Interview: Only the knee matters
Rafa Nadal: «Ahora no pienso en ganar; solo importa la rodilla»
– by Enrique Yunta and translated by genny_ss.
Part One: «Necesito escuchar a mi cuerpo más que nunca» – “I need to listen to my body more than ever”
The Balearic tennis player receives ABC when we are a week away from his return to competition. He is excited, but asks for caution.
Five days before his return, there are no nerves in Rafa Nadal, who is determined to ask for calm because what matters now is his knee. We do not know other Nadal than the one with the closed fist and the biting, the Nadal winner of eleven majors, among his fifty titles. But the Mallorcan, now world number four due to the circumstances, insists that there are no miracles in tennis and that he needs time, to listen to what the body tells him, to take things easy. In the spectacular golf Club Vall d’Or, near his dear Manacor, he receives ABC for nearly an hour to talk about this process without looking beyond Abu Dhabi, where he will reappear on Friday against the winner of the match between Janko Tipsarevic and Andy Murray. To begin with, the simplest question in the world, but fundamental in this case because it is a key question.
How are you?
I feel better than a few months ago, obviously. My knee, however, is not at 100% yet, is not perfect. I have to see how it improves and accepts the intensity and the demanding game needed to play with high level players. But for now I’m going to Abu Dhabi, I don’t look beyond that. I do not think long term, the only concern is about the knee, to see how it responds these days and then we will see. I want to be sure it is fully prepared to start again to compete seriously, without any doubt. If I feel good in Abu Dhabi, we will continue, but if not, I’ll take it easy.
How are you facing this week after nearly 180 days without playing?
Abu Dhabi, for me, is a test, like a high level training. My goal is not this week, neither Doha or Australia. My goal is to be fit, to recover my feelings completely and feel fully ready, that the knee responds. The idea is to be in good condition from Indian Wells onwards.
Are you nervous?
No. I’m not, I really mean it. To me the only thing that matters is the knee, the only. I can play better, I can play worse, but I only care about that, the rest does not matter. I do not give much value to how I will play next month or month and a half. Even two months, if necessary. My season, my real goal is to start in perfect conditions in Indian Wells and Miami and reach Montecarlo with good feelings, to face the clay season in good shape.
Do you imagine your first point?
I’m going to play tennis again and I think I have not forgotten, it is not that dramatic. I have played more than 600 ATP matches and I have not spent two years without playing. My feeling is good. The last tournament I played in [good] conditions was Roland Garros and I won. And those emotions are still in me. I’m not yet ready to relive those feelings because I’m not quite ready. In late February or March is when I will feel good. It is there when my season begins, there I will tell myself that I’m ready to win.
But do not you have a special feeling, goosebumps or something that moves you?
Not yet. I guess I will have it when I feel ready to compete, when I am in top form and tell myself that I’m ready to win. When I am able to fight for every ball, when I am able to run with intensity, when I am able to play aggressive, when I can do with my legs whatever I want… Then I will try to play the best I know to win. As of today, that is not the case, now I do not care about winning. My only special feeling is that my knee is better and the doctors say it is perfect.
And what does your knee tell you?
I know that I will play in Abu Dhabi with the knee not being great, but I feel better. The doctors say it is very well and that is great news for me, but I still feel something. Be calm. I see that it is better, but I do not feel it perfect. I do not want to be on a court and feel that I cannot fight and run like I want, I do not want to feel that I do not have the opportunity to compete as I like.
Do you need to listen to your body now more than ever?
Yes. I need to be careful, cautious. I have to pay attention and see how the knee reacts, see if it goes better or worse and not make another mistake that could be detrimental for my future.
What if the knee tells you that, that it does not compete as you want?
Well, if that happens I will go back to Mallorca. I will change the mindset and start training to recover and modify the plans for the clay season. It’s that easy.
How do you spend six months without being able to do what you like?
I’ve been pretty good, I have accepted it with normality. I understand it’s part of my career, part of my job, and nothing is easy. It’s a challenge, one more for me. Now it is time to be back after six months out of the competition and I assume it. The downside is that I could not play tournaments I was very excited about like the Olympics, it was a sad moment. And it has been difficult not knowing when I was going to be OK, it is an injury with no prediction. Nobody could tell me if I needed a month, two, six or eight. It is the day by day, seeing how you respond after each day. And that is very tiring mentally.
What have you missed?
The feeling of competing. When you go on court and something inside moves you, playing for something important.
Your injury is summarized in reports always saying you were withdrawing from that, the other one…
Yes, it’s hard. But mainly because I could not train a week, I could not train the next … Before playing I had to train. The downside of my injury is that every day I wake up thinking about the knee, about how it is. If you break your leg you know that you have a period of that many months and that at first you have to do a particular thing, then another… And so on till you recover. It’s sad, sure, but it’s easier than my injury, which wears you down more. It was going to the gym every day, working hard, with many days feeling you do not improve at all … That has been mentally tiring for me, it’s been hard.
What has been the worst?
The uncertainty. If we talk about competition, obviously to miss the Olympics. But speaking in general terms, the worst is the day by day. You never know when you will return, when you will feel that you are improving.
Have you been afraid?
Fear, no. Afraid of what, retirement or something like that? No, no, no. I have not thought of that. Tennis is a sport that does not last forever. It’s not like golf, where you can play for 20 or 25 years without problems. In tennis time is limited, it is so. And I know that I will not regain the time I’ve lost this year. Olympics, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, the Masters Cup, other tournaments… These things will not come back. Your chances to playing these tournaments are, say, about 20 and not 50 as in other sports. And this is the negative aspect of tennis.
Is there something positive?
As I said before, this is a new challenge for me. And the positive is to check everything I have, everything I’ve won in the past eight years. It’s what gives me calm and strength to be more patient now, to face the return calmly. I stopped mentally for six months, I have enjoyed family, friends… Six months without tennis. I have followed it and watched the big matches, but not daily. Probably this has helped me to have a longer career.
Have you thought of what your career has been, of what you have achieved?
Everything that has happened to me in the last eight or nine years is much more than I could dream. I feel happy and in this situation I realize how difficult it has been to get everything. And it gives me confidence. This is different to the 2005 injury in the foot, as it was the first year among the best and I had a major injury. That was a bit more dramatic than now. I am optimistic guy and I think that I have not forgotten how to play tennis in these months. I will return and try to give my best, that’s for sure. But I have to work very hard.
Have you had to be stopped?
The hardest thing is to stop and more when you are on a roll. I was playing well and winning, it was probably one of the best semesters in my career for various reasons. And it’s hard to say that you cannot play Wimbledon. In those moments your only thought is to tell the doctor to do something, so that you can go on court. The knee was infiltrated to make it numb and I played, but I could not prepare the tournament well during the weeks before. I did not feel the knee and in this way it is impossible to compete. I tried and probably would not do it now, but I could not predict what has happened.
Have you learned any lessons?
It is not a lesson either. I’ve done what I usually do when I come to Mallorca, but with more time.
Have you enjoyed?
Yes, of course, I cannot say otherwise. I have enjoyed with family, with friends… But it is not the same to be on vacation when it is time for it as when you are forced. I can enjoy a day of golf or fishing, a meal, my cousins or a party, but in the end the mind was always thinking about the knee and that does not let you live fully in peace.
Do you see life differently?
I know that tennis is a very important part of my life, but it is not the only one. It does not end in tennis, I like to do many things. It has been a priority, but it is not everything. I have my life, my personal life, and I enjoy doing many things. Now I have to be focused in my career and afterwards I’ll enjoy these things that I cannot do so often.
Have you been patient?
More than patient, I’m positive. I’ve always been hyperactive, although I had to be patient, there was no choice. I tried to be ready for the U.S. Open and that was a mistake because I was not prepared. And now I’m going to Abu Dhabi, which is an exhibition and makes the return easier than in a tournament. It will be useful to know if I’m ready for the start of the season in Doha.
People want you to be back as the Rafa of old.
I’ll try, that’s all I can do. But people have to know that when you’re without competing for so many months, you need time to progress. I accept that I will be a few months where perhaps I have to compete and stop [on and off], I need calm and I am prepared for this situation. The beauty of sport and life is that you always have another chance and I have it.
Have you thought of changing something?
I would like to be as good as to change things, but I’m not. If I’m good is because I play that way. I’ve improved a lot, but my style is the same. Being 26, it is not the time to change many things.
Part two: «No imagino una España sin Cataluña» – “I cannot imagine a Spain without Catalonia”
Nobody represents Spain better than Rafa Nadal, proud citizen who does not conceive living anywhere else than Manacor. When discussing the situation our country is in, he does it with emotion and appeals to the effort and solidarity to overcome the current moment.
You have a whole country behind you.
I have received a lot of messages on Twitter, Facebook, personal messages, emails… And that helps, it gives me a lot of positive energy.
Is it difficult to be Rafa Nadal?
During all my life I’ve done what I felt. I always try to do what is right, what my people have taught me. It always has and always will. For me it’s not hard, I feel lucky to be who I am. I can only give thanks to life, to my people, to sponsors who trusted me. The situation in Spain is negative and many people are suffering, so I cannot say that my life is difficult, it would be totally unfair. Life is difficult for people who survive with very little, for people who, for a long time, are looking for work and do not find it, for people suffering. Now that’s difficult, not being Rafa Nadal. Mine is a dream.
Do you see yourself as an example for young Spaniards?
If I am positive example, they can follow suit. The only thing I feel is that people have always supported me, in good and bad times. There is nothing more beautiful than feeling the affection of the people who are closest to me. In this case, I am taking of Mallorca, Baleares, Spain.
How does the brand “Spain” sell in the rest of the world?
I say that I feel very fortunate to have been born here. I am happy to be from where I am. Here people live very well. We have no radical changes in temperature and, with exceptions like Lorca or other, there are no major natural disasters. You see the poverty in the world and how bad times some countries are going through and we cannot turn the face. Spain is well above the overall average and we have to be happy and grateful.
Have you been following the news?
What do you think the situation in Catalonia?
These things are there. We cannot think that people cannot express themselves as they want. Always with the utmost respect for all who present their ideas with correctness, respect and civility. Personally, I’m happy to be from Mallorca and I cannot imagine a Spain without Catalonia. Can it happen? Well, I would not like it, but there is no choice but to accept and respect it. I would not like it, I would feel very weird to have to play Davis Cup against Marc Lopez, for example. I do not see myself playing against Catalonia. We have always known Spain in this way and perhaps for people from outside Catalonia is a bit more difficult to understand this situation, but we have to realize that, from there, they may have another view of the subject.
Will Spain go ahead?
For sure. You have to analyze things in perspective, ignoring the negative. There are many people who want and cannot, but we are a great country. We have been and will continue to be. Some things have been done wrong, sure. But all of us. We cannot blame only the banks, politicians… We have done things we should not, we wanted to win more than it was due or more than what we could win. Everyone. More airports, as well as other things were built, even if it was not appropriate. And now we have to put up with it, to accept that these somehow unreal good times we have had have passed and we have to suffer. It’s a hard time, but I have no doubt that we will move forward and I feel that we are all working in the same direction. It is time for solidarity and facing the situation as a challenge. We are more than ready to get out of this, but it’s like everything. We must strive and overcome with the right attitude. We need motivation to go ahead and I know that’s easier said than done, but there is no other option.