Nadal finished his Roland Garros campaign in near invincible style, completing a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 thrashing of Casper Ruud in just two hours 18 minutes.
But while his tennis is as good as ever, he is increasingly concerned about the degeneration in his right foot, where he suffers from Muller-Weiss Syndrome – a loss of blood flow to the navicular bone.
This condition could potentially force him into an early retirement, if he cannot find a medical solution. Even worse, it could restrict his later life and keep him from enjoying recreational sports such as golf or sailing.
Nadal has said all week that this could potentially be his final appearance at Roland Garros – the tournament he has dominated to an unprecedented degree. And if this does prove to be the last time we see him here, it was at least a fine way to go out.
Playing for his 14th French Open title, Nadal outclassed Ruud in the same manner that he had overcome the majority of his 111 previous victims at this event: decisively, routinely, and in straight sets.
Perhaps Nadal wasn’t at his absolute peak in the early stages, but the statistics still show he hit 37 winners to 18 unforced errors – the sort of display any ordinary mortal would consider a career best. Certainly Ruud was rendered powerless, despite the many fans calling his name throughout.
The Roland Garros faithful yelled “Ruuuud” in the hope of inspiring this first-time finalist to make a match of it.
But Nadal kept the challenger at bay through his time-honoured tactic of looping the ball deep with heavy top-spin. His forehand generally passed over the net at John Isner height, then kicked up towards Ruud’s shoulders after the bounce.
A small number of tennis geniuses – I’m thinking mainly of an in-form Novak Djokovic here – are gifted enough to step in and take Nadal’s spitting groundstrokes on the rise.
Ruud showed neither the ambition nor the ability to do that, and thus spent much of the afternoon hitting hopeful backhands from yards behind his own baseline. The geometry of the court was always against him, because you can’t inflict much damage on Nadal from there.
It probably didn’t help Ruud that he trains at Nadal’s academy in Mallorca, and that these two men know each other’s games inside-out after numerous practice sets on a variety of surfaces.
Like Saturday’s women’s final involving Iga Swiatek, this match offered plenty of fine shot-making but few twists and turns in the storyline. Even when Nadal dipped, losing a service game in each of the first two sets, the sense of jeopardy was limited. As with a Marvel superhero, or James Bond in days of yore, you always expected him to pull through any local difficulties.
On this front, it was vintage Nadal, recollecting some of the one-sided finals he has contested on Court Philippe Chatrier over the years. Seven of those victories have come up in straight sets, and the rest in four; remarkably, he has never been taken to a decider in the trophy match.
In the end, it was a backhand punch up the line that carried Nadal to his 22nd major title – two ahead of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in joint second place – while leaving his family in tears of joy. So it is that the king of clay rules for at least one more year.
Roland Garros had been rife with rumours before the match, especially surrounding the fact that Federer had been pictured in Paris. Could Federer be preparing to present the trophy to his greatest rival, as part of a choreographed retirement ceremony?
So it was that the only truly suspenseful moment of the afternoon came when Nadal took the microphone at the post-match presentation. He started in traditional style, paying tribute to his vanquished opponent and then thanking his team. He even admitted that “without you” – his friends and family – “I would have been retired much before”.
At this point, the 15,000 fans on Court Philippe Chatrier leant forward in their seats, in an atmosphere of sudden expectation. Was Nadal about to bring down the curtain? No. Instead he said he would be “fighting to keep going”, but left open the question of how he hoped to do that.
It was only in the interview room afterwards that Nadal explained the gory details. He plans to undergo a radio-frequency nerve ablation in the next few days, to permanently muffle the pain from his damaged foot.
If that doesn’t work, the next step is “a major surgery that don’t guarantee me to be able to be competitive again and it’s gonna take a long time to be back”.
And why is he so determined to put himself through such an ordeal? “To give myself a chance to keep doing what I like to do,” he replied. “I like to play tennis.” (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 2022)