The following interview appeared in El Mundo on 7th May. It has been translated for vamosbrigade.com by nou.amic.
Nadal: "I suffered from anxiety. I wasn't controlling the ball or my breathing."
Madrid, 07 May 2016
By JAVIER MARTÍNEZ Translated by nou.amic for vamosbrigade.com
Rafael Nadal has five rooms reserved in his name at the Hotel AC Palacio del Retiro. The current world number five, with 14 Grand Slam titles behind him, given new life by winning his ninth title in Monte Carlo and the same number in Barcelona, is in Madrid accompanied by his family and all of his team, with whom, just hours after this interview, he went along to Santiago Bernabeu stadium to watch Real Madrid's victory over Manchester City which took them into the Champion's League final.
The interview lasted 42 minutes, not something that happens very frequently in interviews of this type, which tend to be hurried and not very easy going. More numbers. Much to the tennis player's press agent's surprise, there were four of us in the EL MUNDO reporting team that turned up, for that is what this era of multimedia journalism and the stature of the personality demands. Rafael Nadal (Manacor, 1986) shook us by the hand one by one, with that cordiality he has always shown. He did not appear to find it an effort to be pleasant and talkative throughout our conversation or to put up with the succession of shots taken by our photographer and the manoeuvres of those in charge of the video recording without a scowl.
Madrid's altitude seems to affect you less than before.
- I've never found it bad. It's quite another thing if I'm playing well or not, my game is more secure at sea-level because there's a bit more control over everything. Here, for example, if your opponent serves well, you have less of a chance with the return.
Your results are excellent once again, once that anxiety that troubled you was conquered. In fact, you've been playing well for some time now, despite not having had the success to back it.
- I think there was already a change last year in Montreal. But when you've been playing badly for a while and on top of that you have problems of anxiety, things don't happen from one day to another, there has to be a process of regaining confidence so that they go better. In Abu Dhabi and Doha at the beginning of 2016, my results were rather bad compared to how I was feeling. As an athlete, you yourself know when you're OK and when you're not, and I was feeling fine, able to do more than I did. Then I lost a few matches I was very close to winning, and being able to pull these matches off or not is the fine line between having a great tournament or not. The second happened to me, but I still had good feelings. I needed to win to confirm that personal feeling I had. Indian Wells was a huge step and it was a shame about Miami, because I was playing well.
The image of you immediately after your win in Monte Carlo - kneeling on the ground, your head back, with a very eloquent look of satisfaction - is one of great liberation.
- Happy about winning and with the satisfaction of having done it at a great tournament, Monte Carlo has always been very special for me. I felt strong and able all tournament, just as in Indian Wells, capable of making a come back. When you manage to put a stop to the anxiety that causes every error to affect you much more than usual, from then on you can return to playing well.
When did you detect that anxiety for the first time and how did it begin to manifest itself?
- I noticed it when I was practising at the beginning of 2015. The fact is, I was playing very badly. I made the quarterfinals in Australia, but my feelings about my tennis were bad. When you're practising badly or playing badly, I understand anxiety and nerves, the lack of control of one's feelings. Things like that happen. But then, when I practise well, I usually play well, but if these problems persist when I'm competing, then something's not working. Practising well and competing badly has practically never happened to me in my life, above all not being in control of myself on court. Last year in Miami was a clear example of what was happening. I had been practising well, but the matches came round and in the first, against Almagro, I was already feeling anxious about my breathing. The same thing happened against Verdasco. From there on, I played well in Monte Carlo, badly again in Barcelona, more or less OK here in Madrid and well in Rome. Things began to get better from then on, but I got a strange feeling again at Wimbledon against Brands. Over and above how you play or that you lose, which enters into an athlete's logic and I've never had any problems with, it was inner anguish, not being able to control your timing, the point, the ball or your breathing. When you don't control your breathing, you stop controlling everything else.
· Nadal during the interview. Albert Di Lolli MUNDO
You've always faced up to those situations on your own, you've worked them out without professional help. The psychologist is a very common figure in tennis. Have you never thought that could help you?
- I went to a psychologist once when I was a child because I found it hard to get to sleep at night.
What age were you then?
- I don't know. Ten or something like that. But no.... It's also a matter of speaking to the people around you, being close to the people who know you well. You may have anxiety, but it also goes away in the end. I always thought things were going to change and go better. I wasn't in control of my personal situation on court, even though I was practising very well. No matter how much personal reflection I did, "you've been here for I don't know how many years, you've done all that you've done, you're now going through a worse time and it doesn't make any sense to be anxious at this stage of your career, when it's already practically all done' , despite knowing this and having it very clear in my head, when the time came I didn't manage to have control. But, enough, it's better not to go on talking about it. I think I've got over it and things are going better, winning or losing, but at least enjoying myself on court.
Those sleeping problems weren't completely resolved. I believe you still find it hard to get to sleep at times...
- Sleeping, I sleep well now [laughs]. I'm not a great fan of sleeping, all my life I've had the feeling that I waste time when I'm sleeping. But I've also got better about that as I get older and sleep more than I did before.
Do you sense you're back intimidating your opponents the way you used to?
- I don't know. One thing's clear: when you feel well with yourself, when you're confident and calm, things come more smoothly to you and your opponent usually notices it.
At Roland Garros you'll meet with David Haggerty, president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), after having asked the organisation to make the results of your anti-doping tets public.
- If only all tests were public. The speculation about sport itself would stop. Sport has to be clean and it has to appear to be so. Everything that's done so that sport continues to be an example in society and can be viewed with trust, as a positive reference for values, helps put an end to the speculation and to the people that cheat. I'd like everybody's tests to be completely transparent. If I am tested today and they have the results in two weeks' time, it's logical for them to be published. That way how many urine, blood, etcetera tests each one has would be known.
With your complaint against the French ex minister Michelle Bachelot you wanted to combat frivolity, the idea that everything is free, that you can slander someone without any consequences.
- More than anything, the point came when enough was enough. There were two motives in the past for me not wanting to do anything when something had been said about me on this topic: one was because I thought the people that said it didn't have enough credibility and the other because it's a very unpleasant subject and the less it's spoken about the better. Now, when a time has come when those things are being repeated, and a person who ought to be reliable says it about me and ordinary people might think she has privileged information, then yes that's rather more serious. When a person like that makes gratuitous comments, false ones without any information to back them, the time has come when one has to stop and fight for what one is, for what one has been all one's life, and for how one has worked to fulfil one's greatest dream, which was to be a professional tennis player. Then, I've been fortunate to be prominent at it.
· Rafa Nadal during the interview Albert Di Lolli MUNDO
Why do you think you've been pointed at from several fronts?
- Normally, people who accuse others without having any type of information have personal problems. When you are content and sure of yourself, you don't have to go after others. I have complete confidence and belief that all the opponents I play are totally clean. I have no doubt about that. First, because I believe in the anti-doping programme and second, because I believe in people until they show me the contrary. I'm not one of those people that think badly of others. These people do it because they themselves obviously have the personal problem of not being happy with themselves, and starting from there, looking beyond, from the technical aspect, maybe just because of my way of fighting each point, which I've done throughout my career, my style of play. Some have a very good backhand slice, others a serve that stands out, some have a very good brain, others a great physique: each one has his attributes, and that doesn't mean they come from something done wrong.
You look more distrustful than before of the communication media.
- No, no. I'm not a great one for reading what's written about me, because I try not to pay much attention, but over the years you get to know the people that are good to you and those that are not so good, the people you can trust more and those you can trust less. And that's it. Always trying to respect the work of each one, as long as they respect mine. I have to be grateful to the communication media, because I am what I am thanks to them.
Well, thanks to what you have done.
- Obviously, thanks to what I have done on the tennis court, but if the media didn't write about it, it would have much less significance, of that I'm sure. Then, there are things you might have read that you don't like, others you like far too much, successes and failures blown up out of proportion. That's what the press is at times, and my life is a bit the opposite. One of continuity, regularity, not putting myself up on a pedastal too much when things go very well or sinking too low when they go badly. Life continues almost exactly the same, whether you win, lose, play better or worse, and the happiness you have for a victory is momentary, because after a while you're still just as nervous... and when you lose, you still have opportunities. The press reports or experiences things in a more dramatic way, all of them. I understand and respect all opinions so long as they're as respectful as I always am with the media. It's another thing if they cross the line, go too far. I think my behaviour on and off the court has always been appropriate.. and when one does what one can, one's not obliged to do more. I've never thrown or broken racquets nor have I fought with anyone or screamed and shouted. When I've lost, I've gone home. I've always tried to be sincere with all of you at press conferences, explaining things the way I felt them, as far as possible, obviously, and that's what I've done.
About not throwing racquets, not even as a child. I imagine you've been tempted to do so at some time.
- No, the temptation to hit myself on the head with it, yes, but not to break the racquet. In the end, the racquet's not to blame. Also I'll tell you something, I'm used to putting up with things, being in control of myself, thanks to my uncle and my family, who have instilled it in me since I was a child and have made me do it. That I am indeed satisfied with, and when you are in the habit of it being like that, you no longer think of doing anything else.
Dimitrov broke three racquets last Sunday in the Istanbul final.
- Yes, he lost control, but it's also true that just as he broke them he went and shook hands with the umpire before he penalised him. He lost his cool at a given moment, but the truth is, he's a good boy. He's neither bad-mannered nor arrogant. He did it in a moment of frustration and then apologised.
Is your passion for the game still intact? Isn't boredom creeping in after so many years or are you safe from the erosion of your spirit with time?
- Maybe I've got a bit less energy than before, maybe, but I'm still as excited as ever, to do things well, to keep on improving each time I go to practise and to give the best of everything each time I go to compete. No complaining, or protesting, or taking it badly when things go badly. I try to take things as they come and be positive about it, which is one of my great strengths.
Djokovic said the other day that you had helped him become a better tennis player. Is the feeling reciprocal? It seems as if the three or four of you at the top have taken feedback from one another in your long battle.
- I think the demand made on us has been very great, with us having the obligation to be very consistent, to lose very little so as to remain in the group at the top. Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Ferrer... Maybe the three of us at the top have been very very consistent for many years and we've forced each other to be at our maximum in each match we've played, that is, want it or not, we've helped one another to maintain consistency in every practise session and be one hundred per cent professional, to respect all our opponents and know each loss is important in what may happen at the end of the year as regards ranking. And, obviously, when you see players of such a high level across the net from you, you know you practically don't have enough of anything. It's no longer "I'm going out on court and if I play well I'll win", no, it's "I'm going out on court and if I play well perhaps I'll lose". This makes you give of your maximum in each practice and you know nothing is enough, you're forced to improve.
What are the new generations lacking to be able to take the big step?
- It could be two things. Either those of the next generation haven't been consistent enough or haven't had the level to displace us or we've been playing at a very high level and they haven't been capable of reaching that level. Either of the two could be correct and I don't really know which is the more valid. These days things have changed a little. Players reach their maximum level a bit later, at a later age. That's the way it is. The motive? I don't know. I don't know if it's because the players mature a bit later or exactly why. It is true there's been a generation gap, a new generation of a very good level hasn't made an appearance, but I think one's coming through now, and it's of a very high level. Kyrgios, Zverev....
Which of the ones emerging do you think has the most chance?
- It looks to me as if Thiem has great potential, above all on clay courts; I think he's a candidate to win Roland Garros in the next four to five years. I think Zverev and Kyrgios are two players with unbelievable possibilities. They have no defects tenniswise. Mentality is another thing. We'll need to see how they evolve, how they respond when the time comes when you're not just a novelty with no pressure on you at all, but you have the responsibility of having to play well every week.
And the future of the game? This tendency to "belt the ball and not think", as you yourself put it a few days ago. Tiriac recently commented to me that increasing the diameter of the ball could perhaps bring back a more tactical tennis and the service wouldn't be so outstanding.
- I think that (tactical tennis) is being played on clay. If you watch the matches in Barcelona, in Monte Carlo, there yes we did play long points, long rallies. It's another story on hardcourt. Nowadays the serve and the return of serve have a tremendous impact. The tendency is to play thinking less, tactics have practically no influence in matches, it's the one who's hitting the ball better, who has the capacity to hit more winning shots, who wins. And you don't have the possibility of looking for a strategic solution or anything like that. At times the ball travels so fast that nowadays the player who hits the ball first has the advantage, above all on hardcourts. It's hard to explain but, although a player is better than many others when it comes to playing and understanding the game, if the other is determined to hit the ball as hard as he can right from the start and to go for winning returns of serve, you're in his hands. And right now, this is difficult to put a stop to.
· Rafa Nadal, during the interview. Alberto Di Lolli MUNDO
Do you see any way to remedy this?
- I don't think there's any for our generation now. When I speak about this, I'm never speaking about our generation, nor about me personally, because, with these conditions, things are going and have gone unbelievably for me. But it is true that people hit the ball harder, serve faster, so that, for the future, in order to stop this it'll need to be dealt with from when the players are ten or twelve years old... and there could then be changes within the next eight or ten years.
How do you carry off being considered an example to society? Some athletes reject this label because they consider that is other people's responsibility.
- To be honest, as I've never considered myself as that, I don't have to carry it off. I've always been myself, I've tried to do the things I think are right and that have been instilled in me since I was a child and, then, if that is an example to society or to the young, so be it. I try at least always to do things as well as possible. I'm aware we're in front of cameras when I'm on a tennis court and that certain kinds of things shouldn't be done, because after all there are children watching, and it's bad for them educationally to see certain types of attitudes, I think. But, at the same time, I can also tell you I've lived my career and my life in a natural way.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons for your attraction.
- I don't know. I'm sure I've never hidden or stopped doing things because of photos. I've lived my life in a natural way and I've done the things I've believed were right and haven't done the things I didn't think were right. Sometimes, I've maybe said things to the press that haven't been good for my personal image and I've still said them because I thought that was the way it was. I try to be natural and do and say what I think is right.
Javier Gomá, a philosopher who's very keen on tennis, considers your exemplariness to be transversal, capable of reconciling people on the right, people on the left, people with different ways of thinking.
- That's complicated today, in these times [laughs]. If only... It could... But no, not these days.
Some people would, symbolically, propose you or Del Bosque (manager of the Spanish football team) for Prime Minister.
- The way things are, I don't think either he or I are prepared for such a challenge.
Do you believe the upcoming elections will solve the political situation?
- I think it could be solved if they stop looking for personal benefits, and stop radicalizing everything in general, if they stop this about everything they do being right, and everything the other does being wrong. Things are neither black nor white, and to make pacts you can't always be criticising what the other does. If the PP (conservative) is in government, the PSOE (socialist) can't be criticising the PP nor can Podemos (leftwing radical), or those in opposition. And if the others are in government, the PP can't be criticising what they do all the time. I don't think anyone is in possession of the truth. I think they all do good things, and others not so good, and things have to be sorted out through speaking, discussing and reaching pacts, which is what society has voted for. But for this to happen people, parties in this case, have to give way and let the people see themselves recompensed for what they've voted. They haven't voted for anything black or white. They've voted for grey, so, the parties must come to an agreement.
What do you think of the Panama Papers?
- I don't have enough information. And, just as I don't like people speaking about things they don't know about, when I don't know about things, I don't like to speak about them, either. I haven't formed an opinion on them.