PARIS – Rafael Nadal is used to overcoming adversity. His whole year has been anchored around it – whether it’s his chronic foot injury, a broken rib or his own uncle Toni trying to direct his downfall.
But Nadal remained in control of his 2022 script, despite his five-set victory over Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday pushing him to the limit.
“I’m very grateful to play another year here,” Nadal said after the 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory. “Every game I play here, I don’t want it to be my last game at Roland Garros. I’m grateful to keep living this dream.”
There were times on Sunday when Nadal looked human. We’re not used to seeing him tested like that at this stage. It was shocking. But then came a shot at the net, and the jump, the jump and the three punches, and everything was back to normal.
The reality, however, is that Nadal’s 2022 season is far from normal. The Nadal of the previous 13 titles here in Paris is now a different player, a man who lives in constant pain and still hopes his body matches the instincts of his mind on the pitch.
In a way, there is always a synergy that allows him to continue winning.
His triumph at the Australian Open was completely ridiculous, given that six weeks before the start of the tournament he was talking about the possibility of retirement. But over the next fortnight, he edged out the others to claim his 21st Grand Slam title. He went on to win the Mexican Open, and with Djokovic’s schedule unclear at this point, and Roger Federer out, it looked like this would be Nadal’s year.
But again there was a twist in the road, this time a fractured rib he suffered in Indian Wells in March. He missed six weeks of the season.
He returned for the Madrid Open and came up against a wall the size of Carlos Alcaraz in the quarter-finals. Then a week later he was talking again about the pain he lived with every day after his fall to Denis Shapovalov in Rome.
“I’m a player who lives with an injury,” Nadal said. “That’s it. “Unfortunately, my daily life is difficult, honestly. Of course, it is sometimes difficult for me to accept the situation, right?
He said he had a dream, and that was to make Roland Garros – but he didn’t make any bold predictions.
Just like in Melbourne, expectations around Nadal were lower than usual as Paris approached. But once Nadal was seen training on clay, all the usual trademarks we’ve known of him were there. He even smiled sometimes. He felt like he was going to pull through.
The first three rounds went as planned – winning in straight sets against Jordan Thompson, Corentin Moutet and Botic van de Zandschulp.
Sunday on Philippe-Chatrier, he went to an incredible reception from the crowd. On display was his frankly astonishing Roland Garros record: 108 won. 3 lost. The ghosts of Nadal’s triumphs are everywhere – even immortalized in a sculpture of him here.
But there was something about that game with Auger-Aliassime that was uncomfortable. Maybe it was Uncle Toni sitting there watching – the man who coached Nadal from infancy to 2017, and now coaching his opponent.
Toni Nadal said he would lay low, but here he is front row in his pristine white shirt like some kind of benevolent Roman emperor. He said in the build-up: “I want Rafael to win. If he lost it would be a less painful defeat because the player I work with would win, but I don’t like to cheat anyone.”
The only time Toni Nadal moved in the first set was when Auger-Aliassime leapt for an incredible reverse volley, which he politely clapped.
“I didn’t start the match well, it was a tough first set,” Rafael Nadal said.
Auger-Aliassime broke it twice to make it 3-1, then 5-1, and won the first set. And as Nadal malfunctioned, there was this feeling in the stadium that maybe the long-awaited quarter-final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic wasn’t going to happen; that everything we took for granted about Nadal on Chatrier shifted before our eyes.
Even Nadal’s various routines have been twisted. Here at Roland-Garros, there is the addition of three strokes to his shoes to remove the dusty clay – first the right shoe, then the left, then the right again. Then there’s the haircut, the tug on the shorts, the 14 or so bounces off the ball, and the serve. Before the game, he spreads it all out, puts his six drink bottles in the fridge behind the umpire, and puts his napkins on either end – they’re precise, all stretched out in a certain way. Everything is precise.
But this time, he forgot to make a round. At 1-1 in the first, he looked puzzled as he tried to find his towel, looking around to see if it had slipped. But he had forgotten to spread them out. Nadal doesn’t forget these things.
It looked like Nadal’s offer here at Roland Garros was starting to slip away from him, but then he took matters into his own hands, storming through the next two sets. Auger-Aliassime was undeterred as he forced it to a fifth with Nadal struggling to read the young Canadian’s serve.
But Nadal was not ready to slip into the shadows. He has overcome worse this year. The fifth set was all about experience, and Nadal’s muscle memory helped him. Toni Nadal stayed while his nephew danced around the court looking like he was 20 again against his new protege.
Nadal will be relieved to get out of it and he will find out in the next 24 hours the impact it has had on his foot. And then there’s the Djokovic-shaped hurdle stalking the quarter-finals. It will probably also be an evening game, which Nadal does not like: the conditions will be colder, the ball slower.
“I will do my best, I don’t know what will happen, but I will fight until the end,” Nadal said.
As Nadal proved on a cold Sunday afternoon on Philippe-Chatrier, it’s still his house, and it’s going to take some effort to take the keys away from him.