Rafael Nadal's status for Wimbledon is in doubt because of a chronic problem with his left foot — as is his future in tennis. What's secure, no matter what happens now, is his legacy.
Nadal got through the French Open, he explained after a dominating 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Casper Ruud in Sunday's final earned a 14th championship at Roland Garros and 22nd Grand Slam title overall, thanks to the help of a series of numbing injections in his foot.
That, he says, was a one-time deal.
“I don’t want to put myself in that position again,” Nadal said after becoming, at age 36, the oldest champion in the history of a clay-court tournament that was first held in 1925. “Can happen once. But no, it's not a philosophy of life that I want to follow.”
And he allowed a little insight into what does make him tick. It's not, he said, as he's said before, an all-consuming desire to finish with more major trophies than the other members of the so-called Big Three of men's tennis, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. (Nadal currently stands two ahead of his rivals, who both are at 20.) “It’s not about being the best of the history. It’s not about the records. It’s about: I like what I do. I like to play tennis. And I like the competition,” Nadal said.
“What drives me to keep going is the passion for the game, to live moments that stay inside me forever,” he added, “and play in front of the best crowds in the world and the best stadiums.” So while he wants to be able to keep going, and would appreciate the chance to play at the All England Club, where the grass-court Slam he has won twice begins three weeks from Monday, he'll only do so if his body permits.
Nadal, who brought a doctor with him to Paris, is going to spend the next week trying new treatments, hoping to find a way to ease the pain in his foot. If that doesn't work, he will need to contemplate having surgery. “Of course, my tennis career has been a priority during all of my life, but never has been a priority over my happiness (in) life. So things are going to keep going that way,” he said. “If I am still able to be happy playing tennis with the things that I have, I'm going to keep going. If I am not able, I'm going to do other stuff.”
Either way, Nadal's place in the history of tennis — and, indeed, the history of sports — is solidified. Because of all of the way he has lorded over the French Open and red clay, yes. And, sure, because of the career Grand Slam he owns and, for now at least, the lead in the men's major trophy count. Don't forget the Olympic medals and the time spent at No. 1 in the rankings, either.
But it's not just all of the numbers. There's also this: Nadal never seems to take a point off, never seems to let an on-court situation daunt him, never gives in or gives up. “He stepped up, and he showed that when he needs to, he plays great,” said Ruud, who appeared to be every bit as overwhelmed by the situation and setting as by his opponent.
“He's a player I have watched on TV for the last 16, 17 years. So to be there myself and face him, it’s a bit of a challenge, as well, but a very enjoyable one,” Ruud said after his debut in a Grand Slam final at age 23. “Yeah, of course, I wish I could make the match closer and all these things, but at the end of the day, I can hopefully one day tell my grandkids that I played Rafa on Chatrier in the final, and they will probably say, ‘Wow, did you?'”
Whatever might come next for Nadal, he needs to figure out what's best for him, his foot, his happiness. If he decides there's no fix for the pain that wouldn't come at too great a cost, he'll move on. His imprint on the sport will remain.