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 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