This is a very long interview with Toni Nadal translated by Susan DePalma for tennisfrontier.com. Toni talks about career highlights from 2008 on, Djokovic, Murray, the level of the current men’s game, etc.
It’s a splendid August afternoon in Porto Cristo, near Manacor, in the eastern part of the sunny island of Mallorca. There, we are received by Toni Nadal, uncle and coach of Rafael Nadal, and thereby one of the greatest architects – the main one, after Rafael himself – of the success of probably the most important Spanish athlete of all time. With the blue Mediterranean as the backdrop, we chatted for some two and a half hours, about a little bit of everything; we review some of the critical moments in Rafael’s career, we talked about how he faces victories and defeats, how you mentally prepare a player to help him get into the elite group of the top 4 players with the most Major titles in tennis history; about how you keep from losing yourself to success, about the rivals, about the place of Rafael Nadal in the history of tennis, etc. Also, we talked about the place of sports in society, get Toni’s opinion about people from various walks of life, and we even had time to talk a little about politics, music, films, and other various and sundry topics.
It’s obvious the importance of a coach in the formation of a tennis player, but can the tactical focus that a coach provides before the match decide it, as can sometimes happen in football?
Theoretically, no. In the matches – in the execution – it’s the player, because he’s the one who plays. In all sports, you can suggest ways of playing…faster or slower, but in the end it’s the player who decides.
But sometimes a player changes coaches and their results change, too.
Yes. It could be the case that changing coaches helps tactically, but most of the time it helps emotionally. If you change coaches, it shows that you want things to change. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t.
How important is the emotional state of a player?
Fundamental. Not just for players, but for anyone, just generally in life. Without a good emotional attitude it’s difficult to work well at whatever you do. And all the more often in sports, where things usually go pretty fast.
Can the crowd’s attitude influence the outcome of a match?
Sometimes they can help you win. I don’t think they can help you lose. For example, at the Beijing Olympics, Rafael says that the other athletes who went to watch him helped him win. Everything helps if it raises your spirits…
And speaking of emotional state, what do you say to Rafael when he’s injured or is in a bad patch?
You have to take things as they come. It’s easy to accept what comes when it’s good, any idiot can do that. You have to know how to accept the difficulties as well. In the good times, even I’m good, but in the bad times you take the measure of the player. I’ve said many times that Rafael is probably the player with the most match wins playing poorly: for which he deserves credit, on the one hand, for knowing how to handle adversity, but the other side is the bad part, that he often plays poorly.
All players play poorly often enough.
…it’s better not to play poorly so often.
Were you ever worried that Rafa’s success would go to his head? How did you prepare him for the moment?
In life, with a good foundation, one knows one’s place in this world. It’s true that my nephew plays tennis very well, and has had a lot of success in a sport that still in all is just that: a sport. But more than anything, he knows he’s a normal person. Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Well, they stopped having their feet on the ground.” The whole world has their feet on the ground. Rafael had a good foundation from very young, and he knows how to handle the good moments, the bad ones, and he where he is personally. […]
Why do you think people like sports so much?
Well, first of all because it’s easy. You don’t need a lot of background to understand it. Same thing with today’s music. It’s easy to understand. And also because sports is something that people can have a stake in: there are very few things that most people have a stake in. Here in Spain, take football, which is our biggest sport: people are allied with Real Madrid, with Barcelona, with the national squad…for me, I find it shocking how people can put so much importance on sports.
Is it possible that people find famous athletes to be a substitute for the warriors of the distant past?
Yes. I would say they’re probably a substitution for the gladiators of the Roman era. We live in a world of images, and it’s easy to entertain ourselves with sports.
Sports are entertaining, you can’t deny that.
Well, it depends. I’ve seen football and tennis matches that didn’t entertain me much. It depends.
Well, music isn’t all the time either, or films…
I have no complaints that people like to entertain themselves. What surprises me is that some people become superstars just because they can pass a ball well, or make a shot on goal, or put it into a little hole. Same in the art world, though. It surprises me that we make people famous over a bunch of scribbles. But that’s the world we live in. […]
Going back to your work as a coach, in your case with Rafael, do you speak to him the same way after a victory as a defeat?
No. It changes completely. Sometimes I’m watching the match from the box, fixed on Rafael, on his poor play, on how he’s done things and I think, “What a disaster!” But in the length of time it takes me to get from the box to the locker room, I’ve changed my mind…if we’ve won. If we’ve lost, I keep that opinion. You see it totally differently. Sports is a competition, and what matters is the win.
Before matches, depending on the opponent, do you change the pre-match psych-up? Do you change the message?
Yes. If the match is against a top level opponent, it comes with a different intensity than against a player with less presence. When we get to Roland Garros, I know that Rafael gets very nervous in the first rounds, so the pre-match chat is mostly about taking his mind off the match. It just depends on the situation. […]
Now, I’d like to cite some key moments in Rafael’s career so you can tell me how you remember them, or what they meant. For example, 2004 in Miami, when, at 17, he beat Roger Federer for the first time.
I was at home and watched it, probably on TV, a really surprising win. To play the world #1 and beat him…but in retrospect, this match showed that Rafael’s game was going to be difficult for Federer.
Did you draw any conclusions from that match?
No, at that point Rafael was the youngest player on the circuit with a good ranking. People were starting to talk about him as someone to watch in the future. But it was a surprising win, to me, because, to beat Federer, at that point didn’t seem normal, since there was such a difference between them.
In that same year, there was a famous match when Rafael beat Andy Roddick in the Davis Cup final of Spain vs. USA.
A special match. It was a special week. When they told us that Rafael would play singles, it surprised everyone.
It was a shock, and there were those who disagreed with choosing him.
Of course, yes…absolutely. There were people on the team that thought it was a poor choice. Robredo’s coach was angry…and fine, it was a surprise. But once you’re in it, playing the world #2 in front of a crowd of 27,000, and beating him…one of the most special matches of Rafael’s career.
The next year, 2005, with the win at Roland Garros, what kind of a leap came from that? What changed, for example, from the losses at the beginning of the year vs. Gaudio?
What changed? Age. You’re at a formative point and you’re getting better day-by-day.
But it was a sudden leap.
That year Rafael made it to the fourth round of the Australian Open, losing to Hewitt in 5 sets. Which shows that Rafael was playing well. Then in South America he lost in the quarterfinals against Gaudio. He won the first set I think 6-0, then lost at 0-6, 1-6. The crowd was calling him an S.O.B. the whole time. And Gaudio started to play better. The match was pretty even, but the big points went Gaudio’s way. The next tournament, in Sao Paolo, though, Rafael won. Then he won Acapulco and made the final in Miami. Really, I think it’s logical in a young athlete that when you make a leap you make a big one. Because you’re getting that one more ball in every point, that means you win the game. You take the ball a little earlier, hit it a little deeper, and you make fewer mistakes.
Then came the wins at Monte Carlo, Rome, and both against Coria, the player who was then dominating on clay.
When he won that first Monte Carlo, that was really incredible to me, because I’d always watched that tournament on TV. Winning there was something special. When you go to Monte Carlo, you see all the names in the passageway behind the center court. Man, to think that Rafael would have his name there forever…it was a great day in sports for me.
What do you think of Guillermo Coria?
For several years he was a good player who had the misfortune of being obsessed with winning Roland Garros. The year he should have won it, incredibly, he lost. He had it right in front of him, easily.
Yes, playing Gaudio.
He lost. And when it looked like he’d go back to being the best player on clay, he had the misfortune that Rafael showed up. That really got to him. And when he lost those two finals, at Monte Carlo and Rome, the one in Rome…
…was the last straw.
Yes, it was the last straw, because he should have won that match. He was up 3-0 in the 5th set with a double break and he lost, and this demoralized him going into Roland Garros. After that, he was never the same. But he was a brilliant player, very fast, very smart on the court. He was relatively small, and he didn’t have any big weapons, but he had good placement and lots of ability.
In 2005, at Rafael’s first Roland Garros, when did you really believe it was possible he could win it?
When I saw the last ball go out in the final…but especially after he beat Federer. When we got there, Rafael was one of the clear contenders for the title because he was just coming off wins at Rome, Monte Carlo, and Barcelona.
But a first-timer at a tournament, there’s always a doubt.
Yes, but he was in the running. I never count a tournament as won until it’s all over, but after he beat Federer, I thought he had a better chance in the final than Mariano Puerta.
Earlier we talked about whether or not the crowd affects players: it’s my impression that, especially in the early years, the crowds at Roland Garros were a little reticent towards Rafa. Did you see it that way, too?
Yes, but it doesn’t affect you to the point of winning or losing, because, as it was, Rafael didn’t have the crowd support in the early years, and he won every time he went. It would be a different thing if the crowd cheered against you and shouted rude insults.
But this lack of support, how do you account for it? Maybe because he’s a Spaniard, and they were tired of Spaniards winning there, or…?
Well, I don’t know. I’ve always said that Rafael is a great idol in France, which you can see when he goes out in the streets. On the other hand, in Paris [Roland Garros] they hope he’ll lose. It might have something to do with the French character, the beautiful play, I don’t know…this year they interviewed me and asked me about David Ferrer: the journalist asked me if Ferrer was ‘correcto.’ [Can be doubly interpreted as “honorable” and “plays classically.”] And he asked me because he sees him play that way, a gladiator, and he makes associations….I told him, “Man, if only the player who hits a more beautiful shot against him were such an honorable person.” We’ve gotten to these extremes: from an image, we extract a theory, out of whatever ridiculousness. And this is what people sometimes think: that Rafael, who has fought hard on the court, was less (honorable/correct/classic) than a player who hit well against him. Over the years, they’ve begun to realize that that’s not so.
I never thought this, but I realize that others do.
Because there are a lot of people who do very little thinking, in reality.
Do you think there’s a snobbishness in the tennis public?
No, it’s not that it’s in tennis especially. I think that people in general don’t think deeply. We grasp onto an idea, or an image, and we form a complete opinion that has nothing to do with reality.
For example, I’ve heard some ordinary fans out there who are on a kind of crusade. “Serve & Volley is disappearing!”…as if that were a sin.
In sports, the game is played the way those who run it would like it to be. It’s that simple. If those who make the rules want there to be a chip and charge game, there will be, or serve and volley. If they want there to be a deeper baseline game, the same. And what the directors are looking at when they decide a strategy towards the game is: what type of game do the spectators want to see? The spectators usually want to see more of a hard fight, with longer points. Go on your iPad and look for the 25 best points of Djokovic, of Federer, of Rafael…it’s never an ace or an unreturnable serve, and it’s never a serve and volley point. It has to be a spectacular volley for the best point to be a serve-volley point. Normally the best points are the long points.
During the reign of Pete Sampras there were a lot of people who said that he was boring.
Very boring. I liked Pete Sampras, myself, but…I remember one time in Stuttgart with Rafael, when he was a junior. We went to play a tournament there and coincided with the pro tournament, which back then was on a fast court. (Huffs.) It was deadly dull, no one returned a single ball. There was a match Krajicek v. Sampras, and they played S&V the whole time. Serve…out. Return…out. I don’t like that at all. I prefer to see the point finished at the net after the point has been fought for at the baseline. But I’ll say this again: it’s up to those that run the sport [because they choose to use] softer or harder balls, slower or faster courts…same as in football: they changed two conventions, ceding the ball to the goalkeeper and the 3 points. [Translator’s note: This is more than I understand about football, so I hope that makes sense.]
Let’s talk about the first Wimbledon final in 2006, which Rafael lost to Federer.
We didn’t approach that match well. It was our first final there, and we were not very convinced about our chances. Such that, the pre-match preparation wasn’t good. We believed Federer to be much better than us, and I believe that Rafael paid for that in the first set: lost it 0-6. The second was much better contested, he lost 6-7. But at the end of the day the other player was better than Rafael.
Were there lessons to be learned from that match?
The lesson, mine especially, was that we hadn’t approached that match well enough. The message before going out is not to be merely contented that you’ve reached the final, but to actually prepare for it well. Whenever you’re in a final match, there’s always a chance you’ll win it. Sometimes you have very little chance, but anything can happen. You always have to go into a final with the desire and belief to win it.
So I’m guessing that the message changed before the final in 2007, when he again lost to Federer, but in a much closer match.
Yes, of course, totally. We went out convinced that if playing well enough, he could win. That Federer was still better than us on a grass court…but that the attitude going out onto the court was 100%.
Let’s move on to 2008: What happened in matches like the semifinal that Rafael lost so definitively — 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 — against Tsonga at the Australian Open?
It happens that you’re not playing well, and the other is playing better than you are, and much more aggressively. Rafael came out not aggressive at all, expecting errors from his opponent to do too much of the work.
Tsonga also played one of the matches of his life.
Rafael didn’t play well and his opponent was much better. Tsonga was looking for every point and Rafael was too conservative.
What does one learn from these matches?
I don’t know what you learn. It’s easy to say that you learn something. When you analyze it, you say, “God, what happened to me? I didn’t play well,”…but I don’t know if you learn enough not to do it again the next year. I just don’t know.
Then, also in 2008, the Roland Garros final and that convincing defeat of Roger Federer: 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
I think that at that moment, Rafael was the best player in the world, he was playing so well, at such a high level. He won in the fourth round very convincingly, won easily in the quarterfinal, and in the semis he played a very good match against Djokovic. I remember the conversation that Rafael and I had before he went out [to play that final.] I told him, “Today I think, at this level, that you could go toe-to-toe with Federer…but let’s go with the usual tactic, that is, attack the backhand.” And the truth is, I think that Federer saw how powerless he was very quickly and didn’t put up much of a fight. He had a bad plan, a very bad one. Therefore, he only won four games. These things happen occasionally.
What do you think when people say it was one of Rafael’s greatest matches?
No, I don’t think so. Federer didn’t play well enough. I’ve seen Rafael play better many times. Although I suppose I ought to go back and watch that match, I’ve never watched it again.
By then, would you say that Federer had, in quotation marks, “Nadal Syndrome?”
No, I think that Rafael is better on clay courts than he [Federer] is, and he was playing very well. When you see it, is when he beat him after that, at Wimbledon and became number one in the world.
Yes, let’s talk about the 2008 Wimbledon final, where he finally beats Federer on grass, after an epic match.
I had the worst time of my life in that match. I remember at a certain point during the match, looking at the court clock…and it read twelve minutes. I thought: ”Oh, man, this is going to be a long day!” Because we knew there was a chance to win, we knew that, after the victory at Roland Garros, coming in playing well – Rafael had won at Queens, on grass – to lose a third Wimbledon final would be painful. The truth is we came in with a lot of confidence about our chances. We knew it would be difficult but…damn! That match dragged on more than was at all reasonable. Rafael had it won a couple of times, but in the end, he won it at the last gasp.
Because Federer also defended himself tooth and nail…
Well, there were several situations…Rafael was 5-2 in the tiebreak and with 2 serves. So that, if things go a little bit your way, you’re up 6-3, or you win it. But he double faulted at 5-2. [Expletive] Really bad. Lots of tension. Later, there were some delays, and in the locker room I told him: “When you have match point, go to the known: serve to the backhand and bring him up with the drive towards the backhand.” He did it. And Federer, who hadn’t passed us all day…passed us there, and with the backhand. Rafael served well. Federer returned fairly poorly, the ball landing mid-court and Rafael didn’t hit it hard enough. He hit a mid-court shot towards the backhand and Federer, who hadn’t passed us, did. In the end, we won on a shot that we least should have won with, and that was an error from Federer. The easiest shot…he had too much time to think about it and he committed the error.
What did that win mean?
Enormous happiness. Since Rafael was small I had instilled in him that he had to win Wimbledon.
Because this changes a tennis player’s place in history, right?
No, more than anything because in Spain, there were already players who had won at Roland Garros and my belief was that Rafael was a little better, that he shouldn’t be contented with just winning Roland Garros. This was the idea.
On to 2009 — how do you remember the Australian Open SF v. Verdasco? For some it was one of the best matches of the year.
Enormous tension. Verdasco played incredibly, he didn’t make an error on any point. In the 5th set, after four and a half hours, he was still pulling off a second serve at 180 Km/h and the first serve at 220-210 Km/h. It was a Verdasco we’d never seen, but at that level…either one of them could have won that match. It was just lucky for us that Verdasco double-faulted on that last point.
The Verdasco of that match could likely have beaten anyone.
Yes, the truth is he played incredibly well. He was hitting hard from both sides and all of his balls were going in.
And the win in the final of that Slam, winning his 3rd different Slam title over Federer?
Emotional. Rafael was really done-in after that match with Verdasco. I remember when we went to warm up he was really tired. We went out to hit and he got dizzy. His calf was swollen. His shoulder hurt. Everything was a problem, to the point where I said to him, “Stop. This is no way to go into the final of the Australian Open.” And he said to me what he always does when I give him a hard time. [Laughs.] I was complaining about his attitude and Rafael said, “It’s easy for you.” And I said to him, “It’s not easy for me, because if it were easy, I’d do it myself. What is clear to me, however, is, hey, you’re in the final of the Australian Open…and it likely you’ll never get as close to winning a final here again. Only you know if you want to make a huge effort here, or not.” He said he couldn’t. And, I remember it well, I told him, “Look, it’s 5 o’clock. You have 2 1/2 hours before you have to go out. You feel bad now. In another 2 1/2 hours…don’t worry, you won’t feel any better. No God is going to come down and help you. Don’t count on anything, because if you’re having problems now, you’re going to have them later. It’s up to you whether you confront them, or not. Do whatever you want.” And for two hours I was talking to him in the locker room, saying the same thing. In the end I used the phrase of Obama, who had just won the election.
The “Yes, We Can?”
The “Yes, We Can.” I said to him, “Yes, We Can,” as a joke. I said it again, and I told him, “Listen, please say it to yourself in your chair. Repeat it to yourself that you can, and come on.” I said to him “Yes, We Can” as a joke…I said it to him so many times that I think it stuck. And at the end of the match, in the 5th, he was fresher than Federer.
In the end you wore him out.
Yes, I think Rafael confronted that match well.
Later that same year came the match that surprised the world, the loss to Soderling at Roland Garros. To this day, Rafael’s only loss at that tournament.
We went in with a lot of problems. That’s not an excuse, because the other guy beat us, and on top of it, quite a while ago. But at that point Rafael had a lot of problems with the knee, along with emotional issues. Beyond that Soderling played very well and Rafael wasn’t good at any point. And it was a shame, because I think that that year Rafael should have finished number one in the world, if he could have confronted that situation. It all came together: his parents’ separation, the knee problems, and therefore he wasn’t strong enough. He was coming off the win at the Australian Open, and I think he’d won in Indian Wells, in Monte Carlo, Rome, Barcelona, and he’d made the final in Madrid. Meaning that, if he’d won Roland Garros, it’s probable that he would have finished the year at number one. Pity.
Did it hurt him especially to lose what had been his fiefdom?
Yes. It was one of his most painful losses. Rafael’s most painful losses, I think, are the final at the Australian Open against Djokovic, because of how close he was to winning it. That one against Soderling, for what it meant, although it’s not the same to lose in the quarterfinals or fourth round as it is in a final, when it hurts much more. And then the final of Wimbledon.
You mean the one in 2007?
Yes, the one in 2007.
Then came the victory at the US Open opposite Djokovic.
That was an excellent match from Rafael, he played very well. He was playing at a very high level, he was number one at that moment, and he came up with a very good match. I think the match in general was pretty good and that Rafael played a little better than Djokovic.
That win meant a lot, too.
Yes, it meant completing the [Career] Slam; I believe he became the youngest player to do it, at least in the Open Era. It was an enormous satisfaction and not because of the [Career] Slam, but because of winning the US Open itself. A great victory.
During competition, does one take into account the historical significance that victories can have in the future, or does one only take each win as it comes?
One has it in mind when they talk about it. Often, speaking with David Ferrer…he loves history. And we talk about where David Ferrer might fall in the history of Spanish tennis. Well, with Rafael it’s the same, where he might land. It also affects Rafael’s thinking about where he could end up in his career being … I’m not sure what number he’s at in terms of grand slams, but he’s in the top 4, I think.
He is in the top 4, yes.
Yes, there’s Roy Emerson, Federer, Pete Sampras, and him. And he’s the first in terms of Master Series, well, good…of course one is affected by history. I do think the players compete for history. The vast majority. It’s true that the money matters, and winning everything is important, but when you’ve already won and earned [so much]…what you want is to make history.
Well, there are athletes who earn a lot of money, but when they compete they don’t give the impression that they’re competing for the money…it’s something else.
No, no, that’s what I’m saying. Rafael would pay to win. The satisfaction never comes from the check. It’s true that it’s nice to have the money. But the main thing is the personal satisfaction of having won.
Does “mythomania” play a role in the ambition of a player, in the sense of thinking, “I want to be like such-and-such a champion?”
I don’t know, I can only speak in terms of Rafael: in his case, I don’t think so. It’s true that when you pass Borg in Roland Garros [wins] you know that you are the player with most tournaments won there.
Well, you can’t deny that.
Sure, but we don’t think so much about players from the past.
Now let’s talk about the loss in 2011 at Wimbledon, against Djokovic.
He didn’t approach that match well; Djokovic was better than we were. Rafael had played against Djokovic at Indian Wells; I saw that match on TV: he played the first set very well, he was better than Djokovic. But in the second and the third, Rafael didn’t compete well, and the other guy won. OK, a loss in a final, no matter. Then, in the Miami final, we lost 6-7 in the third on a ball that went out by this much (indicates with his fingers a distance of one or two centimeters)…it would have been 40-15 for Rafael, probably he would have won. That loss started to feel more painful, it was the second in a row. Then the losses in Madrid and Rome killed us. At that point, Djokovic had eaten away at [Nadal’s] morale and Rafael didn’t have a good mental attitude going into that Wimbledon final.
If a player gets in your head…
Yes, of course. When someone beats you, there’s a reason. It’s because you didn’t play well. Or, even more likely, because he’s better than you. And when he’s better, it’s that much harder to beat him.
Fine, but he might be better and nevertheless…
OK, one might be Federer and be better than Rafael, but in their individual meetings it can be that Rafael is better. And that’s the reason that it has been hard for Federer to play against him. With Djokovic, there was a time when he was superior and Rafael didn’t have the weapons to beat him. Until the next year, in Australia, when he was at a level to start competing against him again.
Can you think of any keys to the sudden qualitative jump from Djokovic, or is it simply the result of his natural evolution?
The first time that I saw Djokovic play, I saw quite clearly that he was a phenomenon, a very good player, and it didn’t surprise me. It was an evolution. And there was a moment, when I saw him play the final in Australia 2011 that he won over Murray, that I said, “Damn…this guy. He’s gone beyond defending, much more and better.” The expected evolution of a great player.
When a dominant player comes up, in tennis or in other individual sports, do they create an aura around themselves that psychologically affects their rivals, to the extent that it makes them think that it’s even more difficult to beat them than it really is?
Yes. Two things happen. On the one hand, the one who’s playing against Djokovic, or against Roger Federer when he was the best, knows that he has to play especially well to win. And so, if you add that in, when things aren’t going your way from the beginning, you don’t fight as much as you might. And, on top of that, you play differently, you risk a lot more, you know that you have to give 100% and sometimes that helps you win. But as far as it goes, generally, when one plays Rafael on clay, a lot of times the opponents don’t play as well as they can. They fold early. The same with Murray, with Djokovic, with David Ferrer, with Del Potro…when you see that the better player is getting away from you, you say, “That’s it, this guy’s going to beat me.” I think this is a product of a society in which we are less inclined to fight than we once were.
I think so, yes. And the numbers bear it out. For example, since 2008, we have basically the same Top Ten. The top seven: Federer, Djokovic, Murray, David Ferrer, Rafael, Berdych, Del Potro; these same seven were there in 2008. Come on, now it’s 2013 and they’re still there. I think the young guys who should have come up by now haven’t fought as hard as they could have.
Speaking of another player in this generation: Del Potro.
He had the bad luck to get injured when he was playing his best, which spoiled his ascent, but he is one of the players who’s set up to be a factor in any tournament, and he could be in the running for #1.
And then there’s Murray, who has won the US Open and Wimbledon.
Murray is the same: he’s had 5 years at the top. He’s been unfortunate – and he himself would say it – to find himself in an era when the top three almost never fail: Federer, Djokovic, and Rafael. And this made it hard for him to win more Majors. But after having won the US Open, and now Wimbledon, with his talent, and his fitness, I believe that he’s a clear contender for the #1.
Because one has a potential as a youth, but if you analyze it carefully – as a professional, not an amateur – you’d say: OK, this player has a good serve, fine. He has a very solid backhand. The drive is OK. Is he a fighter? Not so much. Physically? Also, not impressive. Therefore, sure, you’re a very good player, but not for assaulting the throne of Djokovic, Murray, or Federer.
You’re saying that often times the press or fans are putting more on a player than is really there?
Yes, very often. Because often the writers aren’t experts in what they’re writing about. […]
Has this ever happened to you: that someone near to Rafael, but that you don’t know that well, has said to you, specifically, something like “have you noticed this or that in Rafa?” from the outside perspective, that has given you some idea, has made you re-think something…?
Yes. It comes up sometimes. As Rafael is so dominant, I get a lot of input…everyone tries to have an opinion. You go to tournaments, and one person tells you something, then another tells you another…most of the time they’re talking about things they know nothing about. But every once in a while, there are people who know what they’re talking about. That’s normal.
Spain has a lot of great players, increasingly more, to the point of becoming a force in the tennis world. How would you explain this explosion of Spanish tennis?
It’s a chain-effect. [Spanish] tennis, if we go back to old times, began with Santana, Gimeno…Orantes was very successful, and then there was Higueras. Then there was a lull, and I think it started to come back around with Emilio Sánchez-Vicario. After that, a lot of good players came up. Sergi Bruguera, who won Roland Garros twice. And people started to see it the way it has been seen since: ”Damn, if that guy can do it, it can’t be that hard.” And it put us on a roll that we’re still on to this day. In the end, why isn’t anyone the ‘prophet’ of their country? Amongst other reasons, it’s because you’ve seen them grow up and you take it as nothing special. Because you know…”since this one plays for us, [how good can they be?]” I remember when Carlos Moyá started winning, someone who had played against him said to me, “Do you think Carlos Moyá is so good that he’ll get there?” And at that point Carlos Moyá was #14.
(Laughs.) Get there?…How much higher do you want someone to get to?
He’s at 14 in the world, it seems to me he’d gotten everything he could have hoped for. We’ll see if he’s a Sampras or not, I don’t know. But, sure, from close up, you, who have known him from a small boy…you say, “If this guy did it, so can I.” Although his stands out, as well. When Bruguera won on clay and Spanish players were all about clay: Corretja, Mantilla…then Carlos Moyá, with his final in Australia, and we could see that we could do it on fast courts, as well, that was another step up. After that, Ferrero kept the flame going, and I think that with Rafael, another step up was made: we could even win on grass courts.
Does the evolution of this chain of events have another substrata, which would be the improvement in the tennis academies?
Well, it’s better because there is more interest, there are more people that play…everyone is putting out more effort. There’s another thing that helps in understanding this process: the athleticism; often when you’re going to beat a world record, you have to put your foot on the gas. If someone is running in front of you, it’s rather easier to follow in their wake. And this makes everyone better: the coaches, players, the academies…everything, in general.
On the other hand, how do you explain the decline in US tennis in terms of players at the top level of the rankings?
Firstly, I don’t like to talk about things I don’t have that much specific information about, because, when you analyze the facts, you realize that there are a lot of causes. But I think that in the US, tennis isn’t a prominent sport, and this would be the main reason. Next, the tennis that they played…I think that the US, in general, and not just in tennis, they prefer their sport to be not so thoughtful. A game of “bang, bang, bang,” and goodbye. They like an ace, a service winner, something spectacular…but tennis has other variables. And mostly it’s been because there hasn’t been great interest, evidently. I’m sure they haven’t handled things well, since they have so much money…the US Open is the only tournament that earns them real money. Clearly, they don’t distribute the funds well.
Coming back to the state-of-grace of Spanish tennis, not just because of Rafael, but for the vast quantity of players, would you say that this is a passing phase, as with Argentina or Switzerland?
It’s not “passing” because it’s been 20 years now.
Well, maybe “passing” isn’t the word I should have used. I’m asking if you think it’s finite.
Finite, yes. And it’s likely – I don’t say this with any inclination to make over-importance of Rafael – that after Rafael, there will be a dip, because…let’s be honest, Rafael has set the bar high.
People are used to winning.
Absolutely. People get used to winning and later, when the next players get to Roland Garros and they make it to the semifinals, it’s going to seem like too little. When the reality is that it’s difficult to do so well every year.
Do you think that the day-to-day fan, the casual observer of tennis, is cognizant of the magnitude of Rafael Nadal’s accomplishments?
I don’t know. On the one hand, yes; Rafael is a very admired athlete in Spain.
OK, the fact that he’s admired is clear, but I’m referring now to when he gets to a final and loses: ”Ugh, he lost, that can’t be.” As if getting to the final weren’t…
Look, that happens in all sports. We just lost in the Confederations Cup of football, and well…Brazil was much better. It’s very difficult to win all the time. Spain, in terms of football, has always had a great fan base and we had never won anything. Now we’ve won 2 European Cups and a World Cup, but in the next World Cup it’s not going to be easy. They’re going to have to beat Argentina, Brazil, other sides. Some of the players will retire. It’s hard to win. It’s hard for Rafael, it’s hard for Djokovic, it’s hard for Fernando Alonso…for all of them.
Since you mention Alonso, what do you attribute this sudden conflagration of so many triumphs across disciplines in Spanish sports?
We like sports in Spain. Athletes get a great social benefit, and some of them, an economic one. This gets to the notion of the self-propagating: one thing feeds into another and people see possibilities. In basketball, it was unthinkable that we’d send someone to the NBA. Fernando Martin went, but he came back. Then Pau Gasol went, and he stayed, playing with the best team, or one of the best. Since him, others have gone. Once one does it, it seems suddenly possible for everyone else.
Still and all, there has to be something else…
I don’t know. One thing could be the investment that it takes: playing sports in Spain is not as expensive as in the Nordic countries, where playing tennis is more complicated because they have to play indoors, it’s much colder, everything is more costly. It’s much easier here, much more accessible. And I think this helps us. But Spain does well in auto racing; in Formula One we have the best, or one of the best, drivers in the world. In tennis we have 2 players amongst the best in the world, in basketball we have one of the best national teams in the world, in football we are the best in the world. In swimming we’re doing very well. In terms of sports, we’re at a very high level.
Do you think that in Spanish tennis there is a team spirit? When this current generation of successful players disappears, will Spanish tennis stay at the same level? Maybe there will never be another Rafael Nadal…
I think there will be another Rafael Nadal here in Spain. I don’t know when, but if there was ever one, there can be two.
I’m asking if there can ever be a comparable generation.
In terms of a generation, it’s not easy to come up with players who will have won 5 Davis Cups since 2000, and look at all the Grand Slams they’ve won…a lot. In the Masters in London, David Ferrer and Rafa have qualified in the last recent years. Ferrero and Moyá qualified some four years. Corretja won it. Albert Costa was there. It’s not easy to have such good players.
After having come up with this consistency for so many years, as you say, one might ask if Spain has the ability to do it again and again.
Logically, I would say no. Same as, is there going to be another Iniesta, Xavi, Casillas? It’s possible…but it’s not easy. The law of possibilities tells us that a generation like this is not likely to be seen again. When these guys retire, other good players will come up, but…most likely they won’t be as good as this group.
Do you think the economic crisis can affect the “group spirit of winning” not only in tennis, but in sports, in general?
Yes, because it effects the resources that the parents have to put out. It affects big tennis, and many other sports. In terms of football, it’s a bit different, because you start with a club and if you’re good, you’re playing with Real Madrid or Barcelona at the junior level, and it doesn’t cost you anything. But tennis costs money. I imagine that swimming costs, as well, along with any number of individual sports. The parents have to be invested, they have to spend money. It’s true that you’d do anything for your kids but….
You can’t always do it.
No, you can’t. You can’t.
In general, and not just in terms of sports, would you be willing to talk about the current situation in the country?
Well, I’ll be a little hard…we, and I include myself – have not been great workers. I’m sure there’s some reason that our country is functioning more poorly than others. We all need to chant a great mea culpa. In general, I guess we haven’t been as productive as other countries. In tennis, when we lose, it’s not someone else’s fault…it’s because we, ourselves did something wrong. I apply that in other areas. We must have done something wrong. It’s not easy. Germany lived through a great war in the ’40s, and look what they’ve done since.
Well, or Korea.
Yes, yes, but Germany is much closer to us. I don’t know if in Korea they have paid lower wages. In Germany the people responded well. I was there a couple of weeks ago and the majority of products there are theirs. For example – it’s just a small thing that may have nothing to do with reality – but I asked for an orange Fanta for my kids, because they love it so much. And Fanta wasn’t Fanta, but an orange soda that they made there. In a really nice hotel. A Coca-Cola…again, they gave me something that was German-made. If you go to Hugo Boss, you’ll find that they make most of it there. This is something they have done well, and we have done less well.
Speaking of pay, and returning to tennis, what do you think when some say that women’s tennis ought to play five sets, at least in finals?
Look, that’s a whole subject…you know what? When you get into the relative value of things, if I give an opinion, it would depend on how you weigh my words.
Brother, (laughs,) I’m not trying to weight your words.
No, no, it’s just a reality. I have a strong opinion. I don’t know if they should play five sets, or two. What happens is, theoretically, when they participate in a tournament where they earn the same, and take the same percentage of the ticket sales as the men…well, they should put out the same effort. The women, curiously, can play singles, doubles, and mixed because they play two sets. On the other hand, the men would be much more tired, because they have to play five sets. There’s almost no sport where men and women compete together. I think it’s a bit of an insult to compare them, and it doesn’t seem logical to me. There have always been men’s tournaments and women’s tournaments. In almost no other sport do they compete together; not in football, not in golf. Same in basketball. Yet in tennis they compete together…OK. I will say it’s an insult to compare them. I think they should play the same. Because if they play together, they should face the same obstacles.
Well, there’s there’s nothing wrong with having that opinion. It’s logical.
Perhaps I was left a bit speechless. (Laughs.)
What do you like to do when you’re not working with Rafael?
I play chess, I like chess. When I’m here, I like to spend time with my children. When I’m traveling, I like to wander around the cities.
Are you good at chess?
Tell me an opening that you like, playing white.
I almost always play the Italian opening.
The “gioco piano.” Does this mean that you like a tranquil game?
No, because I do it as a distraction. I play on the Internet, so it has to wait for real-life concerns…it takes me a long time.
As a coach or in other aspects of life, have you taken any lessons or ideas from chess?
I think that everything in life has a common denominator and a lot of games do, as well: take control of the center, dominate the game. It’s easiest from the center to direct the ball in any direction, which is the same in chess. Dominate the center. From there, it’s a question of tempo: you have to know to what tempo you’re playing. In tennis, what tempo are we playing to? We play at a much slower speed than Federer, for example. We have to be aware of this aspect of the game. Same as in football. If you play against Barcelona, you have to take away their time, as I understand it, because they can’t put their game together, even if they’re playing well. I think it’s the same for sports, in general.
It’s curious that you say this about the center, because I remember something Pele said – and I have no idea if he played chess – but he said the fastest way to score a goal was through the center.
I think that’s the case in almost all sports. It’s much more difficult to play the lateral, though in basketball you can go lateral and make a basket, for example. But from the center, you’re in every position to pass. The same thing in chess: from the center you dominate, that’s why you try to control the center.
Changing the subject: thinking of the book “Sirve Nadal, Responde Sócrates” [“Nadal Serves, Socrates Responds”] that you wrote with Pere Mas, where does this interest in philosophy come from?
I don’t have any special interest in philosophy. I’m interested in thinking. In analyzing what’s going on around me.
In the end of it all, it is philosophy.
Yes, but as a human being, I have to be interested in what’s happening around me.