Tennis still makes me happy

Rafael Nadal prepares to serve during a charity match.

Photo by Beth Wilson

Translation of an interview with Rafa posted on El Pais.

Nadal: “El tenis aún me hace feliz”

by Alejandro Ciriza (as translated by Genny).

In this 2015 that is finishing, Rafael Nadal (Manacor, 29 years) has encountered an unusual opponent. It was not across the net, but in his own mind, the bastion of his long list of achievements. For the first time, his psychological frame has been vulnerable to anxiety and nerves, two unknown terms in its dictionary until recently. Despite the emotional carousel and losses, more frequent than usual, the winner of 14 majors is never afraid of adversity and now faces the coming year recovered, with encouraging signs in his game. The interview takes place in the privacy of the dressing room of the protagonist at the O2 in London, after losing to Novak Djokovic in the latest edition of the World Tour Finals.

Question. It has been a very difficult year for you, but in the end, you have closed it in a positive and clear progression. Did you really believe you would be able to turn the situation around?

Answer. Even when things go wrong, I am always a positive person and always hope that things can get better. Obviously, as the months and tournaments that in theory were favorable for me went by, and I could not get good results, everything became a little more complicated. I worked hard to change things and interestingly everything went better in the final stretch of the year, which has usually been the most difficult for me.

Q. You have gone through all kind of circumstances and injuries throughout your career, but has this been the season in which you have learned more?

A. Not at all. I do not usually follow all those things that are said and are really topical. You learn both from the good and the bad, what happens is that it is always better to learn from the good. You normally learn from the bad when you do not have your feet on the ground, when you do not know well where you are coming from or how you have got where you are; I have pretty much always had it clear, and therefore I think I have learned throughout my career both from positive and negative situations. But, in fact, this year I could not learn much tennis wise; however, I have gone through some circumstances that have been mentally new to me, different from those I had always had.

Q. How is this “mental injury” explained, as you call it?

A. They are feelings that at a given time are difficult to understand, but they happen. In the end, the only way out is to accept the problem and work to find a solution to it. It has not been easy, it has taken me months to turn the situation around, but logically you also reach a point in time where you relax and say: well, I am going to play tennis, because I have not forgotten to play tennis, have I? More than a tennis problem, it has been a mental issue. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to play good tennis.

Q. For people it is hard to understand that at this point Nadal may have doubts or fears on a tennis court. Why now, [when you are] close to being thirty?

A. It is not fear. If it were, I would not be ashamed to say it, because I am not a person who is afraid of recognizing these things, but it is not fear. It is a strange situation of being out of control over breathing and time. When you have a lack of control of breathing and time, of understanding how the ball is coming or going to bounce, it is because the mind is accelerated; this is all a consequence of anxiety. How can this happen at this point? I guess injuries have something to do with it and also the fact that you always have the self-imposed exigency of wanting to look for the best… This way, things get complicated for oneself. All year long I have spoken honestly on what has happened to me, my feelings, but without any drama. In the end, after all that has happened in this 2015, I am number five in the world and that, obviously, cannot be bad.

Q. At some occasion you have spoken of the acceptance of failure. Was it harder than usual for you to accept failure this year?

A. I have normally accepted my failures. This year, rather than not accepting my errors it has been a mental issue. When you have a mental problem, you are in a worse position to accept the situations; in reality it is not that I do not accept them or do it in a bad mood, but simply that I cannot analyze them well and clearly. It was not that I did not accept the failures, but each failure harmed me a lot; this year, each error has made me fail three times more. The errors, mentally, have generated a bigger lack of confidence than they usually did.

Q. With you, the problem may have been due to the fact that, for years, the extraordinary has been standardized. Could that be right?

A. Maybe for you, the journalists, but not for me. I have always had it very clear how difficult is everything I have been achieving and I have always appreciated it greatly. There comes a time when certain victories become a routine, normality, but it is not a good feeling because ultimately all victories are important. The fact of going through a bad time makes you feel that all the victories that come after it become more important again and you are happier with each one of them, however small. In this case, I am happy with how things have gone and how I finished the year. The only thing I am looking forward to is going on working, because I have great motivation and because now my feelings are very good.

Q. Did you stop believing in yourself at some point?

A. But what is to stop believing in yourself?

Q. Losing confidence in yourself and in what you do.

A. Well, everybody stops believing in oneself momentarily. These are clichés, but the reality is that everyone has doubts and when things do not turn out as you want, you clearly stop believing in yourself and lack confidence, of course! You ask yourself: will I ever play well again? It is a posibility; however, I have always had confidence that at one time or another I would be able to play at my best level. I was aware that my problem was more a mental block than a tennis issue. The problem is that it is impossible to develop your tennis with a mental block. And yet, despite all the problems, despite everything, I have been competing and overcoming small barriers, winning matches. Well, I have kept going. In a year that has been difficult, I finished the fifth in the world. What happens is that 20 years ago, being the fifth in the world in Spain was something fantastic and today it is very little. Okay. In the end, it is 11 years in a row finishing in the top five, I do not know if anyone had done this until today… So, it is something important. In a bad year, it is important to have the motivation to appreciate the small things. I did not let it go at any time.

Q. Have people been fair to you?

A. Fair or not fair… Justice is relative, depending on if we analyze it from your point of view or from mine. I do not like that word. It is what it is, it has been what it has been and when it was good it has been for being too good and when it was bad it has not been for being too bad, right? I feel very well treated by my country, I feel loved. I accept the criticism, provided it is done with respect, obviously. I accept well the professional criticism; however, the personal criticism, if any, I accept it less, because I usually have a proper behavior on and off the court. I do not know if there has been or not because I do not read it… I acknowledge it when I play badly and I am the first to say it. I accept the criticism, professional and personal as well, as long as I have done something wrong.

Q. Well, Manuel Pezzi, Socialist spokesman, said that you seemed more interested in announcing underpants than playing the Davis Cup with Spain.

A. No problem. In the end, everyone is free to have their opinions, but always with respect. Everyone according to their understanding. No need to answer certain kind of things, because ultimately I try to treat people with respect and expect the same from others.

Q. In the tougher moments, have you noticed more or less support from fans and your family and friends?

A. Generally I feel the support and love of the people. I am quite a family person, my friends are lifelong friends and I have peers worldwide. I really do not expect more than what we have, fellowship and a good relationship. I know who are my friends and my family; out of this, I have a very clear idea of what interests people about me. It is not Rafa Nadal, the person. The interest on you is because of what you do, not for being Rafa Nadal, citizen from Manacor; it is for being Rafa Nadal, the tennis player, world number “x”. I have it very clear why they want to see me or why they are interested in me. It is because of what I have done and what I have represented over the years, not because I, Rafael Nadal, am a special person. I am special on court, but off court I am a citizen more, as anyone.

Beth Wilson

Photo by Beth Wilson

Q. Have you ever become tired of being Rafael Nadal?

A. Everyone gets tired of themselves some time. Surely you get tired of your work sometimes, so do I of mine, of the things it involves. What happens is that, even though I may get momentarily tired of it, it does not stop me from doing what I think I have to do, which is to devote time to the people who care for me, who help me and support me. I am extremely aware that I am very privileged for everything that happens to me, for everything that I have and everything that has happened to me.

Q. After losing at Wimbledon, you said that the next two years would be important when it comes to making decisions. To what extent are they decisive?

A. I do not know. At that time, I think I said that if I continued like that, with the anxiety I had, I would eventually stop enjoying. When you play with anxiety or no joy, you should not be around without enjoying what you do. What happens is not a matter of [tennis] level, but purely a matter of happiness. Results affect you, but what really affects you is whether you are happy with what you do and tennis still makes me happy.

Q. You have already been on tour for many years. Does everything around you still fulfill you?

A. Our life is monotonous, but yes. Traveling takes me less effort now than eight years ago. When I am in Mallorca, it is hard to leave, but this has always happened to me, and also now that I am 29. I used to have the need to go home between tournaments, and now I have learned to enjoy and find spaces to have fun within the work that I have, between tournaments and tours. There were times in the past that I would have gone straight back home and now, because of time zones and such, I take life a little bit easier.

Q. If tomorrow you have children, would you like them to be athletes?

A. The sport is usually a good traveling companion. Its values are the right ones: effort, daily work, and spirit of excellence. Not in all the sports, but in some of them, the respect for others is something you always find. I am passionate about sports. I do not know what will happen in the future, but if I have children, of course I would like them to grow through the sport! Whether they will be professionals will depend on their qualities and their motivation.

Q. You do not usually lift off the throttle. Does not so much self-imposed exigency wear too much?

A. People should be demanding with themselves. I do not think anyone is in a position to demand from others. I do not do it with anyone. I demand first myself and then begin to demand from others. When you do all you can, you are not required to do more. For example, I follow soccer, and if I see that the team I support makes a mess, but the players have done everything they can, you cannot tell them anything. It is logical that people are demanding, but it is important to be more self-critical and less critical of others.

Q. In 2015, you have not had any notable injury. How are you? How do you face 2016 in this regard?

A. I am working harder than ever, but above all on court, because my body is allowing me to do it. For me, physically, this has been a very important year, because I have not had injuries and have been able to compete whenever I wanted, with little discomfort. I’m in a very good form at the moment.

Q. By the way, there have been people who ask you to change your coach, those who say that with another coach you would win more majors. But you, with Toni until the end?

A. No, no, no. With Toni until the end, no. First, until Toni wants, and then, while both of us are happy with each other. I have always disagreed with the idea that, as soon as the situation changes, when things start to go badly after a lot of years going very well, some persons have to be blamed for it. People lack self-criticism and are too critical. Not to brag, but I am not one of those. I try to be critical of myself first, therefore in this case the only one to blame for things not having gone well this year is me. I am the only culprit. The others have helped me and have done things just as well as always.

Q. So, no changes?

A. I have another coach who is Francis Roig and I think both together make a good combination. One gives me one thing and the other, another. With Toni I am confident that he knows me better than anyone. We have known each other since I was born and he understands my game better than someone who has not been following me day to day.

Q. This year, Toni and Francis were together in the Asian tour. Is it envisaged that the latter will have more weight from now on?

A. Normally, Francis was always the one coming to Beijing and Shanghai, but this year both came together. They were two very good weeks of work in which we all were very well. May there be more weeks like those. It is really great to work with both of them and I personally liked it very much. There are chances that the formula will be repeated more times from now on.

Q. 2016 is an Olympic year. After not being able to either participate in 2012 or be the Spanish flag bearer, does the Rio appointment generate a special motivation for you?

A. The first thing I have to do is to qualify, get to compete there, because not being able to go there in 2012 was a very tough moment. The experience of the Games is special, so yes, of course: I am very excited about getting back in the Games.

9 Responses

  1. miri says:

    Thanks for the hard work on the translation, Genny!

  2. JayDee50 says:

    Thank you so much Genny for the translation. I always love to read Rafa’s own words, much more meaningful than any journalist-written article. Such a wise young man, with a good head on his shoulders and both feet firmly on the ground, accepting calmly what happened, working to find the solution, and appreciating all the positives along the way instead of wallowing in the negatives. So much to admire about this extraordinary young man, in my eyes anyway. Here’s hoping to a much better 2016 for Rafa, injury-free and full of confidence.

  3. Francine says:

    Thanks Genny!
    Great interview and as JayDee — one cannot help but admire Rafa.

  4. TennisMenace says:

    Many thanks Genny, your effort is very much apreciated. Happy new year.

  5. Lizipsa says:

    Thanks Genny. He deserves to have a brilliant year, I so hope he does.

  6. selene says:

    Thank you Genny for your generousity in sharing Rafa’s words with us. Always surprised at the eloquence and humility that shines in Rafa’s perspective of himself, his challenges and tennis in general.
    I am hoping that Rafa will be able to play with joy in 2016 because that it what he has given to so many of us.

  7. Aero says:

    Always nice to hear it from the horse’s mouth! Nice interview and thanks for the translation. Read a short but positive article yesterday. Uncle Toni is generally quite reserved when it comes to publicly praising Rafa, so his comments in this interview were pleasant to read.

  8. Once again, thanks so much, Genny!!

    What a wonderful world this would be if everyone were like Rafa, stern with himself, kind and gentle with others. I try, but I fear I’m more the other way round. :(

  9. jodiecate says:

    Awwww… and tennis still making Rafa happy still makes me happy – it’s working for all of us. Cheers Genny for that one!