Rafael Nadal, 36, gave an interview to EL PAÍS and other Spanish media in a luxurious Versailles-like room in a Paris hotel, the day after winning his 14th Roland Garros and 22nd singles title men’s Grand Slam. He sat down in an armchair from which he found it difficult to get up once the conversation was over. The Spanish tennis star had to use his arms to get up and he walked with obvious difficulty.
The wear and tear from the previous day’s final was evident on a body that withstood endless adversity. It has been the most watched foot on the planet in recent weeks. On this occasion, pain prevailed over tennis during the interview. The athlete has spoken, but so has the patient. Nadal needs a solution for his chronic foot pain; Since the start of his career, he has suffered from Müller-Weiss syndrome, a degenerative foot disease with no solution for an elite athlete.
Question. How are you?
Answer. Physically, the truth is that I am doing very well. In this tournament I played matches lasting more than four hours, yet the next morning I woke up physically well. Surprisingly, at this stage and at my age, I don’t have too much muscle pain. But this last one was not a normal night, because my foot hurt. It happens when it wakes up [when the anesthesia wears off] and after two and a half weeks, taking tons of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers practically every six hours, because there was no other option. I quit because I can’t go on like this.
Q How is it possible to play with a numb foot?
A. They blocked the sensory nerves. If the motor nerves are numb, you cannot move your foot. They did this to me after surgery to avoid the pain and you can’t move it, it’s impossible. But it’s not an exact science: in the end there are days when the numbness is a little less strong. For example, during the final, my toes also went numb and the feeling was worse. But at least with the ankle you control the foot. The thing is, you have no sensitivity there, and there’s a little more risk when it comes to twisting your ankle. I don’t care if I don’t have sensitivity, because I went from limping to playing without pain. Unfortunately, this cannot be extended over time.
Q Are you optimistic?
A. Let’s see what happens. The goal is clear, to perform pulsed radiofrequency treatment in the nerve to try to achieve the feeling I have when I play with a numb foot, and make it permanent. If this treatment works and this feeling of pain is permanently removed, it may not solve the problem, but I could continue to play and that is the goal at the moment.
Q At the start of the year, you admitted to having considered giving up tennis, after six months without playing due to the injury. Have you been tempted to withdraw again? Is it all worth it?
A. It’s still worth it, but what doesn’t make sense is if you don’t feel competitive. If you can’t train, how are you going to compete next? And in recent months it has not been possible… We must trust this possible solution [the new treatment]. I’m pretty realistic, I’m not very dramatic or very impulsive, and I make decisions based on what can and can’t be done, and things can’t go on the way they have been for the past few months. So let’s try. If it works, I will be the first person to want to continue, and also the people around me, because we all have a good time doing what we do. If it doesn’t work and you have to think about surgery, which doesn’t guarantee a 100% cure either… It will be a completely personal decision and I will have to decide if it’s worth it or not.
Q At this stage, which weighs more, the physical pain or the emotional pain?
A. I have no psychological pain. If I don’t have physical pain, I don’t have psychological pain.
Q But now you have this physical pain…
A. Yes, but I already knew I would get it. The problem is not the pain today; two weeks ago it was already very clear that at the end of the tournament I was going to be in a bad position, and I accepted that, it’s very easy to accept. The problem is everyday life. What you can’t accept is not being able to train regularly because you wake up limping every day. This in itself becomes difficult to assimilate; the rest is more complex.
Q How do you imagine tomorrow?
A. I imagine it the same way I’ve experienced it many times in my career, when I had to sit out competition for months due to injuries. I have always been happy outside of tennis. It’s not something that makes me lose sleep or scares me. I have and always have had many things that make me happy beyond tennis. As for the foot, I think they will be able to take the pain away quite permanently. The thing is, to get rid of it, I have to have surgery to fix my foot, and if I do that, I won’t be able to continue playing.
Q But, for example, could you get on your catamaran tomorrow without feeling the pain?
A. Not without pain, no. Last year I finished Roland Garros and I limped for two and a half weeks. When I walked out of the game with Novak [Djokovic, against whom he lost in the semi-finals], I couldn’t even go down the stairs for two and a half weeks. When I stop playing for a while, I limp. The first weeks are bad, but if I stop playing tennis for a month and a half, my daily life is no longer a problem. At the end, there comes a time when it doesn’t hurt anymore, it bothers me, but it’s not a pain like the one I feel when I train.
Q At least you will always have Parcheesi, one of your great hobbies. In a way, does it serve as therapy?
A. It depends on the day. There are days when it’s a counter-productive therapy, because I have to put up with Marc [López, who joined the technical team this season]who has no idea how to play[laughs]. But hey, we’re kidding. There’s a good thing about Parcheesi is that an hour and a half or two goes by without you realizing it. In addition, it is also a way to let go of small machines [he says pointing to the celllphones recording the interview]. For me it is something positive.
Q A year ago, Djokovic seemed to have the upper hand; now you are the boss. What will happen from now on?
A. Anything can happen, right? If what seemed probable a year ago is no longer so now, what seems probable now may not be so in a year… Novak is the one who is in a clearer situation, because of his level and the fact that he does not suffer from physical problems. ; roger [Federer] is who he is, so you always have to expect something special from him, although we all know how difficult it is to come back and even more so at 40… So we’ll see what happens. I don’t think about it much. I wasn’t worried when we were tied or I was lagging, so I’m not going to worry now that I’m on top. The only thing that worries me is to be able to continue to have the opportunity to compete.
Q What is this latest victory worth, all things considered?
A. I think from a tennis point of view it has tremendous value, because very good people have been beaten [including Félix Auger-Aliassime, ranked 9th in the world, Djokovic, ranked 1st and Zverev, ranked 3rd]. And on a mental level too, because in the end, I always favor personal satisfaction more than anything else. After going through Indian Wells with a broken rib, and after Rome, when after a little more than a set I was already limping… I knew I was going to be able to play the matches, because you can play with a numb foot, but the hard thing was having the ability to put all that aside and focus on the game at the level that I reached. This means that mentally I was completely ready for the challenge. What remains is that I won a Roland Garros, perhaps one of the most difficult of my career and one of the most important. This is what will stay with me.
Q It’s the first time you’ve managed to win in Australia and Paris in the same year. Would it be crazy to think of the Grand Slam, the possibility of also winning Wimbledon and the US Open?
A. Yes, it’s crazy. And even more in my current state. Even in perfect condition it would seem crazy to me because it’s something no male player has done since Rod Laver [the Australian did it in 1969, and Steffi Graf was the last tennis player to do so in 1988]. The one who came closest to it was Novak last year. I think it’s crazy to think about it. I wouldn’t even think about it. More than winning, I would be happy to be able to play all four, taking into account the condition of my foot.
Q You lifted your first Roland Garros trophy 17 years ago, in 2005. Since then, how has tennis evolved?
A. Tennis has changed, like everything in life… It’s played faster now and you have to adapt. Before, more classic tennis was played on clay, more like Casper [Ruud], and today there are fewer players with this style. Myself, I don’t play in this style anymore, most of the time. Things evolve, we all evolve and I myself have changed, by adapting my racquet to have more power for example.
Q At the moment and despite all the setbacks, you are the player with the best overall record this season, winning four tournaments, including the two Grand Slam tournaments you have played. How much does that give you an extra appetite for victory?
A. Feeling competitive gives you a boost of energy, that’s a fact. Things would be different if I didn’t feel competitive given my condition, but I feel competitive and we will look for solutions.