The Return of Rafael Nadal

At 35 years old, suffering from a foot injury that has held him back since 2005, Nadal found himself facing a predicament. Would he compete at the upcoming 2022 Australian Open?

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By Kaitlin Ho

Is Rafael Nadal’s career over? After Nadal was eliminated in the semifinals of the French Open, tennis fans, unaware that the match could have been the last of Nadal’s career, watched the “King of Clay” walk off the Philippe Chatrier tennis court in disappointment. However, fans later found out that the 21-time Grand Slam winner had been playing with an injury and that he would be forced to miss Wimbledon, the upcoming Grand Slam tournament. The situation worsened, as a few months later, Nadal would miss not only the US Open, but also the entirety of the 2021 season. At 35 years old, suffering from a foot injury that has held him back since 2005, Nadal found himself facing a predicament. Would he compete at the upcoming 2022 Australian Open? Would he withdraw? Would he retire? Nobody, not even Nadal himself, knew the answer.

Widely considered one of the GOATs of tennis, Nadal rose to success at the age of 19 with his victory at the 2005 French Open. Since then, he has won 21 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic gold medals. His aggressive and consistent playstyle gives most, if not all, his opponents a tough time. However, there has been one adversary that has always challenged Nadal: his own body.

Though widely successful, Nadal’s career has been riddled with injuries to his ankles, feet, knees, and wrists, particularly during the major stretch from 2004 to 2016. Nadal’s back forced him to withdraw from both the Wimbledon and the Olympics in June 2021, and a few months later, in August, a foot injury that had reappeared from early on in Nadal’s career forced him to withdraw from the US Open as well.

Nadal was previously diagnosed with Müller-Weiss syndrome, a rare condition in the foot that cannot be cured and has held him back ever since 2005. The injury kept the Spanish player on crutches, unsure of when his return would be. “I don’t know when I will play again,” Nadal said in October of last year. Fans started to speculate whether Nadal would even return at all. In December, Nadal recovered and started to practice again. A return by the tennis legend seemed likelier by the day, until his hopes of competing in the Australian Open were halted again when he contracted COVID. The 35-year-old had a serious case of the virus. The illness kept him bedridden for four days. At this point, many did not expect Nadal to be able to compete at the tournament. However, he had other plans. He remained eager to return, and sure enough, he physically recovered from COVID within weeks and was ready to play in the Australian Open, shocking fans.

Nadal had been tied with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for most Grand Slam titles of all time, at 20 apiece. There was no competition between the longtime rivals at the tournament, however, as Federer was dealing with injuries of his own, while Djokovic, battling immigration issues, was denied entry to Australia. Nonetheless, the sixth seeded Spaniard still had considerable opposition and was projected to face players such as Hubert Hurkacz, Alexander Zverev, and Daniil Medvedev. Fortunately for Nadal, Hurkacz and Zverev were upsetted in the second and fourth round, respectively. Instead of Djokovic, Nadal faced 14th seeded Denis Shapovalov, who took Nadal to a fifth set and lost 3-6, in the quarterfinal. In the semifinals, Nadal faced seventh seeded Matteo Berrettini, whom he beat in four sets with final scores of 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, and 6-3.

In the finals, Nadal was matched up against second seeded Medvedev, who had just made headlines last September in the US Open by defeating Djokovic. Djokovic, who was a US Open away from a calendar Grand Slam (in which a player wins the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open in the same calendar year), also sought to pass Nadal and Federer for the lead in most Grand Slam titles in men’s history. Now Medvedev, with his unorthodox playstyle, was tasked with keeping another player at 20 Grand Slam titles. It wasn’t the first time Nadal and Medvedev had faced each other. In the 2019 US Open finals, Nadal defeated Medvedev in five sets. Nadal similarly defeated Medvedev in the Australian Open with another five-set thriller.

Medvedev took the first two sets 6-2 and 7-6, and he perfectly executed a down-the-line winner that put Nadal down 2-3. Nadal did not give up, rallying to save the next three break points. He managed to turn the tide of the game, increasing his first serve percentage to a whopping 82 percent in the third set, while Medvedev’s fell to 72 percent. A passing backhand from Nadal made the score 5-4, and an aggressive forehand secured the third set victory for Nadal. With the momentum on his side after winning his first set of the match, Nadal would go on to defeat Medvedev 6-4 in the fourth set. In the fifth set, tied at 2-2, 40-40, an aggressive shot, just barely in play, would win the second break point of the game, giving Nadal his first lead of the set. Nadal also kept his first serve percentage at 70 percent in the final set. Nadal, with his continued consistency, won the deciding set 7-5, ultimately claiming the match.

“Being honest, one month and a half ago, I didn’t know if I would be able to [get] back on the tour playing tennis again,” Nadal said after his victory against Medvedev. Due to his foot injury and contraction of COVID, participation in the Australian Open had seemed extremely unlikely, let alone likely to result in a victory.After being down two sets to zero, his endurance was put to the test, but as usual, Nadal found a way through, rallying heroically to take the final three sets and win the match. The victory marked Nadal’s second Australian Open win and 21st Grand Slam win, putting him ahead of both Djokovic and Federer. As long as the Australian Open champion stays healthy, there are no plans of slowing down. Now with the most Grand Slams in men’s history, Nadal will look to build onto this lead at the French Open in the summer. Watch out, tennis fans. The GOAT has returned.