PARIS (AP) — Rafael Nadal showed up at Roland Garros with his personal doctor for the trip, hoping to get help for chronic left foot pain that has been an intermittent problem for years.
Nadal, as usual, downplayed his chances of winning a 14th French Open trophy and 22nd Grand Slam title overall – both numbers would add to the records he already holds – and repeatedly said that he had no idea if each game could be the last of his career in Paris.
Still, he looked very good up close, playing with his usual resilience and zest for life the whole time.
Never more so than in the victory over No. 1 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic that propelled Nadal into the semi-finals on Friday – the Spaniard’s 36th birthday – in the clay major tournament he has ruled for so long. At 1:15 a.m., the conclusion of this 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) triumph as the schedule shifted from Tuesday to Wednesday, Nadal turned to his guest box in the stands and smiled quite a wide smile, then covered his face with his taped fingers.
“I was emotional because of course the last three and a half months for me…have not been easy,” Nadal said, referring to both a rib injury and the foot problem that limited both his number of matches and his hours at a training ground.
A win over No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany on Friday would see Nadal continue on his way to another championship at Roland Garros. And should he also win Sunday’s final against 2014 US Open champion Croatian Marin Cilic or No. 8 Casper Ruud of Norway, who meet in Friday’s other semifinal, there would also be this to consider: Nadal would own the first two rounds of a Grand Slam in a calendar year for the first time.
Hard to believe, perhaps, but Nadal never made it halfway. His only title at the Australian Open before this January dates back to 2009, the year he lost for the first time at Roland-Garros, eliminated in the fourth round by Robin Soderling.
Nadal’s French Open record is 110-3 (two of the losses have come to Djokovic, in 2015 and a year ago) and he is in his 15th semi-final there.
The prospect of how many contests he might have left has been something he has touched on more than once in recent days.
When asked after beating Djokovic how much the loud crowd support he received at Court Philippe Chatrier had helped, Nadal replied: “They probably know I won’t be here for long.”
Moments later, after mentioning the presence of his doctor, Nadal said: “I’m putting everything I have to try to play this tournament in the best possible conditions, right? I don’t know what can happen afterwards, honestly.
When a reporter asked how thoughts about his future affected him, Nadal replied: “I don’t know what’s going to happen after here. I mean, I got what I got, so if we’re not able to come up with an improvement or a little solution on that, then it becomes super difficult for me.
Nonetheless, he managed to win two matches lasting over four hours each, against No.9 Félix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round and then against Djokovic.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Djokovic said. “It’s not the first time he’s been able, a few days after being injured and barely walking, to come out 100 per cent physically fit.”
Nadal’s opponent Zverev was a runner-up at the 2020 US Open and a gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics. The 25-year-old, who is under investigation by the ATP after being accused of abuse by a former girlfriend, is making the Roland Garros semi-finals for the second consecutive year.
Zverev holds just one victory in 12 Slam matches against top-10 ranked opponents; it happened on Tuesday when he knocked out number 6 Carlos Alcaraz.
Cilic, 33, and Ruud, 23, make their semi-final debuts in Paris. For Ruud, this is his first appearance in the last four of a major tournament. For Cilic, he completes a set of at least one semifinal at each major.
“He’s won a Grand Slam before, (appeared) in several finals, so he has more experience than me,” Ruud said of Cilic, “so I have everything to gain and nothing to lose. “
While the other semi-finalists have combined for a major title, Nadal can extend his lead to two over Djokovic and Roger Federer in the career Grand Slam tally. They are both 20 years old.
“There is always a conversation about which player has finished with more Grand Slams or who is the best (in) history, but from my point of view it doesn’t matter much,” said Nadal. “We are making our dreams come true. We are making history in this sport, because we have done things that have not happened before.
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