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An injury knocked Rafael Nadal off course — and pointed him to the Citi Open

Rafael Nadal practices Saturday at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

It wasn’t the physical and mental toll of a grueling clay-court season that caused Rafael Nadal to withdraw from Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics after his gut-spilling semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic at the French Open in June.

It was a flare-up of a long-standing ailment with his left foot — so debilitating that he couldn’t pick up a tennis racket for 20 days, Nadal disclosed in an interview Sunday.

After that came measured steps of rehabilitation: work in the gym, 30-minute practices, then longer sessions with players at his tennis academy in Mallorca.

“My body decided for me,” Nadal said of his two-month break from competition during a wide-ranging interview in the players’ outdoor lounge of Washington Citi’s Open, where the 20-time Grand Slam champion will play his first match since June 11 on Wednesday.

At 35, there is little Nadal hasn’t accomplished in a nearly two-decade career. He has won all four majors, reached the world No. 1 ranking, led Spain to five Davis Cup titles and won two Olympic gold medals.

Since October, he has also been tied with Roger Federer for a men’s record 20 Grand Slam titles — a mark that seemed unfathomable when Pete Sampras reached 14 in 2002. Djokovic made it a three-way tie with his Wimbledon triumph in July.

Asked Sunday if he felt Djokovic could complete the calendar Grand Slam the Serbian has targeted as his goal for 2021, which would give him sole possession of men’s tennis history, Nadal said: “He did 75 percent of the way. He [is] going to be playing on hard court, probably his best surface. So why not?”

As for himself, Nadal does not speak in terms of records or titles. His approach to tennis is no different than it was as a teenage challenger in capri pants. He is process-oriented, not results-driven. And he refuses to take stock of his place in history, whether by Grand Slam tallies or any other metric. That is a debate for others, he believes, and properly held after he has retired, if at all.

After contending with numerous physical challenges over his career, Nadal understands that rehabilitation is a process, too.

“You have to trust the process,” he said. “And you need to accept the feeling that it’s going to be horrible for a couple of days, sometimes a couple of weeks.”

Nadal’s participation in the Citi Open is largely a result of the left foot ailment. While it didn’t require surgery, Nadal said, it altered the schedule he typically keeps, which is following Wimbledon with a few weeks of rest before starting the North American hard-court season in mid-August that culminates with the U.S. Open.

Rafael Nadal’s Citi Open debut thrills D.C. tennis fans — and he hasn’t even played a match yet

Because he was forced to start his recovery period early, before Wimbledon, Nadal said he felt ready and eager to start his hard-court season earlier, too. The Citi Open was the logical place to begin.

Nadal looked tanned, fit and relaxed on a covered patio after rain cut short his morning practice with 21st-ranked Grigor Dimitrov. Asked if the foot injury had hampered him in the four-set loss to Djokovic, Nadal said simply: “I lost against a great player — that is it. You can’t win all the time.”

As he prepared to play before crowds amid the resurgent pandemic, Nadal said he has been vaccinated and expressed faith in the science behind it. “I am not a doctor, but in my logical perspective, without a doubt, yes,” he said. “The vaccine is a very important thing to help us to be a little bit safer than before.”

Nadal’s face lit up when asked his impressions of Washington, a world capital he has long wanted to visit. Since arriving Thursday, he has practiced twice daily, so hasn’t had a chance to see the White House and other sights. He plans to do so Tuesday, when he’ll practice just once before his opening match at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

But jet lag has had him up before sunrise, so he has gone out for long walks downtown and along the Potomac, marveling at his discoveries.

“It’s different than most of the American cities I have been in — lower buildings, and the city is super green, something that I love,” Nadal said. “Yesterday I was 6 in the morning walking in the city. I walked around for one hour 30 in the morning. ... I was walking just by myself. But I had fun.”

Regardless of how far Nadal gets at the Citi Open, it is an important next step in his return from injury.

“I know it’s going to be tough. Probably, the feelings will not be the best ones,” he said, not one to make a bullish prediction. “If I am mentally well, of course, the main goal for me is [to] be competitive. Then, you can win, [or] you can lose.”

With each victory, he would get a chance to play the next day. Playing multiple days in a row, he explained, helps speed up the process of returning from injury. It also helps build confidence, which he acknowledged comes and goes.

But one important thing has never deserted him.

“The hope never leaves me,” he said. “The hope of ‘I will be back.’ And the hope that I will be competitive and fighting for important things again. For the moment, hope never leaves me in my career.”