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For Nadal, the road to Melbourne was harrowing, and the joy he now feels is sublime

Rafael Nadal fought back tears after his semi-final victory on Friday night in Melbourne. Later in press, he elaborated on his doubts, fears and greatest joys.

Rafael Nadal, Melbourne, 2022 © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

The joy was evident – and expected – after Rafael Nadal locked up a berth in the Australian Open final on Friday night in Melbourne. The smile, from ear-to-ear, the fist thundering towards the sky; it’s the type of celebrating with gusto that the legendary Spaniard has become known for over the course of his career.

But the tears? We didn’t expect those after a semi-final victory, with so much tennis left to be played, and the fact that Nadal spent a portion of his post-match celebration fighting them back says everything about how far he has come over the last five months of injury rehab, and how much his performance at this year’s Australian Open means to him.

Conversations about Good-byes

“I went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light there,” Nadal said of his journey back from the foot injury that ended his 2021 season prematurely, in August. “But still working and still receiving plenty of support from my team and from my family, too, without a doubt.”

“For a long time I wasn’t able to practice. Sometimes I went on court and I was able to practice 20 minutes, sometimes 45, sometimes zero, sometimes two hours, but have been very, very rough in terms of imagining myself playing at the best-of-five at this moment.”

The 35-year-old stated that he conducted deep discussions about his future with the team, and even contemplated the possibility that this injury might be the one that ends his career.

“Yeah, I mean, a lot of conversations with the team, with the family about what can happen or what gonna happen if the things continue like this, thinking that maybe is a chance to say good-bye,” he said.

Between then and now a lot has changed for the better with regard to Nadal’s health, but his post-match tears demonstrate just how close to the precipice he has been dangling.

“That was not a lot of months ago,” he said. “To be able to be where I am today, I don’t know, I really can’t explain in words how important is for me in terms of energy, in terms of personal satisfaction, in terms of being very thankful for all the support that I received from the fans and especially from the people really close to me.”

Doubts remain, but the joy transcends

Nadal admitted that he isn’t quite sure what his path will be in the months and years to come concerning the injury to his left foot. He has dealt with foot issues throughout his career, and he knows that there will come a day when it will become impossible to play to his own standard.

“Doubts still here,” he said. “Honestly, no, as I said the other day, I mean, the doubts gonna be here probably for the rest of my career, without a doubt, because I have what I have and that’s something that we cannot fix.”

The risk Nadal takes every time he thunders around a tennis court, blasting mind-bending winners and racing from corner to corner, is obvious. And the endgame is clear. Nadal knows, just like Federer knows and someday Djokovic will as well, that there will come a time, a finite moment when dominance is no longer his domain – that something that seemed to be embedded in his tennis DNA ever since he stormed Roland-Garros, winning the title on his first appearances, is actually a fleeting moment, one that cannot last forever.

Thus the sweetness of Nadal’s raw emotions on Friday, and the joy at overcoming yet another obstacle with the determination and humility that has characterized him since forever.

Nadal says his motivation isn’t about winning a Grand Slam or breaking a record, that’s not what gives him the energy to keep pushing. It comes from having the chance to compete on his terms again.

“For me it’s amazing, and I’m super happy to be able to compete for the last three weeks at the level that I am doing,” Nadal said. “Not only about tennis, that’s for sure. It’s surprising for me to be able to play at the level that I am playing, but just compete and play tennis at the high level again, facing the most important players of the world, for me, it’s something unbelievable, no?”

Blessed to be a part of an incredible era of tennis – it doesn’t matter if one has more Slams than the other

Nadal has stressed repeatedly that he is not thinking about winning a 21st major title and standing alone atop the tennis pantheon. He doesn’t see it that way and he never will. The Spaniard eloquently told reporters his vision near the end of his press conference on Friday night.

“I’m happy that I gonna have a chance [to play for a major title],” he said. “But for me, at the end, it’s about, more than all these statistics, it’s about be in the final of the Australian Open one more time. That means a lot to me. To me it’s more important to be in the final of the Australian Open and fight to win another Australian Open than the rest of the statistics that I know for the sport, maybe for the history of the sport, and possibly for you are very important, no?

“But as I said, I really feel like this, no? For me, I just feel happy to be part of this amazing era of tennis, sharing all these things with another two players. That’s it. In some ways it doesn’t matter if somebody achieve one more or one less, no? I think we did, everyone, we did amazing things and things that will be very difficult to equal each of us. So, yeah, I don’t think much about this, all this stuff.”

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