Toni Nadal before Roland-Garros: “Today’s young players lack commitment.” From l’Équipe by @djub22

Translation of this piece by Julien Reboullet in l’Équipe, May 24, 2019.

It’s mid-April in Monte Carlo. Toni Nadal is here all week with family to follow his nephew’s tournament (he’ll lose in the semi finals to Fabio Fognini) and to promote the tennis academy he runs in Manacor. He’s agreed to share some of his observations on the current tennis scene and on his very famous ex-pupil. Asked about who would win an imaginary match between the Nadal of 2005 (the year of his first French Open) and the Nadal of 2019, had fun answering, “the Rafael of that time had more power , but today’s Rafael plays well too. In 2008 and 2010, what he produced was pretty incredible. But the past one against today’s? Frankly, I can’t answer that,” and ends laughing, “It’s better that he faces someone else.”

Nadal and post-injury recovery

— I think Rafael has a very good head on his shoulders, because every time he’s had problems, he’s come back almost as if nothing had happened. It’s happened very often during his long career, so it’s pretty anchored in him. When he doesn’t manage to come back from these forced absences, it would simply mean that it’s the end, but, for now he comes back every time, and there’s nothing to indicate I should think differently. So, unless something else happens, I tell myself that it will be the same this time again, and he’ll rediscover his best level. Could it happen that he could only play on clay for the final seasons of his career to save his body? No, I really don’t think so. I think he’s totally committed to tennis and that’s why he won’t be content with playing where it’s best for him. He’ll play everywhere, right to the end.

Nadal and the lost final in Melbourne

— The Djokovic that I saw in the Australian Open final was really good. I remember telling myself while I was in front of my TV, form the first game: “Wow. This is going to be tough.” But I also think that Rafael didn’t produce his best tennis during the match. And I especially think that he wasn’t good tactically. When Djokovic plays very well, you can’t try and play the way he does. It’s like when a football team plays FC Barcelona at its best: you MUST NOT play like they do. If you do, you lose. Rafael had played well the whole tournament. He played quickly, which was good against those opponents. When I saw him again back in Manacor, I told him it was perhaps a shame that he didn’t use a Plan B, maybe by serving less hard, hitting more (he doesn’t finish the sentence, but mimes a curved trajectory) … But OK, Djokovic was very strong in any case.

— It always surprises me when Djokovic has difficulties because I find him to be such an incredible player. In Miami, in March, when he lost to Bautista-Agut (in the round of 16 (1-6, 7-5, 6-3), he almost won the first set 6-0, then almost got the break in the second set. Up til then, he was huge. But after that, everything changed, and I really don’t know what happened to him. It doesn’t hinder that with Roland-Garros in sight, I still think that it’s Djokovic who’s most dangerous when he’s playing well.

The Spanish tennis succession

— What we’ve had and have for years and years in Spain isn’t ‘normal’. The little Carlos Alcaraz (16), I’ve seen him play twice, once at our Academy, and I said right away he’ll be in the top 10. He does everything very well, and I think he could become a good champion. It’s a very good thing for Spain. But, careful, he’s sixteen and he needs to improve every day. If he does that, yes, he’ll be very strong. After all, you don’t need to be very strong very early to become good. Look at the Italian Lorenzo Sonego, who only started playing tennis at eleven. I do a lot of business conferences in Spain and I often say the same thing: if a person WANTS to be good at something, why not? If you start at eleven, you have to work a bit more than those who start at five, but you can become very good nevertheless. I think someone like Ilie Nastase started late, especially in international competition [he couldn’t get out from behind the Iron Curtain until he was 20], and he still became world number one, right?

Talent, a volatile concept

— We often talk about a person’t talent but, in my opinion, there’s a special talent that’s more important than all of the others: the ability to improve. Lionel Messi was incredibly good when he was young, but, if he hadn’t improved day after day, he wouldn’t be the Messi of today. That also applies to a Federer, for sure. To a Rafael, to a Djokovic. It’s a comparison that’s often been made, I know, but at fifteen, Gasquet and Nadal were on the same level. Why the difference in career trajectory later on? Because Rafael maybe has a superior ability to improve, and, in turn, that also depends on what they REALLY want to do.

Young players: work to do

— The new generation needs to reach a top level, or Federer will still be playing finals at 45 [laughs]. What’s abnormal is that the youth aren’t ensuring a succession. But it’s not just tennis. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still there, I’ll try and say what I want to say tactfully: perhaps the young players lack some commitment towards their sport and careers. I think they could be a bit more dedicated. They’re very good, Shapovalov, Zverev, Tsitsipas etc. But I sometimes get the impression that, when they’re winning, everything’s good, and when they play badly, they don’t do all they can to try and change something. Turn it around and look at Djokovic, Federer or Rafael. When it’s going well, they play well, and when it’s going badly, they’re not playing badly, and they still win. They find some way or other to get there. I saw Rafael against three young players in Australia in January (De Minaur, Tiafoe, Tsitsipas) and I didn’t see them try and change anything. When Rafael was seventeen against Hewitt (Australian Open 3rd round 2004), he was present all the time, and he tried to win one way or another. He lost (7-6, 7-6, 6-2) but he tried. Still, some of the young players behave very seriously, very consistently, like Borna Coric or Jaume Munar (both 22). I tell the students at Manacor that they need to watch Munar.

Tennis headaches

— Tennis has changed a bit the last few years. In France and Spain, historically, we practise and teach a form of tennis where it isn’t just about hitting the ball. There’s also an element of thought attached, an attempt to create, hit a ball here, a ball there. It’s stayed more or less the same game on clay as before, but in general, the game is taking the route of ‘no-thought’. Roughly, it’s: “I hit it. If it goes out, too bad, and if it’s in, that’s better.” This absence of tactics, maybe it’s what America likes, but it’s not what I like.

The modern disease of frustration

— I have the impression that today, frustration takes over players more quickly than before. And it’s not just in tennis, but a lot of other areas in society. I think we’re too used to only saying nice things to everyone: “You’re very good”, but the truth is often different, even the opposite. At the Academy, when kids are upset because the ball goes out, I tell them: “What’s the problem? It goes out because you weren’t very good.” Why did Rafael lose to Novak in the final in Melbourne? You don’t need to look very far, he lost because his opponent was better. Rafael didn’t play well, but he didn’t say a word when the score was getting away from him. Behind two sets to love and 4-2, he wins a point and clenches his fist. He doesn’t talk to his team in the box. You need to learn that sort of attitude, that’s what I tell the kids. But when they’re back on court, they’ve already forgotten. We all think we’re better than we really are, and I’m the first. If you think you’re too good, you want everything right away. But if you think you’re not as good as all that, then you tell yourself you need to learn, do, redo, and redo again. And it makes all the difference. Reality is essential, dreams too. It’s the most important thing is to try and improve.

Translated by MAN

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Rafael Nadal: “Very proud of my longevity.” Interviewed by Vincent Cognet of l’Équipe, who asks questions from all directions.

Translated from the print edition of l’Équipe, May 27, 2018, pages 30-31

Relaxed during his Roman week, the Spaniard plays the question game, which come from all angles, some anecdotal, some serious, about him, his life as a champion and his attitude towards tennis.

Rome ten days ago. Rafael Nadal leaves victorious his match against Fabio Fognini. After the presser and food, he plays a game of Parchis (a Spanish board game), then decides to do the interview in the garden annexed to the players’ room. In a comfortable mood, Nadal will nevertheless answer with priceless seriousness.

From the beginning, what made you happiest about tennis?

The competition. In tennis, it’s very intense because it’s every day. and it’s face-to-face. I always loved competition whether it’s sports or games.

So it’s nothing to do with the racquet or the balls?

[Smiles] Seriously, I don’t remember that well.

Many players mention the importance of feeling with a racquet in hand. How do you experience it?

I’m like any other player. I found a simple solution: you need to be positive and play with the right attitude, even when the feeling isn’t there. What’s important is to forget the frustration and accept the situation.

As a kid, did you play pretending to be someone else?

[Firmly] No. I loved training, I loved spending hours and hours at the club. When I was a kid, I could spend entire days at the club playing tennis or something else.

<Did you learn watching others?

Of course. In life, it’s easier to copy than invent. I observe others and try and understand what they do well. It’s not possible to give a specific example because it’s not about copying someone. It’s more seizing the idea the player has in his head and adapting it to your own style. It’s more about positioning, ways of moving and placement in relation to the ball. I’ve watched hundreds or thousands of videos of other players on You Tube to try and seize ideas.

<Even the black and white ones of old players?

Yes, but not for that. If I want to see something specific, I choose present day players.

Who were your idols when you were a kid?

[Thinks] Tough to say. I grew up with Sampras and Agassi. Later, I was close to Carlos Moya [his coach].

Were you for Sampras or for Agassi?

Neither of them. I liked the rivalry.

Does the history of the game interest you?

Of course. It’s very important. It’s the old players who created the values of this game.

Can you watch a match just as a spectator?

Yes. But we know each other so well as players that we understand very quickly what’s happening on the court. Even if we’re not doing a real analysis, it’s impossible to watch a match as an ordinary spectator.

Do you glance at others’ practices?

[Amused] No. Never.

Because you find it boring …

No. When I’ve finished my time I need to do my recovery, my treatments etc. I’m not saying I don’t glance at the court next to me, but never more than five minutes.

Do you watch tennis sometimes late into the night?

Normally, no. Unless there’s a very special reason. Sometimes I’ll watch golf and that can finish sometimes past midnight.

It’s never bothered you the next day?

No! I can sleep five or six hours if I have nothing special on the next day. It’s not the same as going out and drinking a few. If you only sleep five hours after that, it’s not enough. But if I’m watching the TV, relaxing on my sofa, no problem. If I’m there, it’s because I appreciate what I’m doing. So it’s OK.

Do you agree with the commentators when you watch tennis on TV?

[Exhales] Not always. I know it’s a difficult job. I know they have to commentate quite a few matches during a day. It doesn’t shock me if they wander a bit during the match. Honestly, there are some matches that aren’t fascinating. [Amused] But it’s true I don’t always agree with what’s said about the match! What annoys me the most is when spectators show a lack of respect for the players. But that’s it.

Do you understand the existing debate about tennis’ format and the needs of TV?

It’s very complicated. The ideal solution will never exist. But I think it’s important to respect the history of this sport. And to know it very well. It’s tradition that helps our sport to become even bigger. Besides that, I realise that there must be innovation. What could be done is try the innovations at small tournaments. But don’t touch the big tournaments. There can’t be changes that are too drastic. Move forward in small steps. We can’t get rid of five set matches at Slams. They’re what create the dramas and the most exciting matches. Even if they’re not perfect for the TV, they’re terrific for the spectators. All the emotions, all the passion, come from those matches. If we touch them, tennis will lose a lot. The most important matches in tennis history have been played in five sets.

Are you interested in statistics or records?

Yes, but not crazily. Sure, I know that our generation have broken a lot of records, and that makes me happy.

Are you a stats nut?

Not really. I like checking some things, but … Carlos [Moya], on the other hand, loves them and it’s interesting talking with him after my matches. They can help some things, like court positioning etc. But I’m not going to lose my day reading numbers.

Do you know any stats about you that are less well known to the general public?

Absolutely not. When I beat a record, it’s often you, the journalists, who tell me. The best example is my fifty straight sets won on clay. I only found out about it during it.

Beating records helps motivation?

[Hesitates] It depends. But my real motivation is going out on court every day and playing in the biggest stadiums in the world in front of thousands of spectators. Playing in a stadium filled to bursting with passionate spectators, that’s really a very special feeling.

When we think deeply about it, twelve years between your first major and the last, isn’t that a bigger thing than the sixteen titles?

I’m very proud of my longevity. [A bit mockingly]. Especially because they didn’t stop telling me during my career that I wouldn’t last long as a player because of my playing style. I ended up believing it! I’m very happy to still be competitive at 32. Because it says a lot. It means showing that you can keep the same mentality and the same passion for a very long time.

Would you have been able to share your life with a woman who knew nothing about tennis?

My partner loves tennis. She loved it before we met. But I could very well have lived with a woman who knew nothing about tennis [laughs]. I haven’t tried, but there wouldn’t be a problem. My partner and I talk very little about tennis.

Do you sometimes talk tennis with people who know nothing about it?

[Amused] I can. If they don’t pretend to know, no problem. If the opposite’s the case, I let them talk!

What would you change in the way the tour operates?

I favour a two year ranking and not fifty-two weeks. It’s the best way to protect players in case of injury. I’ve thought that for years, but it’s even more important at the end of a career.

And in the rules of tennis?*

I don’t know how, but attention needs to be paid to the serve and to power in general. The players are bigger and bigger and it’s getting faster and faster. If we don’t find a solution to the serve, then tennis will reach a point where it’s summed up by that shot. In ten years, tennis could be in danger.

Are you for or against cutting out one of the serves?

Why not? We can’t say it’s stupid. We can only try it out. I’m in favour of innovations. Why not try it at small tournaments? I don’t know … But we could at least consider it.

Do you sometimes play tennis on the Play Station?

Never. Even when I was a kid. I play football on the Play Station. Tennis, I play that all day.

In your opinion, what players have contributed the most to the game?

I can’t answer that question. To answer it, I’d have to have lived in the different eras. It’s an interesting question, but you’d have to ask someone who knows the 1960’s or 1970’s. I know who Rod Laver, Björn Borg or John McEnroe are. But I can’t judge their importance because I wasn’t there.

When you watch old videos on You Tube, who is your favourite player?

Tough to say. I like Ilie Nastase. But I like the tennis of that era because power is less important. There’s more magic. Talent counts for more, tactics too. There was more point construction. That’s what I miss in the tennis of today. Clay is the last surface where you can still construct points. You can still try things. On hard, it’s become almost impossible. It’s too fast.

*Added 21:15

Translated by MAN