Translated from: “Gano con mi tenis, no con la mente” (El Pais, June 10, 2013)
10 June 2013/Paris/Juan José Mateo
Rafael Nadal (Manacor, Mallorca, 1986) says goodbye to Pau Gasol in the lounge of a hotel they were both staying in. It’s the first day after the culmination of an odyssey: the comeback to win Roland Garros for the 8th time, his 12th Grand Slam title, after 7 months out due to an injury to his left knee. There’s still a trace of celebration in his tired eyes. His hands move quickly, in accompanying gestures to his answers.
Q: How do you feel when an opponent takes you to the limit, like Djokovic in the semi-finals?
A: The only thing I feel is that you have to endure a little more. That’s all I feel. Put up a little more resistance, because you don’t know how much more resistance the other player can mount. I’m feeling bad, but it’s likely that the other player is at the limit, too. I try to push him that little bit more to see if it will get me the win. This extra effort is always worth it, if you win or lose. It’s a question of personal satisfaction when you go back to the locker room. It’s priceless. Those are very difficult feelings to explain.
Q: You refuse to lose.
A: It’s not refusing to lose, it’s refusing to throw in the towel. I refuse to throw in the towel. That is what makes me happy when it’s all over: knowing that I did everything I could, and if I lost, I lost.
Q: Sometimes you talk about suffering as if it were a friend, as does Djokovic.
A: I believe that he is a great fighter and a great sufferer.
Q: But most people, logically, prefer to suffer less. Where does that difference come from?
A: From the joy in what you’re doing, from the passion for it. From living it all with this passion. Because of everything it has taken you to get here, it makes you not want to give in. It’s a physical suffering and a mental suffering. That’s the truth…but, in the end, you’re playing on Court Central at Roland Garros, your dream since you were a small child; you’re living a match that you know is special and you know that whatever happens, it will be one of the matches of the year, because of what’s at stake. Is that suffering? Yes, but it’s also a gift and a happiness to be able to be there in that moment.
Q: In the past, to feel competitive, you felt the need to train a lot. Winning Roland Garros with only 8 tournaments under your belt, now maybe not. Does this win vindicate your technical abilities over your mental ones, and physical strength?
A: It’s a logical evolution in a career. As one gets older, a lot of things come more automatically, the game more matter-of-fact, and you don’t need so much preparation. To be honest, it’s fantastic to be considered to have the mental and physical advantages, and being able to sell that off is a positive. I believe that mentally and physically I have been a forceful player, that I’ve always tried to play above my level. Beyond the fight and the dedication, this quality, along with the desire to improve, is a very important mental quality…but you couldn’t have achieved what I have without the rest, without having a great forehand, a great backhand, or great ball control. Sometimes we forget to stress these things, because they highlight the rest.
Q: You can’t win without your racquet, right?
A: Mental and physical strength help you in a certain moment of the match, but to win more often, and more overall, you win with your tennis, and not with your head. You can win mental matches like the one the other day versus Djokovic, but to win them, mentally, you have to get to the absolute limit, and to get to that limit – you have to get there with your tennis. It’s a combination of everything. The tennis is what has helped me get to where I am, and the mental toughness is what has allowed me to achieve what I wouldn’t have, without it.
Q: Of those who don’t appreciate your technique, is it because you don’t have a one-handed backhand like Federer?
A: If you asked my opponents, I think that they would say I have, in terms of tennis, many special things. Maybe the mental fortitude would come up, because I’ve played a lot of long matches, 5 hours, in which I’ve come back, been equally in the hunt until the end. These types of matches are memorable, of course, and my style of play, to fight, to overcome, made sense that this type of match would be in sync with my career. A player like Federer, more given to 3 quick shots, hasn’t played so many of these long matches in his career. Technically, there’s no doubt that he’s better than me, but, evidently, I’m better than most of the rest. If not, I wouldn’t be here.
Q: You have said, “Sport without challenges is stupidity.”
A: These are things that I’ve always thought and I live with them. One has to be realistic: to play tennis without an objective…fine. I swing a racquet and hit a ball over a net. What does that mean? Very little. In and of itself, it’s trivial. Sports in general are stupid, if one doesn’t take them to their highest level. And the highest level means to play towards a goal, with passion, with joy and desire. This is what I’ve thought my whole life. When I play golf, I give it all I have. People are wrong about me. They say, “All he wants is to win.” What I love is competition, the investment of energy, the concentration that it takes to try as hard as possible. Obviously, I like to win, but what inspires me is to feel that I’ve given all I have. If not, I don’t see the point. And if not, I’ll say let’s have a laugh, and find something else to do.
Q: How does it make you feel that your co-players see you as an idol? In Madrid, you spoke to Horacio Zeballos, wishing him well, and he said, “I’ve just been blessed by the Pope!”
A: I can’t imagine it’s like that. I feel close to all the players, especially the Spanish-speaking ones, because the relationship is so easy. I don’t think they see me like that. I don’t know. I see myself as an approachable person and I think they see me that way, too.
Q: Now you’re going back to Wimbledon [starting 24 June] where you left injured in 2012.
A: Last year I entered Wimbledon without being well, being injured…I was playing compromised. I wanted to put in the effort, with everything this tournament means to me. It wasn’t to be. I forced it. Everything I wanted to try to do was too limited. It didn’t affect me negatively in what was to come after. When I get there this year, the simple fact of being there will be good news. It’s a beautiful tournament, and I love it. Even if I won’t arrive so well-prepared, just being there will make me feel satisfied.
Q: It clears your head.
A: It nourishes me. I love the feeling of stepping on the grass, of playing on those courts, which is such a different sensation. For me, whatever the result, it’s worth it. Am I arriving less prepared than usual? [He won't play a grass court tune-up before the tournament.] Yes, but it comes back to the same thing: I’ll get there healthy, good physically, and mentally I’ll arrive there in a good place. Then, if I’m lucky enough to get through a few matches, perhaps not having played a tournament before will translate into mental freshness. [At Wimbledon], all matches are very difficult; it’s the most uncertain tournament of the year. The confidence of having won here [in Paris] gives me that something extra that you need to play well there.
Q: The Nadal of 2008, who only allowed Roger Federer 4 games in the final, is he better than the 2013 version of Nadal?
A: In tennis terms? Could be. There are moments, and moments. 2008 had things that 2013 doesn’t have, and 2013 has things that 2008 didn’t have. Speaking strictly of Roland Garros, perhaps that was the best I played in my career. But you have to look at the whole picture. In terms of results, I was in the same place in 2008 that I’m in now. Those things are in the past. Now, I’m looking forward.
Q: What was the best advice you got during your injury lay-off?
A: When I had to stop playing, I was lucky to have my family around me, which is very important. Also my team, which helped me keep working with the enthusiasm and mentality necessary to not lose my form. I had friends and sponsors who kept their faith in me. This was a very important source of confidence.
Q: You asked that it be made public the exact number of controls [drug tests] that are given to each tennis player. Did it bother you that, during the injury lay-off, there were those who would say you’d disappeared?
A: I don’t like it when a player comes out and says: ”They don’t test me enough.” It’s easy to come off well by saying that. Or, to say “I get tested too often.” [I would probably prefer that it be], “I’m tested this much.” X-number of times. Just make it public. That way, you don’t create doubt, nor the sense that one player looks good because he says they don’t test him enough, or that another looks bad because he complains that they test him too much. The logical thing is to make everything public knowledge, and then there’s no question. Disappeared? I didn’t disappear at all; everyone in the world who wanted to, knew where to find me: at home, and working every day.