Highlights of the interview (in English)
“I have no fear of my expiration date”
By Rafael Plaza as translated by @genny_ss
On Wednesday at noon, many players are marching through the heart of the majestic Crown Hotel on the banks of the Yarra River. It is a dance of rackets throughout the floors of the famous towers, where many of the players competing in the Australia Open are staying.
Rafael Nadal (Mallorca, Spain, 1986) is no longer with them, after being eliminated in the first round against Fernando Verdasco, his second defeat in the first round of a major (he lost at Wimbledon 2013 against the Belgian Darcis). Before taking a plane to return to Mallorca, the champion of 14 majors talks to “EL ESPAÑOL” to give a detailed analysis of the challenge he is facing in a season that has seen him stumble on the first major event of the calendar.
How are you doing?
It is a tough loss. When you go on court to compete you know that you can win and you can lose. This is something that I have always embraced throughout my career. But I had trained well and had trained a lot, too. For quite some time now, I have been training much more than I used to because my physical condition is allowing me to do it. When you have worked hard, feeling that you have done all the right things, and [then] the match goes wrong…
I know I have been doing things in the right way. The work is well done. Tuesday’s defeat does not change the reality: I am alright and I hope to stay that way from now on. Yes, I had lost to Djokovic in the final in Qatar, but I am on the right track. I will try to go on along a similar line, trying to leave the match with Verdasco behind. It is a tough defeat at this time, but in a few weeks I am going to be competing again. I have to keep the line of work to be ready.
For some months now, you have been trying new things during practice, why do not you compete as you train?
Yesterday (Tuesday) I could not do it. To begin with, globally, it was a nasty first round. I knew I was facing a player who was being very inconsistent, with results that are well below his actual level. But on a given day, in a match like this one that can motivate him, he is dangerous.
In any case, there are no excuses. I failed to take advantage of what I should and when the match gets messy, it is impossible to fix. The match is at the limit at that time. I could have won in the fourth set. I think I did the right thing to do it, but he had an adrenaline rush that lasted until the fifth set. Nothing to say there. Could I have served better? Yes, but Verdasco’s adrenaline was very high. The fifth set is not the problem, the problem took place much earlier.
You say that confidence is playing without thinking. How is your confidence?
It was OK. It is a Grand Slam and it is painful, obviously, but I cannot deny reality. Neither a victory nor a defeat can make you lose the true perspective. Last year’s victory in Buenos Aires did not remove my feeling of being playing pretty badly, neither did the win in Hamburg, even if it was an important victory. I had been with bad feelings for months.
The loss to Verdasco cannot take away my current perspective: since Beijing, I have been playing at a fairly high level. From there on, my results at complicated tournaments are final, semifinal, final, quarterfinal and semifinal. And 2016 had begun with another final in Doha. In recent months, my consistency has been high and with the [tennis] level I was hoping for. This defeat is a break in this positive evolution, which I have to assume. I accept it, I assume it and try to retake the line I was following.
Do not you fear that the philosophy of work may be insufficient to fix the problems you have?
And what do I do? Is there any other way? [As Picasso’s famous sentence goes] When inspiration comes, it has to find you working. My way of understanding life, not only the sport, is that things cannot go well without hard work. And above all, without a job well done. We can look for many things, but the sport is usually pretty simple. We can make up stories and write whatever we want, but the reality is that I lost a match that I was close to winning. Perhaps the normal thing would have been to have won today and be in the second round, looking ahead and thinking that I am playing well, ready to do a very good tournament.
The experts ensure that your forehand is not the same as before, that it has lost the characteristic topspin that unhinged your rivals.
It is so. Against Verdasco, it did not have it, for example. There are different factors causing this. The balls have changed a bit and are now hollower. The balls are less lively. A few years ago, the ball came out very fast off the racket and nowadays they stay longer on the strings. The rivals who hit the ball flatter feel the error less with these balls. And this favors playing in a ‘going for broke’ way. With the other balls, it was more complicated because you felt that when it came with top spin it was difficult to hit it because the ball was going away from the strings fast.
Things have changed.
Things have changed and I have tried to adapt to the change. I am not playing with as much effect as before, I am playing in a slightly different way. The evolution was being positive, but against Verdasco I did not have the control of the timing to hit the ball where I wanted. There is nothing more. I did not have the right position on court to take command of the match. I could have played deeper, I could have made him hit from more complicated positions, and I could not do it.
Does what the old Nadal did no longer work?
Currently, tennis is played in a faster way. Before there was more time to prepare the points. The same game of today, with my version of eight or nine years ago… I sincerely believe that I would still be at the very top.
It seems difficult for a 29 year-old player to be able to accept certain changes in his game after a lifetime of doing the same.
They are not radical changes, let us not get crazy. I try to adjust to what my coaches think I have to do to continue to keep having chances of being at the top. Changes are always minimal. You cannot make drastic changes, neither being 23 nor 29 years old. You cannot go against your style of play. You can modify and make small changes, but you cannot go against your head and your way of understanding the sport.
As you have often defended, matches are not won with the head. But can they be lost?
Of course there are matches that are lost with the head. There are also matches that are won, obviously. What you do not do is to win 14 majors with your head. The only way to win is to have shots that allow you to do so. When you are facing players of the highest level and you are on the edge, the head has an impact. When you are not alright mentally, you lose matches and I showed it so last year.
Your opponents have recognized that very often they were going on court with the score against them, impressed by your ability to intimidate. Have you lost that mental plus?
The capability to command respect is something that comes with victories and their consistency. Last year, with the results and the defeats I had against rivals I should not have lost, it is logical that people think they can beat me. And when you believe in it, it is more likely to happen.
In the end, it appears to be true that winning is more draining than losing.
Was that what happened to you in 2015?
No way. In 2015, I paid the toll for having the feeling of having wasted time. 2014 was a difficult year for me in this regard. I was very well prepared and I injured my back in the Australia Open final. It took me some time to get over it and when I had done it, I broke my wrist in summer. At that time, I felt I had again missed opportunities. And somehow that is how my career has been. I am fortunate to have taken advantage of the many opportunities I have had, but it is also true that, because of physical issues, I have had fewer opportunities than all my rivals.
What is success?
Success is very relative. A person can be successful externally, which is succeeding in life from a superficial point of view. The actual success lies in the personal happiness. If you are able to have a lot of money, if you get to be number one in whatever you have set your mind to, but you are really not happy in your personal life… you will have succeeded in one thing, but probably you will not in what really matters. Success is being happy. And in order to be happy you need to have the people you love by your side, people who also loves you. Leading a stable and logical life. In the long run, the illogical things often lead to unhappiness.
The meaning of having talent is a diffuse concept. Could you explain it?
Talent is something that people confuse. Talent is not playing beautifully or hitting the ball very hard. One will have talent to play beautifully, another to not miss any ball, another one to make a very good slice backhand and another to run very well. In tennis, and in any sport, the ultimate goal is to win. The summary is clear: the one winning more is the one with more talent.
I do not care if you learn one thing in 15 minutes while it takes me three hours. If I am able to train for four hours and you can only do it for 15 minutes, you will have learned in 15 minutes, but I will have been training for four hours. That is having talent. Why? Because my head has the talent to go on being given opportunities, to continue working and accepting failures to improve. There are many ways to understand talent, but the bottom line is that talent is getting to win more. I do not care if it is done in a pretty or an ugly way, whichever way you want. Talented is whoever gets to do a particular activity better.
What do you think about the uproar caused by the investigation of possible cases of match-fixing?
I will be totally honest, speaking from my point of view, which is ignorance. In the ATP Tour, I have not felt that it ever happens, or I have not seen it, nobody has ever contacted me, and I have no information that this is indeed happening. I hear that in the lower tournaments, such as Futures and Challengers, there are in fact people who do it. I hear about it, but I do not know it. Neither I have lived it, nor I know it, nor I have seen it. Talking about things you do not know is difficult.
People who have investigated all that, to whom I am not criticizing or accusing or agreeing with them, have to give the actual names. You cannot say Grand Slam champions and that is it. What are we talking about? Singles? Women? Doubles? Mixed doubles? This is the first thing to do. And then, in the last ten years there have been six or seven Grand Slam winners. I will say it clearly: in our tour is impossible for any Grand Slam winner to have rigged a match. Now, if people fix matches in Challengers, Futures or on the professional tour, which I do not see it even though I’m competing every week, the solution is that the ATP chases and sanctions them as is due. That is what I expect and wish. As clear as that.
You cannot live cheating in any way. There have to be as many controls as possible so that it does not happen and the crowd, the other players or people in general are not deceived. The only thing you can do is to set up drastic measures to prevent this from happening. From the inside, I have been years thinking that the ATP is doing it. I would like the people who have carried out the investigation to provide the names. Same as when the doping cases are investigated, I would also like those names to appear. With names, there are indeed culprits. Without names, it is a shot in the air that hurts the sport, which seems unfair to me. But people who cheat must pay, be it in match-fixing, doping or anything else. They must pay and be banned because it is what has to be done.
Are you prepared to endure more years without winning big titles? As happened last year, for example.
I do not even think of it. I have just started a new year, we cannot make a drama of the loss to Verdasco. I am coming from having three good months, months where I have been able to compete for tournaments. The only one I have not competed with for winning has been Djokovic, with the rest I did it, yes. I find myself able to compete and I think I am going to do it. I am confident to be able to have a good year.
Does not Nadal get bored of Nadal?
I like what I do. I am happy and feel lucky. I know that what I do is not for life, it has an expiration date, which I do not know when it is. That is why I try to make the most of it. I want these remaining years around here to be productive, but especially productive on a personal level. The way to feel that satisfaction is to do what I can, so that things go as best as possible.
Does the time of your retirement frighten you?
No, not at all. Tennis is a part of my life, a very important part for many years, but I am lucky to have a life that is much more than tennis. I have no fear of what is to come after. I am a person with many interests and hobbies. There are things that motivate me beyond this sport, that make me happy. I have no fear of my expiration date, but that does not prevent me from liking what I do. Therefore, I will try that my expiration date is as latest as possible.
Do you think about how that moment will be?
I am competing to be at the top of the ranking, not to think about when my expiration date will be. I do not think about it. I live my day to day, live the moment. I cannot predict the future. I do not know how or when it will be. Now I know that I am going back home because things have not gone well in Melbourne and have to get ready to play on clay.
Did it ever cross your mind to give up, to say enough is enough, this is how far we have come, I am going to do something else?
If I am not happy with what I do, I will. I do not have to prove anything. I know what I have done and I know what makes me happy. As of today, this makes me happy. And I will keep doing it as long as it makes me happy. If being the 5th, the 10th or the 100th in the world I am happy, I will continue. If being number one in the world I am not happy, it will be time to say goodbye and I will do something else. Thank God, and that is why I am a very lucky, I have the ability to decide because things have gone very well in my life.