PARIS: Rafael Nadal truly has nothing more to do to make clear his greatness on a tennis court. The 21 Grand Slam titles. The 13 championships on the red clay of the French Open alone.
That’s not to say he doesn’t want to achieve more, of course. Still, it’s not why he is still out there, at age 36, bothered by chronic pain that flares up in his left foot every so often, and ready to face 23-year-old Casper Ruud of Norway in the men’s final at Roland Garros on Sunday.
“It’s not about things that you need to prove. It’s about how much you enjoy doing what you are doing — or, if you don’t enjoy, then it’s another story,” said Nadal, who advanced when his semifinal opponent, third-seeded Alexander Zverev, needed to stop playing late in the second set after hurting his right ankle.
“But if you like what you are doing, you keep going. ... I keep playing because I like what I do. So that’s it,” Nadal continued. “Of course I enjoy (it). And if I am healthy enough to play, I like the competition, honestly.”
Nadal, whose birthday was on Friday, is the second-oldest man to get to the title match in Paris; Don Budge was 37 when he was the runner-up in 1930. The oldest champion in tournament history was Andres Gimeno, 34 when he won in 1972.
“I like to play in the best stadiums of the world and feel myself, at my age, still competitive. Means a lot to me.” Nadal said. “That makes me feel in some way proud and happy about all the work that we did.”
While he is not showing any obvious signs of slowing, the past year or so has not been easy.
Nadal sat out most of the last half of 2021 — missing Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics and the U.S. Open — because of his foot problem.
He was able to win the Australian Open in January to break a three-way tie at 20 major trophies with Novak Djokovic (who wasn’t there because he isn’t vaccinated against COVID-19) and Roger Federer (who is sidelined after a series of knee operations). But after that, Nadal missed time with a rib injury, then was clearly hobbled by the foot as he limped around during the Italian Open last month.
“I was not very positive after that about my foot, but I was positive that I will be able to play here. And here I am. I played, I (fought), I did all the things possible to give myself at least a chance to be where I am,” said Nadal, who brought his personal doctor with him to Paris, “and happy, of course, to be able to give me another chance to play on the (last) Sunday here.”
If Nadal has plenty of past success and “been there, done that” in his favour going into the final, Ruud does have youth on his side. Not to mention an impressive recent track record on clay, with tour highs of 66 match wins and seven titles on the surface since the start of the 2020 season.
“I will need to play my best tennis ever,” said Ruud, who never had been past the fourth round of a major until this week. “But I still have to believe that I can do it.”
Nadal is 13-0 in French Open finals, capturing the trophy in his teens, his 20s and his 30s — and Ruud was paying close attention.
“I could probably tell you all the finals and who he has played and who he has beaten because I watched them all on TV,” Ruud said, and then proved it by going through a list of the opponents. “To be a part of that group myself is something I can always brag about after my career. I will, of course, give it a shot at the title, and would be nicer to be able to brag about the title, as well, after my career.”
Ruud, whose father, Christian, was a professional tennis player from 1991 to 2001, calls Nadal his idol and has trained over the past four years at the Spaniard's academy in Mallorca.
And while Nadal and Ruud never have met in an official match, they have spent many a day playing practice sets against each other.
“He always, pretty much, has always beaten me,” Ruud said with a smile, then joked that, as a guest at the academy, he felt he needed to let his host win.
“This is a special occasion for both of us. He’s playing for his 22nd; I’m playing for my first. Big contrast,” Ruud said. "I’m the underdog, and we will just enjoy the moment."