Winning seven best-of-five set matches on the trot to clinch a Major needs a concoction of excellent command on technique along with great mental strength. It takes a toll on the athlete’s body and mind, going through the same grind repeatedly, chasing Grand Slam glory. Once the first crown is in the bag, a whole new set of factors tests the player’s motivation to lift another trophy.
However, if the case in point is Rafael Nadal and the tournament is the French Open, understanding the psychology behind it is tough simply because of the numbers. The Spaniard, post his Paris debut in 2005, broke Bjorn Borg’s men’s record of six titles at the clay Major in 2012. A year later, he went past Chris Evert’s all-time high of seven. Lifting the Musketeers’ Cup again at Roland-Garros in 2019 meant Nadal had even surpassed Margaret Court’s achievement of winning the same Major 11 times. But, the Mallorcan, hungry for more, went on to add two more in 2020 and 2022 - taking his French Open tally to 14 and overall Grand Slam titles score to 22.
As the left-hander turns 37 on Saturday while missing French Open for the first time since 2004, here’s a recap of how Nadal clinched the title in Paris in 2022:-
Season prior to French Open
Nadal had missed most of the second half of 2021 due to Mueller-Weiss syndrome, a rare degenerative disease which causes chronic pain in the feet. He had also shared a photograph on Instagram, showing him standing using crutches.
He returned to Tour-level tennis last year at a tune-up event in Melbourne where he won the title but the real surprise came at the Australian Open. After being tested by Denis Shapovalov and Matteo Berrettini, the Spaniard pulled off a comeback for the ages as he defeated Daniil Medvedev in a marathon five hours 24 minutes final to win his second Major in Melbourne. Carrying the momentum forward, he won his next tournament in Acapulco and also reached the Indian Wells final - a career-best 20-0 start to his season.
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But the problems began in California itself as he suffered a rib injury during the semifinal against current World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz.
Nadal ended up missing the start of the clay court season in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the tournaments he has won 11 and 12 times, respectively, before turning up in Madrid where he lost to Alcaraz in the quarterfinals. He again experienced pain in his foot during his round of 16 loss to Shapovalov in Rome and for only the second time in his career, entered the French Open without a clay title in the same season.
French Open 2022
Nadal, seeded fifth, decided to take painkiller injections, numbing his foot at times, to play in Paris. He wasn’t tested much in the first three rounds as he collected straight-sets wins over Jordan Thompson, Corentin Moutet and Botic van de Zandschulp. In the fourth round, the Spaniard was up against Felix Auger-Aliassime, coached by his uncle and former coach Toni Nadal. The Canadian became the third player after Novak Djokovic (2013) and John Isner (2011) to take Nadal to a deciding fifth set in a French Open encounter. The Mallorcan, however, prevailed to set up a quarterfinal clash with defending champion Djokovic. It had been a turbulent season for Djokovic as he was deported from ‘Down Under’ on the eve of the Australian Open and did not win a title until Rome.
The duo split the first two sets before Nadal clinched the third. The Serbian raced to a 3-0 score in the fourth set and looked set to take it all the way to a decider when he served at 5-4, only to squander the advantage and allowing Nadal to take it to a tiebreaker. In their 18th Grand Slam meeting and 10th at Roland-Garros, the Spaniard emerged victorious as he finished the encounter in four sets.
Nadal faced the toughest test of the tournament in the semifinals as he faced Alexander Zverev, who had knocked out Alcaraz in his previous match. In a topsy-turvy opening set that went on for 92 minutes, Nadal saved four set points in the tiebreaker including one with a wicked on-the-run cross court forehand pass after deftly anticipating Zverev’s cross court volley.
Both players struggled to hold serve for a major part of the second set. The German had a chance to make it one set apiece while serving at 5-4 but committed three double faults to allow Nadal the chance to come back. What was turning out to be the match of the tournament ended abruptly in the second set as Zverev sent a forehand long, fell down to the ground holding his right ankle and wincing in pain.
The third-seeded German was forced to retire from the match with an injury as Nadal entered a record-extending 14th final in Paris, set to face Casper Ruud. The Norwegian’s path to a first-ever Grand Slam final for himself as well as for his nation wasn’t that easy as Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, playing in his farewell match, stretched Ruud to four sets. Apart from his second-round match against Emil Ruusuvuori, Ruud could not finish a single match in straight sets.
Ruud, who got the chance to train at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca as an rising teenager, faced his childhood idol and mentor for the first time on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Nadal brutally exploited the weak backhand of the Norwegian and cruised to a comfortable 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 win to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires yet again.
“For me personally, it is very difficult to describe the feelings that I have,” said Nadal after winning the title.
“It’s something that I for sure didn’t believe, that I’d be here, at 36, being competitive again. Playing in the most important court of my career one more time in a final means a lot to me, it means everything.”
“I don’t know what can happen in the future but I’m going to keep fighting to try to keep going.”
Nadal’s route to 2022 French Open title
As things stand, the 2022 French Open is the last Grand Slam title of the Spaniard’s career. He suffered from an abdominal injury during last year’s Wimbledon and saw his Australian Open title defense ending this year in the second round as he went down to USA’s Mackenzie McDonald while also sustaining a hip injury.
Since then, Nadal hasn’t played a single match and would stay out of action for the next few months as in a press conference last month, he revealed that his injury had not healed as expected.
The 37-year-old underwent arthroscopic surgery on his injured hip on Saturday but will require a five-month recovery period.
Check Sportstar’s complete series on Nadal’s 14 French Open titles
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