Nadal interviewed by The Guardian (today)
Rafael Nadal: 'For everybody there are tough moments. This year, mine came'
Rafael Nadal talks about the personal and physical problems that have disrupted his season as he prepares to head to London for the ATP Tour World Finals
The Guardian, Tuesday 17 November 2009
Rafael Nadal plays in London next week for the first time since his epic victory over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA
In a discreet corner of an elegant hotel in Paris, Rafael Nadal remembers his part in one of the most public displays of sporting pain this year. On 1 February, in Melbourne, Nadal had just won his sixth grand slam tournament by once again beating Roger Federer in another epic clash between the world's two best tennis players. It seemed as if Federer had finally cracked when, his mouth crumpling, he just managed to get the words out: "God, it's killing me."
Federer then cried openly, as Nadal consoled his vanquished opponent. The young Spaniard had already done his best to help Federer by saying to him, with real compassion, "Remember you are a great champion and one of the best in history – and you will beat Pete Sampras's 14 titles for sure." In his obsessive pursuit of Sampras's record number of grand slam victories, Federer had crashed into the muscled wall of Nadal. And yet, touchingly, Nadal felt such sympathy for the man whose dream he kept ruining. "For sure," he says earnestly in Paris. "He always did a very good job for our sport and he is a nice person. I have spent the most important moments of my career playing against Roger – and the same is for him, too, playing against me. So we have a big respect and, off the court, we have a very good relationship."
Nadal has won 13 of their 20 matches and, most tellingly, five of his seven grand slam finals against Federer. In Melbourne, surely he thought he had the definitive mental edge over Federer? "No. For everybody there are tough moments. Unluckily for me, this year mine came when I arrived at the most important tournaments in the worst possible condition. You always have some ups and downs and, in that moment, Roger was a little down. But he was down in the final. It was not like he was losing in the second round. And the rest of the year he has had a lot of good moments."
Next week, at the O2 Arena in London, they will both play in the ATP World Tour Finals – when the top eight men gather for one last lucrative tournament before their brief winter break. Much has changed since Australia; the remainder of 2009 saw Nadal down and hurting while Federer was up and soaring into history. After struggling with a recurring knee injury, and his shock semi-final defeat to Robin Soderling at the French Open, Nadal was forced to withdraw from Wimbledon and spend 10 weeks at home in Manacor in Mallorca. It seemed as if fate had intervened and, in order to help Federer fulfil his destiny, removed Nadal from his path.
Federer overcame his French Open neurosis to win his 14th grand slam while, three weeks later, he achieved his record-breaking 15th victory at Wimbledon. "It was a hard moment for me," Nadal admits. "I can't play Wimbledon and it's my favourite tournament. I also lost at Roland Garros and I have a few personal problems. So everything coming together made it hard."
Nadal's gaze remains steady as he recounts the source of that turmoil. "My parents' divorce made an important change in my life. It affected me. After that, when I can't play Wimbledon, it was tough. For one month I was outside the world."
Nadal looks terribly young amid that quiet admission. "I am OK now," the 23-year-old says of his parents' divorce, "but you need time to accept. And it's more difficult to accept when you are outside home and don't know what's happening. At least the injury gave me time to be with my friends and family."
Severe tendinitis and the collapse of his parent's marriage undermined Nadal's composure at Roland Garros. "I played with less calm. One of the reasons was the pain in the knees. And I was down because of the divorce. Soderling played really well and he beat me. But I wasn't ready, mentally or physically, this year."
Nadal's return to London will spark inevitable memories of Wimbledon – for he last played tennis here when defeating Federer in the 2008 final in a match many considered the greatest ever. The Spaniard hesitates at that grand judgment. "I don't know if the level of tennis is the best ever," he says of a match so badly affected by rain. "But if we are speaking about what it means to me, then probably it is my greatest moment."
In the midst of excruciating tension, as he and Federer were dragged off court in the fifth set, Nadal retreated to the locker room to eat a banana and calm his coach and uncle, Toni. "I said to Toni, 'I think I'm going to win and if I lose it will be because Roger plays well – not because of me. I don't want to make any mental mistakes.'"
It almost sounds as if enjoyed that test of his character? "I was suffering a little bit!" Nadal laughs. "But the year before I lost to Roger in the fifth set. It was hard for me to lose when I had three or four break points in that fifth set [which Federer won 6-2]. What killed me was that second break. If I lose 6-3 or 6-4 with one break I accept. But I was angry with myself to lose that second break. That made it seem as if I wasn't ready mentally."
Like Federer in Australia, Nadal broke down after that 2007 defeat – and his uncle spoke of him "crying like an animal" that night. "It was tough," Nadal concedes. "I cried because you never know if you'll have another chance to win."
These gut-wrenching reactions from Nadal and Federer illustrate why their rivalry is so consuming – and yet their empathy lends the best kind of humanity to a sporting battle. "It's important to have people around you with enough confidence to say if you are not acting in a good way. Normally, when you are at the top, people say everything is fantastic. Probably in that moment it is what you want to hear but it's best to be reminded how to act properly."
His words contrast with Andre Agassi's claims in his recent autobiography that, despite winning eight grand slams, he "hated tennis" and sought refuge in crystal meth. Nadal raises an eyebrow. "I think it's impossible to be on the circuit 15 years and hate tennis. I always saw Andre playing with motivation and passion."
Have Agassi's confessions damaged tennis? "It's a big thing for the ATP. I understand if he was depressed he might have taken something so I don't want to criticise Andre for taking crystal meth. But everybody must be treated the same. Just because he is Andre Agassi he should not escape sanction. Tennis is a hard sport. There is a lot of competition all year and you play alone. Mentally and physically it is one of the toughest sports – but that's no reason to take these products [drugs]."
Tennis's year-round schedule also does not allow its star players to recover between seasons. "I completely agree," Nadal exclaims. "Maybe you could have nine months where it is obligatory to play and three months where you are free not to. In those three months there could be tournaments – but not decisive tournaments which affect your ranking. But we have the sponsors to consider. The ATP want to do it but I think it's going be better for the next generation than us."
Considering that grinding circuit, and the intense physicality of his tennis, many pundits believe Nadal has only a few years left in the game. Is he angered by those gloomy forecasts? "No, it doesn't bother me. People forget I started [professionally] at 16. And this is my fifth straight year in the top two. I'm not thinking about stopping yet, but most players start at 20 and if they finish at 29 nobody will say they've had a short career. If I finish at 25 I'm going to have had the same career as them. People will say it's a short career, but I don't agree."
Is it possible to imagine himself still playing in five years? "I can't say yes or no. You never know. I'm going to play as long as I can and, right now, I feel motivated to finish the year well – and to win the Davis Cup for Spain [against the Czech Republic] next month. The 02 will be tough because indoors is the most difficult surface for me. But I will try my best in London."
Andy Murray, who replaced Nadal as world No2 for a few weeks during the Spaniard's long injury break, will be fired up in front of a British crowd. Yet Novak Djokovic, who beat Nadal in straight sets in the Paris Masters on Saturday, having also defeated Federer the previous week, is the hottest player in tennis.
Nadal, however, places Murray on an equal footing with the Serb. "In my opinion Djokovic and Murray are still a little bit better than [world No5 and US Open champion] Juan Martín del Potro. Murray has not won a grand slam yet, but his results are better than Del Potro's."
Will Murray win a grand slam? "I think he can. Any player who is No3 in the world will have a lot of chances to win a grand slam. He's only 22, and so he will improve."
After the most difficult year of his career Nadal himself is still driven by a simple purity of purpose. It underpins both his ferocious dedication to tennis and his winning humility off court: "I always work with a goal – and the goal is to improve as a player and a person. That, finally, is the most important thing of all."
The ATP World Tour Finals will be broadcast by Sky Sports in HD
Novak Djokovic nº1!
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