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January 22, 2023

PARIS — Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have won and done so much in nearly 20 years of hoarding the spoils in men’s tennis.

But there is a gap in every member of the Big Three story. None have managed to complete the Grand Slam by winning all four major tournaments in the same calendar year.

Djokovic has come agonizingly close, missing just one game last year when he lost in the US Open final to Daniil Medvedev. (He also failed in the Tokyo Olympics semi-finals, ruling out a Golden Slam.)

Now 36, an advanced age in tennis, Nadal created his best opportunity by winning the first two rounds of the Grand Slam: he took an upset win at the Australian Open in January and claimed his 14th victory career at the French Open. Sunday, a victory that should have surprised because he played with a numb left foot.

Nadal is only halfway to a Grand Slam, but he’s never been closer to a feat last achieved on the men’s side in 1969 by Australian Rod Laver.

In 2009, the only other time Nadal won the Australian Open, he was beaten for the first time at Roland Garros, losing in the fourth round to Sweden’s Robin Soderling.

But this year, Nadal can go to Wimbledon, which starts on June 27, with the Grand Slam still in play. The question is, will he go to Wimbledon at all?

He revealed on Sunday, after his 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 thrashing of 23-year-old Norwegian Casper Ruud in the French Open final, that he had been injected with painkillers to numb his left foot before each of his clay-court matches in Paris this year. He said he wouldn’t do the same thing again in any tournament, not even Wimbledon, because of the risks. Instead, he plans to undergo a procedure called radiofrequency ablation this week to try to alleviate longer-term pain by deadening the problematic nerves in his foot.

“I’m going to be at Wimbledon if my body is ready to be at Wimbledon,” Nadal said. “Wimbledon is not a tournament I want to miss. I don’t think anyone wants to miss Wimbledon. I love Wimbledon.

Despite this sentiment, there will be plenty of missing players at Wimbledon this year. The All England Club has banned players from Russia and Belarus from participating in this year’s tournament due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those affected include Medvedev, a Russian who will reclaim top spot in the men’s singles from Djokovic next week; and Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, Wimbledon women’s singles semi-finalist last year.

Both the men’s and women’s tours responded to the ban by stripping Wimbledon of ranking points, which left former No.1 Naomi Osaka openly wondering in Paris whether she was still motivated enough to compete at Wimbledon.

Nadal, as a member of the ATP Players’ Council, has been deeply involved in internal debates over withdrawal points, but he has an elemental connection to Wimbledon beyond any ranking boost he can provide. .

“I had a lot of success there,” he said. “I experienced incredible emotions there.

He won one of the most acclaimed matches in tennis history in 2008 when he beat Federer in a Wimbledon final that stretched 9-7 in the fifth set at dusk. Nadal won Wimbledon again in 2010, beating Tomas Berdych for the title. But since losing the 2011 final to Djokovic, Nadal hasn’t made it past the semis and has missed the tournament twice through injury: in 2016 to his left wrist and last year because of the chronic foot disease known as Müller-Weiss syndrome which is linked to a deformity of the navicular bone and first threatened his career in his late teens.

He’s managed the problem for years with orthotics, custom-designed shoes and anti-inflammatory medication, but the disease is clearly threatening his career again, even if the short-term concern is Wimbledon.

Larry Chou, an American physician in Havertown, Pennsylvania who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, said radiofrequency ablation is “relatively low risk” but has widely varying success rates depending on the joint involved. He said it was rare to use it on the foot.

“If it works, it’s for symptomatic relief, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem,” Chou said. “The mechanical stress going through his foot will still be there.”

Chou performed radiofrequency ablations on her back and knees but not her feet. He said that if the procedure worked, which was not a guarantee, pain relief would usually not be immediate.

“It usually takes a few weeks to kick in, mostly because the nerve gets irritated when you kill it and you can develop a little neuroma,” Chou said, using another term for a pinched nerve, “but it doesn’t. is usually not as bad as the original pain. The problem for Nadal is that Wimbledon starts in three weeks, and three weeks is a relatively short amount of time. But it’s one of those things where he’s already beaten the odds in his career and you hope he still beats the odds.

Chou said it was undoubtedly remarkable that Nadal was able to win Roland Garros without feeling one of his feet.

“But again,” Chou said, “he’s been playing tennis at this level for so long. And these guys like Nadal, their mechanics and the way they move, they have such great muscle memory. They just do it. .

Nadal certainly did it right: beat four top-10 seeds at Roland Garros this year and take his Roland Garros final record to 14-0 and his overall Roland Garros record to a stunning 112-3 .

But Wimbledon belonged more to its great rivals. Federer has won it eight times, a men’s record. Djokovic has won it six times, including the last three times it has been contested, in 2018, 2019 and 2021.

Even if Nadal somehow recovers in time to compete, the Grand Slam will remain a daunting prospect with Djokovic on the court and back on the grass on center court.

But doubting Nadal’s resilience, tenacity and talent has been bad play for quite some time, as he proved again in Paris.

“Let’s see what happens,” he said on Sunday evening. “I’m a positive guy.”

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