The majestic Salon Opera at the Intercontinental Paris Le Grand Hotel is brimming with journalists on Monday morning. Since daybreak, members of the press have been coming and going in the hallways of what was Rafael Nadal’s fortress during this year’s French Open because they have an appointment with the tennis player, who is with Benito Pérez-Barbadillo, his press officer, scurrying from one room to the next; television channel to television channel, radio station to radio station, newspaper to newspaper, before sitting down to chat with ATPTour.com and the Spanish dailies who followed his footsteps at the season’s second Grand Slam.
Less than 24 hours have passed since the Spaniard won his 14 Musketeers’ Cup, beating Casper Ruud in the final, but Nadal is in no hurry and he talks at length, smiling from ear to ear, without a single glance at his watch.
The 22-time Grand Slam champion, however, is unable to hide the pain in his left foot, having endured two weeks of injections; limping every time he stands up; the Mallorcan eventually takes off his shoe to provide some light relief to his troubled extremity.
Below is his Q&A with the Spanish media, including ATPTour.com/es.
You’ve won 14 times at Roland Garros. Nobody will beat that. It’s impossible.
It may seem like it, but it’s not impossible. Is it very difficult? Yes. I’m realistic about how difficult that is, of the circumstances that have to occur for it to happen. If I’ve done it, I suppose another person could do it. It will be difficult, that is obvious.
How much does this cup mean?
It was a Roland Garros that means a lot on a tennis level because I managed to beat very good players. Mentally too. After everything that happened after Indian Wells, with the broken rib and the limping match in Rome… I knew that I could play the matches, but having the ability to put all this to one side and focus on tennis and play the way I did means that I was mentally prepared.
What has happened since your first title here in 2005 and the last one in 2022?
A lot has happened. I’ve managed, against expectations, mine above all, to have a long career. Of all the things that have happened, I’ve maintained my desire to continue. The people around me have conclusively helped me to be able to continue.
The team you are talking about is big, with the recent addition of Marc López.
I have practically the same team I’ve had all my life. Toni [Nadal] left, but I still talk to him daily. Although he’s not involved in my daily work, I have a personal relationship with him and we talk a lot about tennis. My main requirement is always the same; people close to me. Marc [López] was not on my daily team, but we used to spend a lot of time together and we stayed together at tournaments.
Are you also still winning at Ludo?
It depends on the day. There are days when it is reverse therapy because I have to put up with Marc [López], who has no idea. There’s a great benefit to Ludo; two hours pass by and you don’t realise, and it’s a way to get off our mobiles. It’s positive being with the team playing before matches, or at the airport in downtime. It’s a distraction and a competition we have between us, with an annual ranking. I was first, but I think my father overtook me this week, without playing.
From your first Roland Garros victory to now, how much has tennis changed?
Everything changes in this life. We have to adapt to things. Before, a much more classical tennis was played on clay courts, like that of Casper [Ruud]. Nowadays, there are fewer players doing that, including myself. In general, things evolve. I’ve continued to change things, my racquet for example. At the start of the year I changed the weight and the strings. I was playing with 1.35 kg [racquet weight] and now it’s 1.3. I put more weight in the head to achieve more power.
Rafa-Garros ??? pic.twitter.com/0iC9GYREvt
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 5, 2022
And there is another unusual thing; I went back to my old racquet two days before starting this Roland Garros. Now I’ll go back to the other one, the new one, but I felt that I didn’t have enough control to play on clay. I have to thank Babolat because they prepared the racquets for me in one afternoon. My feelings of control improved, but you have to adapt to everything that happens.
In the quarters this year, you beat Djokovic. Can you remember another match of that quality?
The 2020 final maybe was better, but this was more emotional because of the result. I was playing very well, but I was unable to keep it up in the second set. It was the first time I’ve played like that in the last four months. It lasted one and a half hours. If the match against Djokovic had been after a normal clay season, and I’d played at that level, it would have been easier to maintain it in the second set when I was 3-0 and two breaks up.
Without that baggage you have more doubt. Intensity is a habit. It’s added value that I was able to be aggressive again in the third, determined. It was a great match and an exciting one because of the atmosphere on court.
You’ve said several times this year that the fans were incredible.
The fans have been exceptional with me for many years. It’s also to be expected because people couldn’t come and watch us. We’ve been through a very difficult period with COVID-19. Being able to enjoy this new court, with packed stands, was a really amazing feeling.
For the first time, you’ve won the Australian Open and the French Open consecutively. Is it crazy to think of the Grand Slam?
Yes, it’s crazy, even if I was in perfect shape I think. Nobody has done it since Rod Laver. Djokovic came closest last year. More than winning the Grand Slam, I would be content to play in all four.
How is the race to win the most Grand Slams looking now?
Anything can happen. Clearly Novak is in the best position to be able to beat that because he has no physical problems, and he’s playing at a spectacular level. Federer has been out for a long time and you can always expect something special from him, but we all know how difficult it is to come back, even more so at 40. We’ll see what happens. As I’ve always said, it didn’t bother me when we were level, and it doesn’t bother me now that I’m two ahead. I just want to keep competing.
Are you seduced by more victories?
Feeling competitive is energy. If at this point of my career I had everything I have, without feeling competitive in what motivates me, it’d be a different story. That is how I feel. Feeling competitive drives me to find solutions.
How did you feel when you woke up this morning?
Physically, I’m very well, as I was throughout the two weeks. I’ve played matches over four hours long against Felix [Auger-Aliassime], Novak [Djokovic], and with Zverev we’d been playing for three hours when he got injured. In terms of my body, I felt good the following mornings. No muscle ache. I’ve felt fine.
Did you sleep well?
No, because my foot hurt. After two and half weeks taking anti-inflammatories and painkillers practically every six hours, because there was no other choice, it has woken up. And today is a difficult day for me.
After beating Frenchman Moutet in the second round, you had a difficult moment. Can you explain that?
I was limping badly. I still hadn’t injected my nerve. From there, we came to the conclusion that I couldn’t keep injecting myself where I had been because it was continuing to get worse. We made the decision to inject the nerve at a distance, and that was a good decision. If we hadn’t done that, we would never have got to this point.
How long does the effect of the injection last?
It depends. It’s not an exact science, but it tends to last about seven or eight hours.
Does the injection itself hurt?
Yes, it hurts. It’s bearable, but doing that 20 minutes before going out on court every day… it isn’t nice, honestly.
How do you win at Roland Garros with a numb foot?
They blocked the sensory nerves at a distance. If the motor nerves are numbed, you can’t move your foot. This isn’t an exact science either, because there are days when the numbness is a bit lower. For example, yesterday in the final, my toes went to sleep and my feel was worse, but you have to control your ankle. I continued to control it enough to be able to compete.
What are the risks?
You have control of your foot, but there is no sensation. There may be a little more risk of twisting your ankle. The way I’m playing, with a numb foot, it doesn’t matter if there’s less feeling because I go from limping to being pain free. It can’t continue, but I was able to win the tournament because I could move and run. That wasn’t the case in Madrid or Rome.
So what’s worse, the physical or psychological pain?
If I’m not in any physical pain, I’m not in any psychological pain either.
But right now your foot is very painful.
But I already knew it would be. I knew that would be the case when the tournament ended, I had accepted that. Everything I’ve done has led to this pain now, but it’s easy to understand. What’s difficult is not being able to train from day to day. For example, last year I ended Roland Garros and I was limping for two and a half weeks. I couldn’t even get down the stairs. Eventually, when I stopped playing for a while, a month and a half, it’s not a problem in my daily life. It stops hurting. It’s nothing compared to what I feel when I’m training and competing.
Can you remember the last match you played without taking anti-inflammatories?
I don’t know and I don’t want to go into it. All elite sportsmen take what we need in terms of painkillers in order to be able to compete. It’s clear that most athletes live with anti-inflammatories. It’s to be expected.
This week you’ll be undergoing pulsed radiofrequency treatment. What are the expectations of success?
The goal is clear; to carry out pulsed radiofrequency on the nerve to try and achieve the sensation I have when I’m playing with a numb foot. We’re trying to make that permanent. If it works, we’ll remove the sensitivity from the sensitive part of the foot. And there’s another significant factor; we’ve shown that I can play with the distance blocking. If we can get this treatment to work, permanently affecting the nerve, I will be able to keep playing. I’m used to taking things step by step. I’m confident things will go well.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) June 5, 2022
Aren’t you tired of constantly talking about the pain instead of tennis?
After what happened in Rome, I expected to talk about it here. I tried not to do it during the tournament. The upshot is that I’ve won another French Open, perhaps the most difficult of my career.
Considering all the sacrifices you currently make to play, aren’t you tempted by your future post-tennis life?
I imagine it like what I’ve experienced the many times in my career when I’ve been out of competition as a result of injuries. It’s not something I lose sleep over and I’m in no way scared of my life after tennis. I have a lot of things that make me happy. If I want, I can end my foot pain practically permanently. To do so I have to have an operation that will fuse my foot, and that would mean not being able to play anymore.
Before the Australian Open, you openly admitted that you had thought about retiring. After everything that’s happened in recent weeks, how many times have you genuinely thought about stopping because it’s not worth it?
What’s not worth it is not feeling competitive. If I can’t train, I can’t play. In recent months it’s been impossible. Those that are with me every day understand, it’s difficult from the outside. We’re going to look for a solution with this treatment. I’m very realistic, not dramatic or impulsive; I know my reality and from there we make the decisions based on that.
I can’t continue as I have in recent months. If the treatment works, I’m the first person who will want to continue. If it doesn’t work, and we have to consider an operation that guarantees 100% that I won’t recover, it will be a completely personal decision.
With all the talk in recent days about your retirement and the changing of the guard… do you feel you’ve been treated with respect?
I never get into that. At the end of the day, just as I have received a great deal of praise, I understand that there are questions about a lot of things. I accept them because I also have them. I haven’t read everything though, even less so in the middle of a tournament. I try to isolate myself. I have to do my thing, but it’s to be expected.
We live in a world of immediacy. Everything happens quickly. In recent months, while I was out with the rib problem, Carlos [Alcaraz] won in Miami, Barcelona and Madrid. He’s a new face that contributes great positivity. I understand the need to focus on that, but I do my own thing. As a spectator I couldn’t be happier to have someone as good as Carlos in our country.