Toni Nadal, interviewed in l’Équipe by @djub22, on why he’s worried about the direction modern tennis is taking

From this article online at l’Équipe Julien Reboullet.

Does today’s tennis, the game you see while travelling around the world with your nephew, please you?

–- In general, not very much. I like games of strategy, of skill, not a game for the game’s sake. I like when there’s thought. Thinking a bit, that counts, no?

You think there’s too much hitting?

– In contemporary tennis, we had a long period with a Roger Federer as the best in the world, of course. A fantastic technician. But there’s recently been an evolution towards a very quick game without strategy, where it’s boom boom boom on every point. Today, clay specialists are considered labourers who push the ball back. Then, on the other hand, we have those who just hit shots. But a game that just consists of hitting, that’s baseball!

Isn’t that just an evolution that suits the times?

– I’ve read some books about the civilisation of spectacle. The role of sports in our epoch can’t be compared with its role in Antiquity. Those who attended the Academy (the school of philosophy found by Plato in Athens in the 4th century AD . Ed) understood sports in a very clear manner: physical activity complemented intellectual activity. It developed certain positive aspects of character like effort, discipline, strategy. All that differentiates us from animals, no? Today our sport is moving away from all that.

But why?

– My view is that perhaps the bosses don’t decide who’ll win or be number one, but at least the type of game that will dominate. The rules imposed give direction to the game.

Tennis may have a rule problem?

– The rules of many sports have changed because the size of the athletes has changed, or their power, or their equipment. But I haven’t seen change in tennis. Since the introduction of the tie-break in the 1970’s, I haven’t seen any. The physiques of the players now is nothing like it was twenty years ago. Neither is their equipment. The training intensity is nothing like it was, neither is the professionalism. But the bosses have kept the same difficulties in the game. Which leads to this inconsistency: in what other sport does a point start with a penalty? Because that’s the case in tennis with the serve. The returner looks like a goalkeeper during a series of penalty shots.

But if your nephew Rafael was two metres tall and served at 250 kph, perhaps that would suit you, no?

– Careful! If you think that you’re confusing everything. You’re being personal. What I’m telling you isn’t about Rafael. Whether he’s still playing or isn’t has nothing to do with my way of looking at things. I’m speaking as a spectator who’s thinking about the game in general. Besides, as Rafael’s coach, I don’t want anything to change. He’s won fourteen Slams and has had an extraordinary career with the rules I’m criticising and the evolution I’m regretting. I’m not an idiot! I’m someone who has preferences and isn’t alone.

Which means?

— I’ll put a question to you: which points get the most applause?

The most spectacular ones …

— And? …

In general, the longer rallies …

– Exactly. Do you know which player got the most applause in IPTL matches during its Asian swing last December? Fabrice Santoro! Because he can do everything, a stop volley followed by a lob … everything … Which players do we choose to like: those who can create like him, or a player who just hits everything that moves super hard?

You think that other sports have been better to adapt?

– Obviously. Look how football (soccer) has evolved! At the World Cup in Italy in 1990, what happened? A tonne of matches with very few goals. 1-0 or 1-1 if we were lucky. It was obvious that it was necessary to produce something more entertaining for the spectators. So in the wake of that World Cup, two things were changed: the pass back to the goalkeeper was forbidden and three points for a win – instead of two – were awarded. That changed the quality of the spectacle completely. And who’s the best in football today? The strongest physically? No, the most skilled. Messi, Neymar and others …

You would never go and watch Raonic-Kyrgios, if we follow you properly …

– I’ll go because they’re a part of the present game. But if I weren’t involved in tennis at a high level like I’ve been for more than ten years, it’s certain that I’d would watch a skill player rather than a player who hits. Because I like strategy. In football, a Cristiano? He’s phenomenal, no doubt about that. But I prefer a Messi, or a Xaví, who undoubtedly play with more thought. That’s the way I feel in any case.

After Rafael’s losses to Rosol or Kyrgios at Wimbledon, you let it be understood that their game wasn’t tennis …

– No no no, I never said that. It’s tennis because it’s according to the rules of tennis. I’m saying it’s not a tennis that pleases me, but I didn’t say I was right. I said tennis is getting faster, that hitting winners is getting easier. Like Kyrgios is a super player who could end up number one. Take Zverev, for example. He’s a formidable player with very good control. He’s plays quick and serve hard. Happily, there are still players that control like Djokovic. But I think evolving, adapting is essential in present society. Everything goes so quickly in life. Paying to watch a match without rallies? To me, that’s a poor programme. But I don’t claim to have the absolute truth, heh!

Let’s go back to changes. Toni, what should be changed in tennis?

– There are plenty of things we can change, but we have to choose. To me, we need a change in equipment above all. Before, the racquets had very small heads, which required a much greater mastery of technique. But you need to look at the debate from a larger point of view: what counts is not what I would change, it’s more encompassing. It’s what type of player do we want to watch, what sort of spectacle do we want to offer? And by answering that fundamental question, we can evolve the rules. We criticise the time taken between points, but it’s relative. If that time taken leads to longer rallies rather then 3-4 shot rallies, like the large majority of those we saw at the last Australian Open, who wins by it?

If there were only one serve, for example? …

– I don’t think that would be too radical. We need a more general consideration of the importance of the serve. But, again, I’d prioritise more though about the materials – smaller racquet heads, larger balls or at least less quick, and some other things. The conditions of the game lead to great difficulty in controlling the ball, and I’m including the amateur level there. When you’re playing a sport, why are you doing it? To sweat, to have a good time. In tennis today, you hardly even sweat. And you seldom have a good time. Because the ball goes out too much.

Why not be a part of committees about the future of the game?

(Makes a face) The present leaders have a problem, they’re generally old. Very conservative about changes.

You’re starting your tennis academy in Manacor. What will its philosophy be?

– Apply what the current game tells me, quite simply. If it tells me that you absolutely need to hit hard, than they’ll learn to hit hard.

It’s the world tennis bosses that tell you, in some way, how you form your players?

– Obviously, yes. I see a lot of young players at the academy. Oh my! That hit at 2000 at everything, even without any control. They hit, hit, hit. I’ll adapt to what my sport demands. I’d rather insist on the technique, determination, on how, with your spirit you can overcome technical problems, for example. But if it’s another sort of tennis that works, let’s teach that. After, you risk that people applaud less and less. It’s working right now, because people come to see the personalities and there are phenomenal ones. But never forget they also come to watch a match.

Translated by MAN

Yevgeny Kafelnikov talks Russian tennis, compares ATP eras, & more

From an interview with Kafelnikov, a multiple-Slam champion, conducted by B92’s Saša Ozmo before the men’s semifinals at Roland Garros.

On Russian tennis, more successful of late on the WTA side:
“It’s much easier to produce top female players than top male players for many reasons.  Young guys don’t have that spark and don’t believe they can reach the top—but I hope that we’ll see a change with Andrey Rublev.  He was the best junior last year, is still only 17 years old, and is getting better all the time.  He’s growing and becoming more mature—hopefully, he’ll be the one we’ve long sought.  He has a champion’s attitude, which is very important, plays aggressively, is good from the baseline, and has nice technique.  I told him and his team that he needs to work on his physical strength, because he plays a great set but then runs out of energy.  He’ll be a very good player if he gets stronger.”

On the possibility of coaching:
“If I see potential and the project appeals, then I might agree.  Coaching is a lot of work, which is clear from former colleagues like Becker, Ivanišević… I see them often, but don’t ask about the details—I don’t think that’s relevant.  However, I observe how they’re handling it and it seems to me they’re happy and doing a good job.  The players they’re training listen to them and respect them; if I find something like that, maybe I’ll become a coach, too.”

On the ATP, then & now:
“I have no regrets at all about retiring early [in 2003, a few months before turning 30].  Honestly, I can’t explain how players are still capable of playing in their later years—Federer is soon 34 and still playing at a high level.  I think the reason for this is that today’s average level of play is much lower than in our time.  Actually, I talked to Boris about it only a few days ago, and he agreed.  So, the best can keep enjoying it and winning Grand Slam titles, since no one else can come close.  In our time, there were 15-20 guys who could potentially win a Grand Slam trophy, but it’s not so right now.”

“The whole approach is different.  In our era, there were many more styles of play than exist now: there were serve-volley players, a lot of ‘chip & charge.’  Now, for the most part, everyone plays from the baseline and tries to strike the ball as hard as he can.  This isn’t the direction tennis should go—I think we need different modes of play.  But nothing’s likely to change if we don’t do something about the courts.  It seems to me that every tournament is played on the same [speed] surface—even Wimbledon is now similar to concrete.  If that doesn’t change, the situation will remain as it is.”

On Nadal’s future:
After the Spaniard’s victory over Djoković in the 2014 Roland Garros final, Kafelnikov made a bold forecast: that it was the last trophy for Nadal in Paris.  He maintains that position.  “So far, my prognosis is accurate.  I love Rafa—he’s a great guy, an excellent tennis player, and has achieved much success.  However, last year I felt (for the first time) that he’s becoming physically weaker.  In previous years, he played much closer to the baseline, and now it’s different, especially in the match with Novak—Djoković was inside the court and dictating the pace while Rafa stood four meters back.  The trend continues: Rafa is already 29 and can’t beat opponents by outrunning them, particularly in best-of-five matches.  Along with that, it doesn’t feel like there’s the same intimidation factor in the air—players aren’t afraid of Rafa any more.  So, I stand by my prediction.  While I’d like it to happen, I’d be shocked if Rafa wins another Grand Slam trophy.”

On his career & retirement:
“It feels good when I look back on it.  I was lucky that I caught different eras, playing with Becker and Edberg, then with Agassi and Sampras, and even Federer after that.  In fact, I competed with three generations of top players, so I’m very satisfied with my career and what I achieved.”

Having dabbled in professional poker in the first years after leaving tennis, Kafelnikov has since found another pastime.  “Poker is my past, but I try to play golf as much as possible, to see how good I can become.  It’s my daily life—I play golf every day for four to six hours.”

 

~ Translated from Serbian by Ana Mitrić.

The Case of Lucas Pouille

From the print edition of l’Équipe April 15 2015 by Julien Reboullet @djub22 page 19.

Out of action in March, mediocre practice Monday, winner over Dominic Thiem Tuesday: the twenty-one-year-old Frenchman is on the right road. He challenges Rafael Nadal today.

If ever Lucas Pouille were to provoke a Big Bang event in Monaco by becoming the first Frenchman since Olivier Mutis in 2004 to defeat Rafael Nadal on clay, it would be a completely crazy exploit out of the deep, deep blue. A story of reversing a tendency at the speed of light.

As recently as Monday, the young twenty-one-year-old, just arrived from the indoor Saint Brieuc Challenger tournament – where he lost in the semis to Nicolas Mahut – and who hadn’t played a match on clay in eight months, wasn’t attracting much attention in the stands of the Monte Carlo Country Club after a poor practice session. “It’s simple. He played 1-1 against the number 300 or so ranked Frenchmen,” smiled Emmanuel Planque, his coach, yesterday noon. Smiling because his player had just left the court a winner over Dominic Thiem [6-4, 6-4]. Yes, Thiem, the Austrien who had just played a quarter-final in Miami and is ranked 44 in the world.

That kind of reversal in the space of twenty-four hours deserved the kisses exchanged between player and coach just before they got back to the dressing room. One would almost swear the two pairs of eyes shone just a bit. “I felt the emotion in Lucas,” admitted Planque.

“Interning” with Federer

The success will almost propel his student into the top 100 Monday [he’s now 108, his best ever ranking] A big first for the Northerner. “That barrier preoccupied him, as much because it gives him direct entry into the Slams as  for its symbolism. We brand our players to much in France by telling them, ‘you’ll be a pro when you’re in the top 100.’ Being a pro is more than ranking. It’s an attitude, a relationship to your profession.” Pouille has never been caught out on that score. The baby-faced, blue-eyed boy speaks in a quiet voice in front of the microphones. He’s serious, poised, thoughtful. He knows where he wants to go. And getting from a three-digit ranking to a two-digit is far from being an end in itself. Getting to one digit would closer.

2012(January) – Reaches his best junior ranking of 23
2013(May) – Wins his first round match against the American Alex Kuznetzov, loses in the second round to Grigor Dimitrov
2014(October) – Defeats Nieminen, Karlovic and Fognini to reach the round of 16 at Bercy, where he loses to Federer
2015(January) – First ATP 250 semi-final (Auckland) then an excellent first round at the Australian Open, losing to Monfils 7-6,6-3,4-6,1-6,4-6

The Planque-Pouille duo’s path has almost been like laying bricks. Step by step with precision and caution [see box]. Example: at the end of February, there was an inflamed tendon in the player’s right shoulder. “We treated it with the utmost care and seriousness. Pouille didn’t even wiggle an ear in March. And the tendonitis disappeared.

And if he becomes the 71st Frenchman to get into the top 100 in the forty-two years the ATP rankings have existed, he’s owe a bit … to the Swiss. At the end of 2013 and 2014 Pouille camped out for a week in Lausanne to prepare with Stan Wawrinka. Last February, just before his shoulder problem, he was in Dubai spending a week training with Roger Federer. “Hitting with them is amazing, even though you can’t really quantify what it brings,” says Planque. “You have to realise that there’s a bit of an incestuous side to the CNE (National training centre at Roland Garros). It’s difficult to get into from outside. So it’s important to look elsewhere. And with these guys who have won a Slam, there’s a difference in their concept of playing, in the way they train. What was most noticeable? The extreme precision of Federer and the team around him. It was six hours a day! Two hours of tennis in the morning, two in the afternoon and then two hours of physical training.” Pouille adds: “Realising that I could win a set here and a set there against players of that level, it could help me. If I train with them, it’s also to see how they work.” An experience that can also help demystify (a bit) the fact that he’ll be facing Nadal today? “In any case, he can’t be a spectator,” says Planque. “He’ll have to be extremely aggressive. Show Nadal with his attitude and his tactics and his intensity that he’ll need to work hard.”

And what if …

Translated by MAN

Novak Djoković on “respect”

From an interview on RTS, Serbian national television, conducted by Nenad Stefanović and aired on a 23 February 2015 episode of “Svedok” (“Eyewitness”).

During the Australian Open. . . your coach, Boris Becker, said that you don’t get as much respect as you should, being the #1 player in the world—“the man in town,” as he put it.  How did you understand his comments and have you talked about it?

“Yes, we’ve talked a lot about such topics, even before that interview.  Naturally, that’s a component of my career.  Generally, as a player and a person, on and off the court, I take everything that goes on around me very seriously and professionally and try, accordingly, to behave with dignity and respect.

I’m aware of the fact that Federer and Nadal, given their long-term success and the results they’ve achieved on the international level, are still—even though I’m number one—the two most popular active tennis players.  But I don’t mind that at all.  On the contrary, it allows me to grow in another regard and perhaps relieves certain kinds of pressure.

Also, I wouldn’t completely agree with the assertion that I don’t get or enjoy enough respect in the tennis and sports world.  In fact, my whole team did a lot of strategic work in order to obtain positive media coverage.  Along with that, I was simply brought up a certain way; I came from a culture in which respect and appreciation—the positive things in life—are valued.  So, I don’t pay too much attention to criticism, even though I’m aware that without it there’s no personal development, nor can one see things from other perspectives…”

To return a bit to this theory of a lack of respect, if it’s at all valid.  One of the sport’s leading experts, Nick Bollettieri, said that he thinks you’re the most complete player in the history of tennis… Geniuses, whether in tennis or something else, don’t choose where they’re born.  Is it possible that one problem with regard to respect is that you come from a country of, let’s say, “bad guys”—from Serbia, whereas, in tennis, there’s generally a belief that great players only come from great nations?

“Well, the fact is that tennis is a global sport, and it was always a sport of the upper classes.  It’s a very exclusive and expensive sport, which was invented by the French and English—both well-off nations, in every respect, throughout history.  So, considering this, there certainly haven’t been many champions from small countries.  And there are probably certain prejudices that, in this situation, play a role.  How much?  I don’t exactly know.

But, I try to take advantage of that Serbian inat* (which exists and which we mention frequently)—more in the sense of enduring certain things, maybe even unfairness—and display a level of tolerance that perhaps I wouldn’t have at first.  I think that’s a virtue, the right way to behave at that moment.  Because if I reacted impulsively to everything—all the headlines, stories, insinuations, people, media, and so on—throughout my career, I wouldn’t have been able to withstand it mentally and emotionally.  So, I save my energy, which I need on court.”

You mentioned the media and popularity.  Maybe part of the problem is that after a longstanding rivalry between Federer and Nadal, a third guy arrived and ruined all of that—including for many people in media and marketing circles—by becoming a champion?

“I disrupted the world order [laughs]…. I’ve thought about it a lot, but then I got past it in a positive way.  I sat down with the people who surround me, who participate in my career—from my family to my coaching team to those responsible for publicity—to devise a strategy for how I’d like to be presented off court.  That is, I try to be myself both on and off court.  Because I don’t like duplicity or hypocrisy—I like to be honest and open in every possible situation.  Of course, there are events and certain formal occasions when one has to comply with protocols… so you don’t get into trouble.

But I try to show emotions, sometimes even ones that might seem unacceptable to some people.  That’s simply me.  I don’t run away from it.  It’s not that breaking a racquet or letting a curse fly are things to be proud of—far from it.  Kids, don’t do that!  But I’ve talked about it with both Marijan and Boris and they told me (particularly Boris, who has experienced similar things on court) that it’s sometimes better to release that negative emotion, the anger that’s growing within you, than to hold onto it because in the long run it’ll eat you up from the inside.”

You used an interesting word a minute ago: humanity.  I’m curious whether you three at the top of world tennis sometimes exchange private messages.  For instance, did any of them congratulate you on the birth of your son?

“Yes, both personally and by text—how could it be otherwise?  Just about all the players I saw did, and everyone at the top.  Absolutely.  I think the current generation of top tennis players is sending a positive message to all the kids who follow them and look up to everything they do.  Similarly, we’re sending a good message to the media and those who occasionally try to create some tension between us.

That was the case between me and Murray after the final in Australia, when British media, in particular, emphasized some disagreement which then grew into anger and then who knows what else that really had no basis.  We’ve known each other since we were 12 years old.  It’s normal when you’ve been fighting for a Grand Slam title that you’re disappointed and show some emotions after the match.  Everything was completely fine between us in the locker room—he came up to my team and congratulated us, and I did the same to them.

Tennis is a very particular sport, at least when we’re discussing this theme of humanity.  Self-respect, respect toward your opponent, and demonstration of fair play—these are among the reasons I’m proud to be part of a generation aware of that.”

* Note: I left the word “inat” in Serbian because it has no English equivalent.  If you’re interested in the origins and significance of what is widely considered a Serbian national characteristic, see here or here.

~

Translated by Ana Mitrić with an assist from Saša Ozmo.  Feedback is welcome; please let us know what you think in the comments.

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Nadal on playing surface for Rio 2016

For the Spaniard, the country would have a better chance in the Olympic Games if the matches were held on clay.

From an article by Felipe de Oliveira in the Folha de S. Paulo (19 February 2015).

Tennis player Rafael Nadal said Wednesday that the surface chosen for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio would hinder Brazilian athletes.

In an interview with Folha, the Spaniard said that he was surprised by the fact that the country opted for hard courts rather than clay, which in theory would be unfavourable for the local players.

“I’m surprised that Brasil wanted that surface [hard court].  Look at history: Guga [Kuerten] was a great champion in clay especially.

It would be logical for it to be on clay.  [Thomaz] Bellucci could even have final hopes; it would be more favourable for him.”

The choice of surface is made by the Organising Committee for Rio 2016 and by the International Tennis Federation.

According to Nadal, the English chose grass for the 2012 London Games to facilitate the performance of their players.

It was a success: the Brit Andy Murray won the Gold Medal.

“The type of surface can have an influence on performances, like at the London Games.  We were in the middle of the clay hard court(1) season at the time and had to play on another surface.  Using logic would be ideal, but there are always other interests involved,” said Nadal.

The Spaniard, who is competing this week in the Rio tournament, is building a training centre named after him in Manacor, his home town.  According to him, Brazil also needs to invest more in talent scouting and youth preparation.

“I don’t believe there’s a lack of talent in such a large country.  That’s hard to imagine.  I think it’s important to have good schools and training centres for the sport to develop more.  We understand there can be highs and lows.  Brazil has Bellucci today, but I think you should aspire to having more players,” said the world number 3, the title defender in Rio.

A fan of new technology, the Spaniard recently announce that he’s using a new racquet that can send information about shots in real time.  “Everything that helps the sport evolve is valid.”

According to Nadal, 2015 will be a year of analysis and recuperation after injuries and the problems encountered last year—he was away from the tour for more than six months.

“I don’t know what I can accomplish.  I’m happy with being at least able to return to the tour.  I don’t know if I can win again and win more titles.”

~

Translated by Mark Nixon.

(1) Corrected from clay to hard court.  Thank you to all who pointed it out.

Please use the comment section for suggestions about the translation; they’re appreciated.