anaesthetic injections into his left foot, the cumulative effect of which have been to leave him with “no feeling” in his left foot at all.

Nadal has always been something of a physical freak, especially given the fact that his coach, Uncle Toni, was something of a mad scientist in effectively creating a player with two forehands. Toni Nadal did so by encouraging the naturally right-handed Nadal to play tennis left-handed (or, more precisely, with his left hand as his dominant hand on a tennis racket), with the extraordinary consequence that, as many of Nadal’s opponents have felt over the years, it is as if he has two forehands rather than a forehand and backhand. Now, to that remarkable physical attribute can be added another – Nadal plays with two forehands and just one foot.

Given the extraordinary physical contortions that he has had to make throughout his entire career, one through choice (playing with the “wrong” hand) and one forced upon him (effectively playing with just one good foot), it is perhaps not so surprising that Nadal has rarely played with the style, elan and invention of a Federer, or even, arguably, a Djokovic. The miracle is that he has been able to play at all, let alone for so long and so effectively.

What Next For Nadal In 2022 – And Beyond?

It is also typical of Nadal that his own annus mirabilis, or annus miraculous as it should perhaps properly be called, has been so interrupted by injury and injury concerns. Unlike Djokovic in 2021 or Federer in 2017, their respective wonder years, Nadal has not been winning apparently effortlessly in 2022. Instead, his effort, and occasionally even his discomfort, have been very visible.

After his superb unbeaten start to the year, which itself followed his missing almost the entire second half of last season, he has suffered a broken rib (in Indian Wells against Carlos Alcaraz), virtually limped off court after losing to Denis Shapovalov in Rome, and looked at times at Roland Garros, especially against Felix Auger-Aliassime in their fourth-round five-set epic, as if he really is Getting Old And Tired. Each time, however, that Nadal has been afflicted by serious injury throughout his career, he seems to come back stronger, and that was never truer than in his second week at Roland Garros in 2022.

First, he seized the initiative against Djokovic in their quarterfinal, breaking back at the end of the fourth set and eventually winning that set to prevent the match going to a fifth set; then, he was undeniably lucky against Alexander Zverev in the semifinal, with seemingly even the clay of Philippe Chatrier court conspiring to help him win, as the lanky German got caught up in it and suffered a serious ankle injury; but against Casper Ruud in the final, Nadal was utterly imperious, especially as he won the last 11 games of the match to almost double-bagel the young Norwegian in the second and third sets.

Consequently, as he has proven throughout his career, nothing on a tennis court or in the world of tennis should be considered impossible for Nadal, the ultimate competitor. He has said that if the revolutionary “nerve-burning” treatment that he will try next does not work, he will not have another foot injection and so would have to miss Wimbledon, which starts in just a few weeks’ time. Set against that, however, he has a unique opportunity to achieve something that not even his two greatest rivals, Djokovic and Federer, have achieved, namely win a Calendar Grand Slam.

Can Nadal Make It 24 Majors in ’22?

It is arguable that Nadal’s year of miracles actually began 12 months ago, after his defeat to Djokovic in the semifinal at Roland Garros in 2021, in what may be the greatest clay-court match ever and which certainly contained the greatest single set ever played on clay (the third, which was only finally won by Djokovic in a tie-break). Thereafter, he barely played again in 2022, and there were genuine fears that his time at the top of men’s tennis was, like that of Federer before him, finally coming to an end.

However, having had the same kind of six-month lay-off that preceded Federer’s own astonishing comeback at the start of 2017, Nadal has come back roaring in 2022, winning the first two Majors of the year in Melbourne and Paris. That gives him the chance, for the first time ever in his career, to dream of winning the Calendar Grand Slam, i.e. the actual Grand Slam of winning all four Majors in one year, which has only ever been achieved by two men in the history of tennis: the USA’s Don Budge in 1938; and Australia’s Rod Laver, who did it twice, in 1962 and 1969.

Of course, the man who has come closest to making it a hat-trick of Calendar Slam Winners is Djokovic, who won the first three Majors of 2021 and reached the final of the fourth, the US Open, before losing it in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev. Although Nadal famously claims to be unconcerned with historical achievements such as winning the most Majors, surely he would love to win the Calendar Slam, or at the very least make a serious attempt at winning it, by giving his all at Wimbledon and in New York, even if he barely plays any other tournaments in between them to try and rest his foot (and the rest of his ailing body) whenever he can.

As Djokovic discovered last year, winning a Calendar Slam is far from easy, even for this greatest generation of male tennis players. However, given everything else that he has achieved in 2022, just over six months after it had appeared that his career might be over, if any member of The Big Three can do it, it might just be Nadal, and in 2022, his year of miracles.

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