PARIS — Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have won and done so much in nearly 20 years of hoarding the loot in men’s tennis.
But there is one gap in each member of the Big Three’s story line. None has managed to complete the Grand Slam by winning all four major tournaments in the same calendar year.
Djokovic got close, agonizingly close, falling just one match short last year by losing in the final of the U.S. Open to Daniil Medvedev. (He also fell short in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics, ruling out a Golden Slam.)
Now at 36, an advanced age in tennis, Nadal has created his best opportunity by winning the first two legs of the Grand Slam: He delivered a big-surprise victory at the Australian Open in January and claimed his 14th career victory at the French Open on Sunday, a win that should only have come as a surprise because he was playing with a numb left foot.
Nadal is still just halfway to the Grand Slam, but he has never been this close to a feat that was last achieved in the men’s game in 1969 by the Australian Rod Laver.
In 2009, the only other time Nadal won the Australian Open, he was beaten for the first time at Roland Garros, losing in the fourth round to Robin Soderling of Sweden.
But this year Nadal can head to Wimbledon, which begins June 27, with the Grand Slam still in play. The question is, will he head to Wimbledon at all?
He revealed on Sunday, after his 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 thrashing of the 23-year-old Norwegian Casper Ruud in the French Open final, that he had received painkilling injections to numb his left foot before each of his matches on the red clay in Paris this year. He said he would not do the same again at any tournament, not even Wimbledon, because of the risks. Instead, he plans to undergo a procedure this week called radio frequency ablation to try to provide longer-term pain relief by deadening the problematic nerves in his foot.
“I’m going to be in Wimbledon if my body is ready to be in Wimbledon,” Nadal said. “Wimbledon is not a tournament that I want to miss. I think nobody wants to miss Wimbledon. I love Wimbledon.”
Despite that sentiment, there will be plenty of missing players at Wimbledon this year. The All England Club has barred players from Russia and Belarus from participating in this year’s tournament because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those affected include Medvedev, a Russian who will reclaim the No. 1 ranking in men’s singles from Djokovic next week; and the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, a semifinalist in Wimbledon’s women’s singles draw last year.
The men’s and women’s tours have responded to the ban by stripping Wimbledon of ranking points, which left the former No. 1 Naomi Osaka openly questioning in Paris whether she was still motivated enough to take part in Wimbledon.
Nadal, as part of the ATP player council, was deeply involved in the internal debates on stripping points, but he has an elemental connection to Wimbledon beyond whatever rankings boost it can provide.
“I had a lot of success there,” he said. “I lived amazing emotions there.”
He won one of the most acclaimed matches in tennis history in 2008 when he beat Federer in a Wimbledon final that stretched to 9-7 in the fifth set in the twilight. Nadal won Wimbledon again in 2010, beating Tomas Berdych for the title. But since losing the 2011 final to Djokovic, Nadal has not advanced past the semifinals and has twice missed the tournament because of injury: in 2016 because of his left wrist and last year because of the chronic foot condition known as Müller-Weiss syndrome that is linked to a deformity in the navicular bone and first threatened his career in his late teens.
He managed the problem for years with orthotic inserts and custom-designed shoes and anti-inflammatory medication, but the condition is clearly threatening his career again even if the short-term concern is Wimbledon.
Larry Chou, an American physician in Havertown, Pa., specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, said that radio frequency ablation was “relatively low risk” but has widely varying rates of success depending on the joint involved. He said it was rare to use on the foot.
“If it works, it’s for symptomatic relief, but it’s not fixing the underlying issue,” Chou said. “The mechanical stress going through his foot is still going to be there.”
Chou has performed radio frequency ablations on backs and knees but not on feet. He said if the procedure worked, which was no guarantee, the pain relief would typically not be immediate.
“It usually takes a few weeks to kick in, mostly because the nerve gets irritated when you are killing it and you can develop a little neuroma,” Chou said, using another term for a pinched nerve, “but that’s usually not as bad as the original pain. The problem for Nadal is that Wimbledon begins in three weeks, and three weeks is a relatively short time frame. But it’s one of those things where he’s beaten the odds before in his career and you hope that he beats the odds again.”
Chou said it was no doubt remarkable that Nadal could win the French Open without having feeling in one of his feet.
“But then again,” Chou said, “he’s been playing tennis at this level for so long. And these guys like Nadal, their mechanics and how they move, they have such great muscle memory. They just do it.”
Nadal certainly did it well: defeating four top-10 seeds at Roland Garros this year and running his record in French Open finals to 14-0 and his overall French Open record to an astounding 112-3.
But Wimbledon has belonged more to his archrivals. Federer has won it eight times, a men’s record. Djokovic has won it six times, including the last three times it has been contested, in 2018, 2019 and 2021.
Even if Nadal somehow recovers in time to compete, the Grand Slam will remain a daunting prospect with Djokovic in the field and back on the Centre Court grass.
But doubting Nadal’s resilience, tenacity and talent has been a bad play for quite some time, as he proved again in Paris.
“Let’s see what happens,” he said on Sunday night. “I’m a positive guy.”