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