Translation of this Équipe online piece.
Rome was a very important week for you. How much relief did you feel about rediscovering that level of game?
-More than relief, it was the result of very hard work and my confidence in the ongoing process. It’s difficult sometimes in recent times to have a broad perspective. There were days, especially in the last twelve months, where I felt unmotivated because of the injury and the challenges that awaited me. But that’s life! There are days where you just have to grit your teeth and gather all your strength to keep on your path, and others where everything is perfect. It was especially important for me to establish day-to-day goals, to reach my long term goals.. I mean what I had to do with my body and my spirit, improve my game, my conditioning and my mental state to reach the level I wanted. My trajectory has always been rising since I turned pro. I’d never missed a single Grand Slam [before the 2017 US Open]. The last six months of 2017 were very strange for me. Not playing, watching matches on the TV, restarting my training and feeling pain again, it was really a challenge for me. I had to accept it. Those are situations that make you stronger. It was good getting rewarded in Rome after all that I’d been through. It was certainly the best tournament I’ve played in the last year in terms of quality of play. Since the last grass season, in fact.
What are the biggest areas you need to improve? Physically, you seem to be far from how you were a few years ago …
I don’t think it’s the physical. The mental is the most important. I still love the sport. I’m still playing because I still feel the desire. If I didn’t, believe me, I wouldn’t be playing. Being loyal to my character and to my values, never letting anyone influence me and my decisions have always been important to me. I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my career that have made me proud. I could stop my career tomorrow and be satisfied with my record, but I’m not motivated only by winning. I don’t play just to win titles and be world number one. Obviously I would like that! But if I play, it’s because tennis is a great platform to have an influence, especially on children. That’s my objective. All great athletes have the chance to make an impact because of their popularity and successes. I can talk to the media every day. It’s a privilege, even if there are days when I don’t feel like talking to them [smiles]. It’s how I can get my message out: by going on court, by doing what I love, by working, by devotion and fight.
Were you in despair after Indian Wells and Miami, where you were just a shadow of yourself? And how did you overcome that dark period?
I didn’t despair, but I didn’t feel good mentally after Miami, that’s true. Losing in the first round at Miami and Indian Wells, that’s never happened to me before [five wins in Indian Wells and 6 in Miami]. I’ve always loved playing there. So it was a big shock for me, to be honest, not because I of the losses, but because of the way I played. But, after two or three days, I realised that I wasn’t sufficiently prepared. I wasn’t ready physically, at playing level and mentally. I’d had an operation four or five weeks before. I came back too quickly. The doctors did a good job, but no one advised me to come back at Indian Wells. They all told me to wait until Miami or the clay season. I insisted because I wanted to play. I skipped the last six months of 2017 because of my elbow. I took six months to recuperate. I wasn’t operated on because no one told me I should. I started to play again and the pain came back. It was so frustrating! So, I got an operation. I asked myself: “What’s happening? Should I cut out now?” And I was impatient. I know it. I wouldn’t say it was my fault. I thought at the time that it was the right decision. I don’t regret it because I know there was a reason for me playing there, to learn a lesson: be more patient and to deal differently next time. It was serious with my elbow. That sort of operation doesn’t only affect the elbow, but the whole body, my game, my confidence. Everything! When you start to overthink during a match, it’s not good. Everything should be automatic. You don’t have time to reflect at this level. You need to be reactive and play. I started to overthink. “Why am I serving like that? Is it the right racquet? My technique? Am I ready physically? Do I need to change my team?” A million things were happening and I wasn’t mentally lucid enough to face them. It’s different now. I’m starting Roland Garros in in a different mental frame, more positive. I’m more comfortable with my game. I know I can still improve it, it’s not at the level I want, but we get there softly.
Between your title here in 2016 and today, did you have periods when you lost your motivation?
Of course. Quite a few times. I’m like everyone. A lot of champions in a lot of sports ask themselves if they should keep going. And if yes, how? For how long? The balance between family life and professional life? But that’s life! You change as a person, you evolve. Today, I can’t concentrate only on myself and my career. I have two kids and they’re the most important part of my life. Without the slightest doubt. It’s taken me some time to find the right balance: how do you do it? It’s become clearer in the last two months. Before, I had highs and lows. It’s the burden of every athlete on the planet. At bottom, I try to remember to be aware. I play this sport I love and I play it at the highest possible level. There are people on this earth who live in conditions where they have no chance to live their dreams. They weren’t born in the right place, But they’re talented. I know, I come from a country that’s known two wars twenty years ago. All that humbles me. I wouldn’t exchange my life for anyone else’s. I’m just trying to grow.
Why did you chose to recall Marian Vajda to your side? Why at this precise moment? How is he different from other coaches?
[He thinks] I can answer those questions with three words: Simplicity. Clarity. Loyalty. Marian knows who I am, both as a person and as a player. Ten years of working together … When I realised I needed someone to who could help me simplify things, to be very clear about my priorities, Marian was the best possible choice. We share the same dreams. He’s much more than a coach. He’s a friend. He’s shared with me the most extreme experiences on a daily basis. He masters situations. He believes in me. He trusts in me and it’s reciprocal. He’s a man who has values, one of the most positive people I’ve ever met.
That’s far beyond just training sessions.
Has he changed the content of your training sessions?
There are always technical details to fix whatever shot we work on. One day, your backhand is impeccable, the next not at all. That’s what practice is for: to maintain a certain level and to feel good on the court. With Marian, we started by going back to basics, to understand well the fundamentals of my game, concentrating on my strong points to bring them back up to the surface. I’ve done it before. We just have to be patient. It takes time to build the body, be confident, be competitive. Marian knows that. I find myself very at ease with him.
Getting back to your elbow problems – in Miami especially, everyone was shocked because they didn’t recognise your backhand any more, your forehand …
Me neither, I didn’t recognise them! [Laughs]
Do you feel better now every day?
Actually, it depends on the day. But on the whole, it’s much better today than it was in Miami, for example. I grew up on clay. I love this surface. I’ve had my best results on hard courts, but Roland Garros is a special place for me. And not only because of my title in 2016. I’ve always had good results here. I can’t even remember when I’ve lost before the second week! [In 2009 when he lost in the 3rd round to Philip Kohlschreiber). The crowd is behind me here. I hope all that all that energy will help me get to the level I want.
What would be a good Roland Garros for you?
I try not to have special expectations. those expectations have been a burden for me for the last five or six months. I know the level I can play at. That’s why the matches in Indian Wells, Miami or Barcelona made things difficult. I didn’t understand it. I started to think about it every single day, to try and improve to reach 100% of what I could do. But, in that regard, I don’t come to a tournament just to participate. I come to win. I hope that my game will fall into place and improve in every round. I hope to put myself in a position to lift the trophy.
Translated by MAN