PARIS – Rafael Nadal showed up at Roland Garros with his personal doctor along for the trip, hoping to get some help with the chronic pain in his left foot that’s been an off-and-on problem for years.
Nadal, as is his wont, has downplayed his chances at a 14th French Open trophy and 22nd Grand Slam title overall — both of those numbers would add to records he already holds — and repeatedly said he has no idea whether each match might be the last of his career in Paris.
Still, he sure looked just fine from up-close, playing with his usual resilience and joie de vivre all the while.
Never more so than during the victory over No. 1 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic that moved Nadal into the semifinals on Friday — the Spaniard’s 36th birthday — at the clay-court major tournament that he has lorded over for so long. At the 1:15 a.m. conclusion of that 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) triumph as the calendar flipped from Tuesday to Wednesday, Nadal turned toward his guest box in the stands and smiled quite a wide smile, then covered his face with his taped-up fingers.
“I (was) emotional because, of course, the last three months and a half for me ... haven’t been easy,” Nadal said, referring to both a rib injury and the foot issue that limited both his number of matches and his hours on a practice court.
A victory over No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany on Friday would allow Nadal to continue on the path to another championship at the French Open. And if he also were to go on to win Sunday’s final against either 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic of Croatia or No. 8 Casper Ruud of Norway, who meet in Friday’s other semifinal, there also would be this to consider: Nadal would own the first two legs of a calendar-year Grand Slam for the first time.
Hard to believe, maybe, but Nadal never has managed to get halfway there. His lone Australian Open title before this January came in 2009, the year he lost at Roland Garros for the first time, eliminated in the fourth round by Robin Soderling.
Nadal’s French Open record is 110-3 (two of the defeats came against Djokovic, in 2015 and a year ago) and he is into his 15th semifinal there.
The prospect of how many more contests he might have left has been something he has addressed more than once in recent days.
Asked after defeating Djokovic how much the raucous crowd support he received in Court Philippe Chatrier helped, Nadal said: “Probably, they know that I’m not going to be here for a lot more times.”
Moments later, after mentioning his doctor’s presence, Nadal said: “I am putting everything that I have to try to play this tournament with the best conditions possible, no? I don’t know what can happen after, honestly."
When a reporter wanted to know how thoughts about his future affect him, Nadal replied: “I don’t know what’s going to happen after here. I mean, I have what I have there in the foot, so if we are not able to find an improvement or a small solution on that, then it’s becoming super difficult for me.”
Nonetheless, he managed to win two matches that each lasted more than four hours, against No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round, then against Djokovic.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Djokovic said. “It’s not the first time that he is able, a few days after he’s injured and barely walking, to come out 100% physically fit.”
Nadal's opponent, Zverev, was the runner-up at the 2020 U.S. Open and a gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics. The 25-year-old, who is under investigation by the ATP after being accused of abuse by a former girlfriend, is playing in the Roland Garros semifinals for the second consecutive year.
Zverev owns a single victory in 12 Slam matches against opponents ranked in the top 10; that came Tuesday when he eliminated No. 6 Carlos Alcaraz.
Cilic, 33, and Ruud, 23, are making their semifinal debuts in Paris. For Ruud, it’s his first appearance in the final four at any major. For Cilic, it completes a set of at least one semifinal at each major.
“He won a Grand Slam before, (been in) several finals, so he has more experience than me,” Ruud said about Cilic, “so I have everything to win and nothing to lose.”
While the other semifinalists have combined for one major title, Nadal can increase his lead to two over Djokovic and Roger Federer in the career Grand Slam count. They are both at 20.
“There is always a conversation about the player who finished with more Slams or who is the best (in) history, but from my perspective, doesn’t matter that much," Nadal said. "We achieve our dreams. We make history in this sport, because we did things that didn’t happen before.”
More AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports