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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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