Rafael Nadal, widely considered one of the best tennis players to have ever lived, cannot remember what it’s like to play a match without pain.
You wouldn’t guess that from watching the world number two win his quarter final in straight sets against Kei Nishikori at the French Open.
The best athletes, of course, make the game look easy.
But for Nadal it’s anything but.
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The 32-year-old suffers from a rare birth defect called Kohler’s foot – meaning the navicular bone in his left foot never properly developed. For Nadal, it meant his foot was swelling after playing and was always on the verge of fracture.
For many sufferers, not only is competitive sport out of the question, but the condition means they develop a limp or unusual style of walking.
The Spaniard was 17 when he received the diagnosis, which some researchers believe is caused by excessive strain on the foot at a young age.
A tennis racquet was thrust into Nadal’s hand for the first time by his uncle, Toni Nadal, when he was three years old. Recognising a natural talent, Toni Nadal, a former professional tennis player, began to train him.
By eight, Nadal was winning under 12 championships, while also playing football just as competitively. By 12, he was winning Spanish and European titles.
But pain became more recurrent, and more debilitating, as he developed through adolescence.
When the diagnosis finally came at 17, Nadal was told by doctors he would have to retire his tennis career – before it had even begun.
This was not a conclusion, however, that Nadal or his father Sebastian Nadal, readily accepted. They sought out different specialists, until one recommended an insole that would serve to cushion the arch of Nadal’s foot, and redistribute weight to parts that were not so damaged.
The treatment appeared to work. At first.