‘Positive energy’ fuels Rafael Nadal as he hits the ground running in IPTL

He will take a day or two to celebrate Christmas but don’t be fooled by the smiles: Rafael Nadal is on a mission

At the end of a long, challenging season for the 29-year-old force of nature that is Rafael Nadal, the tennis world finally seemed to be righting itself.

In the space of a year, the 14-time Grand Slam champion had slipped from world No1 in June 2014 to No10 this summer in the aftermath of quarter-final losses at both the Rome Masters and the French Open. By the time the Tour reached its climax at the World Tour Finals in London in November, though, Nadal was back to No5—and once there, he beat all three round-robin opponents, including two higher-ranked players.

He had won 61 matches from 81 played, won three titles from six finals, and was now in the semi-finals of one of the most prestigious tournaments of the year. He was happy that his form was heading in the right direction, but not so satisfied that he felt able to take a well-earned rest.

As for 2016, it’s important just to be happy competing

Rafael Nadal

His message was blunt, and even silenced—briefly—the packed media centre at the O2: “I didn’t make the right work: I don’t deserve a vacation this year.

“I’m going to have the next couple of days after here [he would lose in the semis to Novak Djokovic], yes, have some days off next week only. Then Friday, Saturday and Sunday I have the charity event for my foundation in Mallorca. I’m going to practise physical performance. I not going to practise tennis next week, but probably Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I’m going to be in the gym. Then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I going to practise a little bit of tennis—and physical performance still. Then IPTL.”

That last was a reference to his debut appearance in the tennis jamboree that has taken the off-season by storm, the fast and furious, team-based International Premier Tennis League that this year takes in five cites from Dubai, across India, and on to the Far East.

And thereby hangs a tale. Nadal was originally signed to play in the first IPTL season last year, but a series of injuries to wrist and back, plus appendicitis, played havoc with his fitness and his schedule from Wimbledon 2014 onwards. He would win just four matches in the three tournaments he played during the late autumn, and would miss the US Open and the World Tour Finals entirely.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Nadal faced repeated blows to his confidence through the first months of 2015. It would, for example, become the first year in a decade that he failed to win a Grand Slam or a clay Masters title, and the first in a decade that he fell from the top five. He also suffered losses to men he had previously dominated: Fernando Verdasco, Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic, plus a shock loss to the 102-ranked Dustin Brown in Round 2 at Wimbledon.

His solution, as has been the case after every physical knock-back, was to work harder, and by the US Open swing, he began to talk of a rise in confidence—and of the certainty that his game would follow. He made the finals of Beijing and Basel and the semis in Shanghai Masters, and London reinforced that form.

And should anyone doubt that hard graft remains his watchword, he practised longer and harder than any of his seven colleagues at the O2: His pre-match warm-ups were more intense than their training sessions. And, he seemed to say, if one practice session is good, two must be better—he switched from Centre Court to practice court and back in jaw-dropping fashion.

So to conclude his stay at the O2 with the assertion that he did not deserve a vacation… well, his back-story explained the split-second silence that followed.

But he meant every word. Nadal is now in Manila with the IPTL’s Indian Aces, and soon confirmed that the work has indeed not stopped: “I have been doing an event for my Foundation with my family in Majorca. And I have been practising for a few days before I came here. Not much, but I hope it’s going to be enough. I’m going to try and work as hard as I can this week in IPTL, and when I’m back in Majorca, continue with my preparation [for Australia].

He has also, he admitted, managed a bit of golf, a bit of fishing, and to attend the wedding of his friend, Marc Lopez, but since arriving in the Philippines, he and coach Toni Nadal have already done a kids’ training clinic on behalf of the Rafa Nadal Academy, and at his next stop in New Delhi, where his foundation has a centre, he hopes to link up with the children who are benefiting from the centre’s education programme.

As he sat courtside in Manila, absorbing the rules and regulations of the IPTL format, Nadal reflected back on 2015 and forward to 2016.

“I think I did start to play better after Montreal, Cincinnati, US Open—not confident enough to win the matches I wanted to win, but it’s true after that in Shanghai, Beijing, Basel, Paris, and London I started to play great tennis and win matches against the best players at the World Tour Finals. And I’m happy for that fact, and that helped me to finish the season with positive energy.

“As for 2016, it’s important just to be happy competing. This year, for a couple of months, I wasn’t enjoying much the competition because I had problems with the self control of emotions, but now it feels I am better, that it is almost fixed, so I’m just happy for that, and my main goal is try to keep going like this.”

Happy is the word to sum up his demeanour once he was on court competing—even in this showbiz environment. He could barely stop beaming through his opening doubles match with Ivan Dodig, and after going 0-3 down against Berdych in his singles set, he surged back to seal the match for the Aces in the tie-break 11th game.

He was drenched in sweat, yet with the stop-clock ticking down the seconds, he discarded towels and tics to play fast, continuous tennis that produced some glittering shot-making. His serve was big, his backhand sharp, his infamous forehand more than a match for the Czech’s. And the smile grew broader with every rally.

Nadal next follows the IPTL circus to Delhi, where he will collide with Roger Federer in what promises to be a blistering half hour or so of tennis. But Nadal, for all the fun, sees this as a stepping-stone to bigger prizes in 2016.

“For me, is like being in Mallorca practising. I’m going to be practising a lot every day. It’s like preparation for next season. That’s it. I’ll come back to Mallorca. I have 14 to 22 December that Joao Sousa is coming to practise, then Abu Dhabi.”

The three-day UAE Mubadala event is a high-quality, round-robin showdown between six top-20 players that begins even before the New Year is rung in. From there, the Spaniard heads to Doha and a first opportunity—if the draw plays out—to avenge the four defeats he suffered to Djokovic in 2015.

No doubt Nadal will take a day or two to celebrate Christmas, at home with his nearest and dearest, but don’t be fooled by the smiles: Nadal is on a mission.

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