Rafa, nº1 sur terre

By Rémi Bourrières and Stephanie Tortorici  Translated by Moondancer for vamosbrigade.com

The following interview, by Rémi Bourrières and Stephanie Tortorici, was conducted in Monte Carlo and was published in the April edition of the French Tennis magazine. It has been translated for vamosbrigade.com by Moondancer.

Rafa, nº1 on clay

At the end of this April day, at the start of the Monte Carlo tournament, he arrives on scene relaxed and smiling. 
His smile. It instantly radiates warmth, coming from this incredible athlete and it touches us. This man is humble and blessed with an exquisite kindness. Despite his incredible achievements, this champion has never gotten big-headed. An authentic man. A smile that doesn’t lie. We met up with the one a couple of days before he went on to win his ninth title here, his 100th final. He remains THE reference on clay (whether he wins his 10th title in Roland Garros or not). Rafael Nadal presents himself in a non-calculating way, just like he is on court. 

Tennis Magazine: Rafa, here we are, ten years after we’ve seen you step onto the highest possible level. In all that time, what have been the most important changes in your way of playing?
Rafa: I don’t run as much as before, that’s certain! Otherwise, it’s hard to tell. I haven’t made any drastic changes. It’s been a gradual process, little changes. I have improved certain things but without a doubt, I have also lost a bit in other aspects… In the end, by fine-tuning a couple of things here and there, I have found a way to stay competitive at the highest level.

TM: Has your state of mind also changed?
You know, in tennis, your state of mind changes every month. If you play well, you feel well, if you don’t play as well, you lose confidence. What’s certain is that my passion for the game and my motivation to keep on training every day have not changed. Those have always been very high. Maybe now, I have a higher appreciation for training as when I was younger, when I always wanted to play matches. My training sessions were already quite intense of course, but I couldn’t wait to get into the thick of it. Now, I appreciate each moment I spend on the court, whether it’s in training or in competition, even if the results haven’t as good as before.

TM: When we see you play doubles, it seems that you find even more joy from that.
I love playing doubles because there’s not as much stress, not as much pressure. But in the end, you know, we love that pressure. We love that feeling of the nerves that get more intense when we step on court. That hasn’t changed either. I’ll always have the same stress before a match.

TM: So, in general, you still enjoy your profession as a tennis player just as much?
There’s a ground rule: the more you win, the more you enjoy it. However, it is a bit different when you have been so long on tour, having had so much success. One thing is better than before: I have the feeling that these days that the public supports me now more than ever before. Without a doubt, my recent struggles play a part in this. But, it’s really nice and it gives me good feelings on court. However, my goal stays the same: to remain competitive at the highest possible level. I’m very much focused on that.

TM: A long time has gone by without a victory. Wasn’t that a difficult experience for you?
A bit, obviously. In fact, the most difficult part is not the losing, but it’s that feeling that you don’t feel capable of reaching your best level. If you play well and you lose, you generally accept that. I’m not a sore loser. You know that if you want to be a great competitor, you have to be ready to accept both loss and success. It’s part of sport and especially in tennis where you can lose on a weekly basis, so to speak. It’s not like in golf, where you can end as the 2nd, 3rd or 8th after a good day of competition. In tennis, the competition ends in a defeat. I’m feeling good at the moment; my game is in place and I’m in good health so that makes it easier for me to accept defeat. 

TM: About victory, let’s talk about Roland Garros. You’re counting to 9 these days. That famous “Decima” has almost become an obsession for the public and for the media. And for you?
I’m not fixated on anything on tour. I feel a lot of motivation, but never obsession. I don’t think that this sort of feeling is good for you. It’s like wanting to take revenge; it can suddenly turn against you! For me, that’s not what sports is all about. I have had a lot of success in my career in Roland Garros, more than I’ve ever dreamed off. That’s all I can say, because I hope to be able to stay at a high enough level to be able to get that tenth title. I don’t know if I will be able to do it, but I will do all that I can to achieve it.

TM: In your previous interview with us, you told us that 9 is your favourite number. Is that still the case? 
It’s true, yes. I don’t know why but I have a thing with number 9. Having said that, I’m not especially superstitious. People think that I am because of my rituals on court. However, these rituals are in fact little habits that help me to stay focused. To tell you the truth, I’m not like that off court. All those little things you can do or have so that it supposedly brings you luck, I don’t believe in that. 

TM: In the last few months, we’ve heard a lot of people talk about you considering hiring a “supercoach”. Perhaps that’s foolish talk for you, but just as a matter of getting rid of a misunderstanding, have you ever thought about it?
Never say never, everything can happen. But what I’ve always believed is that when things aren’t going my way, it’s not because of others but it’s because of me in the first place. Don’t forget that in the previous year, the fact that I didn’t win was mostly due to mental issues and not due to my game. The opposite is true. When I win, it’s mostly due to myself but obviously, with the help of people who surround me. However, considering all the incredible success we’ve managed to have together in all those years and considering all the difficult moments that we've also experienced together, it would be incredibly unfair of me to put the blame of my defeats on my team. 

TM: So, there’s never been talk of a change?
I’m happy with my team, I’m happy with Toni and Francis (Roig, his second coach – note from the editor)… I don’t know if there will be some changes in the future but if that would happen, it would for a major reason and at the moment, it’s not the case.

TM: Last year, you have often talked about your doubts. Are you the sort of person who asks himself a lot of questions?
No. You know, tennis is often on my mind but not all day long. Tennis has a big part in my life but it’s not my entire life either. There are plenty of other things that I love. Other than tennis, I like the same sort of things most people my age love doing. I believe it’s better that way in order to not feel that you’re missing out, although it’s true that I can’t spend the same amount of time with my friends as most people do on average. 

TM: Do you sometimes think of the end of your career?
I don’t know when or how my career will end. I will stop when I’m no longer happy with my life playing tennis or in case of a really bad injury. In a corner of my mind, I do think of the day when it will be time to stop. I also realise that this day is nearer than it was ten years ago. But it’s not as if it occupies my mind all the time. It doesn’t worry me. I’m not afraid of my post-career life, because - as I have said before - there are plenty of other things in life that I love besides tennis.

TM: Where - and against whom – would you like to play your last match?
I don’t like to think about that (smiles). It’s hard enough to picture it, in fact. For sure, it would have to be in my country, Spain. That would mean a lot for me, for I have known quite a bit of success in Madrid or Barcelona where the public has always been incredible with me. I would also consider Monte Carlo or even Rome, two tournaments that are close to my heart. Against whom? No idea. Anyway, retiring is not on my mind. So, it’s not really a good time to try and imagine all of that. We’ll talk again when the time comes and let’s hope that this won’t be any time soon…

TM: Novak Djokovic, a “special” opponent, is one of your main tormentors. Would you say that the level he’s playing at is one that has never been reached before, not even by Roger or yourself?
I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. It’s true that he’s playing incredibly well. What he’s been doing for two years now is simply fabulous. I can only congratulate him. But you must not forget that in 2014, I was number one in the race when I injured my wrist in the summer. After that, I had my appendicitis operation in the autumn. After that double cause to stop, I never quite returned to my best level. But before all of that, I was in the thick of it and I was very close to Novak’s level.

TM: In 2011, you already had a series of defeats against him and then, after having changed a couple of things, a bit less weight on your racquet among other things, you managed to reverse that situation. Have you been having similar reflections in recent times: to try everything to counter Djokovic?
The circumstances were not the same. My recent problems have nothing to do with Djokovic whereas that was the case back in 2011 (smiles). I was playing well, I was beating almost everybody but I ended up losing to him in the final. Last year, I had more defeats against other players. However, I was mostly fighting against myself. So, now, I’m not in the process of changing a lot of things with the view of beating Djokovic. What I’m mostly focused on right now is to improve my own game level. I’m on the right path, I believe…

TM: Nevertheless, you did change your strings for a while before returning to your old ones. You have also gone back to your old racquet…
Yes, simply because I have the feeling that I have more control with my “old” material. The racquet I tested last year as well as the new strings generally produce less top spin for my game. At this moment in the season, it’s important to me that I’m playing with the material I know best; the material I have the best feelings with.

TM: You’re in the process of starting your own academy in Manacor (Mallorca). What will be your role in the first stages?
Obviously, as long as I’m playing, I can’t spend a lot of time there so my role will mostly be that of an ambassador. As the academy is 5 minutes away from my home, I will be able to be more present there in the future. I don’t know yet if I will be a proper coach, it’s too soon to answer that sort of question. But I will be very involved in the academy. I count on passing a lot of time on court with the children, to play with them or to simply give them advice.

TM: What was the best advice you received when you were little?
When I was a child, my father once told me: if you want achieve something difficult, look for inspiration in somebody who has already done it. Don’t hesitate to copy that person. If he has done it, it means that it’s possible.

TM: What would you say to those children in your academy who wish to become professional players?
You know, our ambition is certainly to help those young people to become as good as they can in tennis. But above all, we want to help them grow so that they’ll become good people as well. That’s really the academy’s philosophy. We will rigorously follow their performances at school but we will also be vigilant about their good values: respecting yourself, your opponent, the umpire, the trainer,… That’s very important to me, because that’s the way I have been brought up and I believe that it still shows on court. We fully realise that not every child can grow up to become a professional. But having a good upbringing will help them in their future life. With a good upbringing, everything in life will seem less difficult. 

TM: Would you push your children to become professional?
I would never push anybody to become anything whatsoever. When you push somebody to do something against their will, failure is a guarantee. But I will encourage them, sure. 
According to me, the sports world is a good world to live in. It teaches you real values, it urges you to take good care of your health. It’s a healthy environment…well, normally it is (smiles). However, should one of my children want to play tennis at the highest level, you can be sure of it that I will fully behind him/her. 

TM: Let’s talk about your future. You will soon be 30 years old. How do see yourself in 30 years? What’s your “old man’s dream” so to speak. 
First of all, I hope to still be part of this world by that time. Otherwise, given the fact that I adore children, I see myself starting a family and this is something that’s always on my mind. The rest, however… We’ll see what good things life still has instore for me.

TM: And this title in Monte Carlo?
Rafa: This has been a very important week for me. I’ve been feeling better since the start of the year than I have ever felt last season. I keep on repeating it, but it has to be backed up with titles. This victory in Monte Carlo has at least given me the confirmation of how I feel. Monte Carlo is one of the most important places in my career. To win the 9th title there, after three unsuccessful years, it’s fabulous. Not just on a sports level, but also on an emotional level. 

Rafa & Tommy, two very stylish gentlemen
Since the summer of 2015, the champion and Tommy Hilfiger have a beautiful connection. Advantage 'chic style and sportswear' in a collaboration that started with a first set played in undergarments (Rafa’s admirers will cherish fond memories of this) and in the wake of that, the introduction of the perfume "TH Bold". In the spring of 2016, the Mallorcan will once again be his perfect self for “Taylored”, the TH Flex Rafael Nadal collection. Its speciality? It’s tailored for movement, in a wrinkle-free and breathable fabric to assure an extraordinary comfort, an efficient regulation of the temperature; flexible yet impeccable. 
It’s a custom-made service that provides suits adapted in function of morphology. The TH Flex Rafael Nadal Edition will be composed of suits (starting at € 550), shirts (€ 120) and ties, limited edition.

Bachelot bashing
Exceptional sports achievements are often the target of fantasies and suspicions and Rafael Nadal doesn’t escape this sad rule. In the past, the champion has been roughed up by Yannick Noah or the “Guignols” of Canal+ without any legal consequence. 
As we are printing this, a defamation lawsuit is underway in France against Ms. Roselyne Bachelot. For Tennis Magazine, it’s not an issue. We are openly giving our support to the 9-time Roland Garros winner, who declared: “I am tired about these things. I let it go a few times in the past. No more.” Nadal added that if the court considered that there had been wrongdoing and awarded him damages, all money would be given to an NGO or foundation in France. We will keep you informed about the procedure and the court rulings in our next edition.