Elliott: Rafael Nadal prevails at BNP Paribas Open despite foot pain

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Rafael Nadal, of Spain, celebrates after defeating Reilly Opelka at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament Wednesday, March 16, 2022, in Indian Wells, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Reilly Opelka at the BNP Paribas Open tournament on Wednesday in Indian Wells. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The chronic pain in Rafael Nadal’s left foot comes and goes unpredictably. He has learned to live with it, to build his practices and schedule around it, to run through it because he can’t run away from it.

He felt the discomfort return Wednesday during the second set of his match against hard-serving, forehand-smashing Reilly Opelka, the worst possible time for more adversity to drop onto Nadal’s plate. Already at stake for him were his perfect season and a berth in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open. When he went down a break at 4-2 his ability to tolerate pain was put on the line too.

“It was a little bit worse than the last couple of days,” the 35-year-old Spaniard said of the congenital foot condition that led him to take a five-month break last year. “It’s true that the last couple of days the foot have been bothering me a little bit more.”

Nadal did what he usually does: He endured and he triumphed. It was a familiar sight but still stunning to witness as age and injuries nip ever closer at his heels.

Problem-solving as he went along, Nadal saved three break points in the seventh game of the second set to ignite a three-game surge and take a 5-4 lead. After they served out the set and went to a tiebreak, Nadal capped what he called his best match of the tournament by outlasting Opelka 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) to reach the quarterfinals Thursday against Nick Kyrgios.

Nadal is 18-0 this season, including the stirring comeback that lifted him past Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final for his men’s-record 21st Grand Slam singles title. Nadal is the second player on the men’s tour since 1990 to start a season 18-0. The other is Novak Djokovic, who was 41-0 to open 2011 and 26-0 in 2020.

“Of course, for me it’s super surprising to be in the position that I am, winning three titles already, be in the quarterfinals here at Indian Wells,” said Nadal, who previously won events in Melbourne, Australia, and Acapulco.

“I can’t say it’s a dream because I even couldn’t dream about that three months ago, two months ago. Yeah, things are going that way. The only thing that I can say is thanks to everybody who helps, everybody who supports me around the world, and thanks to life for this incredible opportunity that I am having. I am just enjoying every single moment.”

Nadal announced earlier this week that he would skip the next event, the Miami Open, to prepare for the clay season. That decision made infinite sense Wednesday, as his foot began to bother him. Still, he won 84% of his first-serve points and 73% of his second-serve points against Opelka, the 6-11 Michigan native who jokingly calls himself “servebot” because of his heavily serve-based game.

“What I tried is to don’t help him to play from good positions, especially when I am serving. I tried to play with high percentage of first serves, especially in the tiebreaks, because then if you start to miss first serves, you open the door for him to go for a big return. Is not in your hands anymore,” Nadal said.

Reilly Opelka returns a shot to Rafael Nadal at the BNP Paribas Open tournament.
Reilly Opelka returns a shot to Rafael Nadal at the BNP Paribas Open tournament on Wednesday in Indian Wells. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“Try to put balls in on the return. Find the right balance between not playing too aggressive, because then you have risk of mistakes, and not playing too defensive because you know he has a great forehand and he going to go for the winner.”

Kyrgios has beaten Nadal three times in eight matchups, though Nadal won the last two. Kyrgios, who was given a wild-card at Indian Wells, advanced via a walkover when Jannik Sinner withdrew because of an illness.

“I will need to do the last effort to do it as good as possible here. Hopefully, the foot can keep holding,” Nadal said. “I am not thinking about the foot much. I am just thinking about my tennis and my next opponent. If something happens, we need to accept it.”

Although Opelka’s loss to Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov’s upset of John Isner cut the number of American men still in contention, No. 20 seed Taylor Fritz of Rancho Palos Verdes advanced to the quarterfinals with a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory over Alex deMinaur of Australia on Wednesday. Fritz, who has a career record of 4-0 in third-set tiebreaks at Indian Wells, on Friday will face Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, who upset No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini in three sets.

Jenson Brooksby, who had previously upset Stefanos Tsitsipas, was beaten by defending champion Cameron Norrie 6-2, 6-4.

Fritz had a slow start Wednesday, which he attributed to a quick turnaround after his third-set-tiebreak win Tuesday over Jaume Manur of Spain and the contrasting styles of Manur — who hits with a lot of spin — and deMinaur, who hits the ball flat. “I was trying to, in the first set, decelerate my strokes to try and time the ball, and then I kind of realized I need to swing at it even more to handle it,” Fritz said. “So I made the right adjustments, and I thought my level in the second and third was good.”

It’s all about incremental progress for Fritz, who has trended upward since he reached the semis at Indian Wells last year. His world ranking peaked at 16 after he made a career-best run to the round of 16 at this year’s Australian Open, and he’s now aiming at a top-10 spot.

“I’ll choke some matches here and there, for sure. A lot of people do,” he said. “But then I’ll also clutch out a lot of matches like I have the last two days, and this one felt really — honestly, the last two third-set breakers I played have been really solid for me, not a lot I did wrong either one.”

Asked during a post-match news conference to name the mentally toughest player in the game, Fritz chose Nadal. No argument there. Nadal’s spirit burns bright, even if his body is giving out.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.