The following article by Frédéric Bernès and Julien Rebouillet appeared in L'Equipe on 11 June 2013. It has been translated for us by Moondancer. (The original title is a play on words that gets lost in translation so her title is a loose translation.)
Nadal in a whirlwind
L’Equipe, 11 June 2013
By Frédéric Bernès and Julien Rebouillet
The morning after his 8th feat in Roland Garros, the Spaniard looks back on his season, his doubts, his convinctions and his desires for us.
It’s a small street behind the ‘avenue Montaigne”. In the middle of this little street in the very “chicos” VIII° district of Paris, there’s the ‘Alma Melia’ hotel. This has been the Nadal headquarters during Roland Garros for years now. At this time of the year, this is “casa Nadal”. It’s a real Spanish enclave. The television in the lobby shows TVE and if you ask for a coffee in French, the staff will respond: “Si senõr, con mucho placer.”
Yesterday morning, ranking the first arrivals for breakfast, Moya narrowly defeated Pau Gasol. Coming in las: Rafael Nadal, his eyes not quite fully open, with the look of somebody who was still snoring under his blanket just ten minutes ago. Not quite awake, not really on time, but ready to reply to our questions without looking at his watch. Next up, like every year, he went to Disneyland to shake the paw of his good buddy Mickey. Yesterday evening, he was expected in Barcelona for an appointment with Dr. Cottoro the following morning, to inspect his left knee. Withdrawing from Halle, Nadal will start playing on hard again tomorrow or the day after that at home in Manacor. He won’t devour any grass before next week. In the meantime, we have 7 topics for him.
Soon, world number 1?
Admit that it’s funny. The day after his 8th Roland Garros, he falls back a place to world number 5. With it, he also became the 2nd best ranked Spanish player, after Ferrer. But this will not last long. Leading the “race” by far, mathematically already qualified for the Masters and this without playing the Australian Open or Miami, he has nothing to defend any more this season, other than a 2nd round in Wimbledon. This is why Forget warned on Sunday: “Nadal will put his fist down. He’s on his way to become the world number one again.” Four weeks ago, Nadal wanted to calm things down: “This is a transition year. I don’t want to make myself scared over the ranking. There’s no pressure with that. The years before, I worried too much about it.
Yesterday, he preferred to hide behind his eternal pragmatism: “I am 2000 points ahead of Djokovic (7000 vs 5030). That’s a lot, but 2000 is what you gain by winning a grand slam title. If I make a mistake in Wimbledon or in the US Open and Djokovic goes deep, he will stay where he is. Furthermore, we’re now moving to fast surfaces where he is more at an advantage. It also remains to be seen how Del Potro and Murray will cope with their injuries. Okay, let’s say I have 7000 points, but to end the season as world number one, you need at least 10 thousand points. You see, I don’t have enough. But, I would sign with eyes closed if I end the season as world number 4 given all that I’ve won so far this year."
King or emperor?
If we would schematize the history behind Nadal’s come-back, we would divide it into three chapters: 1. How much time does he need to get back to a very high level? Let’s say that he achieved that sometime between Acapulco and Indian Wells. 2. Will he win Roland Garros again? This, we know. 3. Will he be able to win another grand slam title outside Paris? We have to go back to the US Open 2010 to find the previous one. That’s a long time ago and some wonder if Nadal has not gone back to how he was at the start, when his game was nearly only suited for clay. A lot of people think if he is to win outside of Roland Garros, it’ll be in Wimbledon (it’s there where he won on his second grand slam surface in 2008). Toni doesn’t say no. He says yes, but: “the real difference between Roland and Wimbledon is that in Wimbledon, there are more players able to beat Rafael. It’s a tougher surface for us to control.”
And what does Rafael say about it? “I have only played one tournament away from clay this season and I've won that one. However, that was Indian Wells and historically, it’s always been the hardcourt surface that suits me the best. I think that I’ve reached 8 semi-finals consecutively over there. I can’t tell you whether I will be able to keep the same level on grass and then on hardcourt. I don’t know. It’s true that I started out being more specialized as a claycourter, but I was not exactly chopped liver on a fast court (laughter). At 16, I reached the semis of the Wimbledon juniors. I haven’t seen a change of 0 to 100 at this level. Today, I don’t ask myself what is the most difficult or the most important between becoming the world number one again and winning a Major outside Paris. What’s more important is to be happy. To be happy, I need to prepare myself as best as possible in order to beat the best. For me, it’s as simple as that.
10 Rolands or 17 grand slams?
“Winning 8 times Roland Garros is already the most anybody has done in the same grand slam event. What’s crazy is that he still gives the impression of being a junior”, estimates Forget, “Mentally, he’s the strongest player in history. He can win another 3 titles here in Paris. His limits are only physical. I think that he will go further than the 14 grand slam titles of Sampras. The 17 of Federer? He’s still far away from that, but he’s only 27 years old….”
Nadal steps on the breaks. “Ten Rolands? 17 Grand Slams? If I get there, I will be more than happy! (Bursts out in laughter). Four months ago, nobody, not even I, knew if I was going to be able to win Roland. It’s always the same: “if you win, people will put you too high. If you lose, they will put you too low. I try to stay right in the middle. If others want to join me there; they are welcome.” (laughs)
During the last days of Roland Garros, it’s as if the entire Nadal clan wanted to give us a message. In short: “stop treating Rafael like a horse by only talking about his physique and his mentality. Have you seen what a fine touch he has with his hands?”. “No, I’m not the one who urged them to send you this message”, said an amused Rafael yesterday. “but it’s true that people are often mistaken about me. Mental power? Sure. Physical power? A bit less than a year ago, but yes. However, you can not win 12 grand slam titles and 24 Master 1000 because you can focus and run a lot (laughs). Of course, there’s technique. If you touch the ball well, you play long, close to the lines,…that’s what makes you win. That’s technical.”
On this topic, Francis Roig, his alternate coach is formal: “Since his return, he’s a better player. His forehand is more precise, he plays faster with his backhand and with that shot, it’s easier for him to open up the court.”
Is it reasonable to train less?
As a result of those 7 months he was forced to stop, Nadal can no longer afford to train as much as before. Knowing his necessity to work hard in order to reassure himself, it’s not exactly clear-cut. “For me, to train more is still the best way to improve. I need to reassure myself in training. I need it to be sure that everything is well. But with time, I changed my mentality bit by bit. Why do I have so many doubts? I will never be the sort of person who thinks so highly of himself. For me, defeat is always a possibility. No matter if it’s the semis against Djokovic or the first round against Brands, it’s the same. It’s like a travel companion. Not a nice companion, but you have to accept it.
Stronger than a year ago?
A year ago, Nadal was already world number one in the race, before Wimbledon. It’s the same this year. After nine tournaments, did he return to where he was before? “Last year, I was very strong. My game was really of the sort that I could hope to be victorious outside Roland Garros as well. I was playing at a very high level, from a tennis point of view and physically. Think back to the final against Djokovic in Australia that lasted nearly six hours…I'm not stronger now but what I have achieved since my return is a very, very nice surprise. I’m not far away from my physical level of last year, but I’m not yet there. The main thing is that I manage to keep up in tough matches. The morning after my six-sets match against Djokovic, I was able to train without a problem and I was 100% in the final.
Objective Rio 2016?
Let’s stop asking the question if Nadal can get near, equal or pass the grand slam record of Federer or not. Instead, let’s try to find out until when Nadal plans on playing. “Nobody knows what life has in store for us”, he told us yesterday. “For example, I didn’t foresee having to spend seven months at home in 2012. My biggest goal is to be at the Olympic Games of Rio in 2016, ready to play to win. Will I get there? I don’t know but I’m confident. After that, if I'm still having fun playing tennis, I will continue to play. Will my absence of 7 months allow me to stay longer on tour? Why not. I often say that it sometimes takes some time before you find out if something was for the good or for the bad. I would have preferred to not have this forced time-out but, I guess that mentally, I am now more eager to play, to fight, to feel the emotions of the competition. At this moment, I’m fresh and motivated.