There was no need to be a fan of Rafael Nadal to have the tear in the eye, Thursday evening, after the defeat of the king of ocher in the round of 16 of the Rome tournament, the left foot in compote. “I did not hurt myself, I am a player who lives with this injury”, let go of the Majorcan behind a tight smile which badly hid a certain fatalism, at the end of the setback against the Canadian Denis Shapovalov (16th in the world). “It’s a pain that comes and goes. Sometimes stronger, sometimes less. Today was crazy. »
Ten days before the start of Roland-Garros, it’s hard not to imagine that the man statued during his lifetime at Porte d’Auteuil, who will celebrate his 36th birthday on June 3, will never exceed the already staggering total of 13 titles in Paris. The injury in question is actually a rare disease with no treatment: Mueller-Weiss syndrome, which causes, among other things, necrosis of the navicular bone (for anatomy fans, it’s over here). The pathology, rare, rather affects women from 40 to 60 years old. However, Nadal would suffer from it since 2005, when he was only 19 years old…
It has long been masked by the countless glitches in the knees, back or wrists which undoubtedly prevented him from settling on the Olympus of his sport long before the 21st major won at the last Australian Open. But the name of the disease did not come out until August 2021, when Nadal announced the end of a complicated season, marked by his defeat in an epic Roland-Garros semi-final against his best enemy Novak Djokovic. .
Three defeats in 108 games Porte d’Auteuil
It was only his third loss (in 108 games) on clay in Paris, after his failure in the round of 16 against the Swede Robin Söderling in 2009, and the rouste inflicted by Djoko in the quarter-finals in 2015 (he had abandoned before the third round in 2016 due to a wrist problem).
Inevitably, the concern is in the camp of the Spaniard. Even if he shows up on the Philippe-Chatrier court around May 23, what state will he be in? After the miracle in Melbourne in January, Nadal experienced the worst preparation on ocher of his career, without a Masters 1000 final on the clock, the likes of which had not been seen since 2004. He missed Monte-Carlo and Barcelona due to an injury to the ribs, before suffering the law of his “Mini-Me” Carlos Alcaraz in quarter in Madrid, then falling Thursday evening in Rome.
Should we immediately put the legend of the Balearics in a gallery of sepia photos, next to the impassive Borg and the jovial Kuerten? Not, necessarily, given the character and the exceptional resistance of the boy. In 2020, during a season turned upside down by the Covid, Nadal showed up at Porte d’Auteuil at the end of September with a poor quarter lost in Rome against Diego Schwartzmann as the only reference.
Already back from hell in 2020
He then confided that he had “spent three horrible months” during confinement, “going [se] seek treatment in Barcelona”, already for the same concern. “My foot was totally destroyed. I was going to train for an hour maximum, but I couldn’t move, ”he confided then. And yet, the Highlander of Manacor had gleaned his 13th title at Roland, crushing Djokovic in the final (6-0, 6-2, 7-5).
That said, 19 months have passed since this last Parisian triumph. Not a straw when you know that the famous Mueller-Weiss syndrome is a degenerative disease. Djokovic, defending champion, still seems as strong, and the gang of thirty-somethings finally has some competition, starting with the impressive Alcaraz, recent winner in Barcelona and Madrid, once the preserves of the idol of the young 19-year-old Murcian. .
“I know that the years go by and that the options to win here are not eternal,” Nadal said after his defeat against the Serb last year. Thursday in Rome, his words were almost twilight: “There will come a time when my head will say stop, because the pain takes away my pleasure. Not only for tennis, but also in life. A Roland without its god is unimaginable, but we’ll have to get used to it…