Birthday boy Rafael Nadal ‘trying to stay positive’ – just like always
“The thing I learned is we need to try to not complain every day for stupid things”
In any normal year, Rafael Nadal would have been working his way towards the French Open title as he celebrated his birthday.
The Spanish super-star turned 34 on Wednesday, but this is no ordinary year. So instead of spending his big day in Paris, where he has been in the first week of June in almost every year since his first appearance at Roland Garros in 2005, he remained on his beloved home soil of Mallorca.
It was there that more than 70 players from the Rafa Nadal Academy, sitting in socially-distanced ranks around the central court of this magnificent facility, sang ‘Happy Birthday’ as he strode, beaming, into the centre of this very different stage.
Awaiting him was a chocolate cake, apparently cooked in the Academy’s kitchen, but for all the uniqueness of the occasion, it surely felt a little out of kilter, even after three months of lockdown caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Not since that first French Open, when Nadal won the title just as he turned 19, has he missed the tournament, and he has come to own it like no player ever before. He has lost only two matches since, though he was also forced to withdraw with injury ahead of the third round in 2016. And that adds up to a staggering 93-2 run and a record 12 titles.
Many in the tennis world had anticipated that Nadal would, by now, be closing on his 13th, and even more notably, his 20th Major—the equal of Roger Federer’s record tally.
Instead, the French Open has been moved to the third week in September, in the hope that the coronavirus will be under its own lockdown by then, and that this most international of sports will be able to bring together players from around the globe.
Another concern, though, will be the Parisian weather: for while the grand Philippe Chatrier court boasts a roof for the first time this year, that alone could not protect a packed schedule should rain wash out any days of play.
There are logistical problems, too, not least that the US Open, if it is played, would force a near-impossible turn-around in preparation and surface for players who make the sharp-end of the New York draw.
Not surprisingly, therefore, when Nadal took to Zoom to face broadcasters and journalists on Thursday, he faced many questions about the extensive disruptions to tennis, to his preparation, and to his life in general.
First, what has he missed most during the spring lockdown?
“What I have been missing the most is normal life. I mean, stay with friends, stay with family, that’s the main thing, more than even playing tennis, no? Of course, what I miss the most, too, is to listen to positive news because [it has] been every day terrible news since long, long time ago.
“Now I am back on a tennis court, [and] in some ways coming back to the normal life. Just trying to enjoy and stay positive every day about thinking that situation will be improving.”
It is a sentiment that has punctuated Nadal’s entire tennis career: ‘stay positive every day’. And he has needed to draw on that positivity more often than many.
He twice missed the Australian Open with injury, and twice had to miss Wimbledon, first with his knees in 2009 then his wrist in 2016—the same injury that forced his retirement during Roland Garros that year. And it was knee and wrist injuries that forced two absences at the US Open too.
Indeed for many years during Nadal’s heyday on the tour, the strapping round his knees became an entirely familiar addition to his playing strip. In 2012, he missed almost the entire second half of the season, including the London Olympics, due to tendinitis. Wrist injury and appendicitis decimated the latter part of 2014. And in 2018, there was a string of retirements and withdrawals for hip and knee problems.
Yet while many predicted a truncated career if he continued to play his special brand of physical baseline tennis—and pummel those joints into so many injuries—he remained constant in his attitude: ‘stay positive’. And it has brought him back to the fray and more success time and again—evolving all the while.
A resumé of last season speaks of that resilience and positivity in spades: French Open champion, US Open champion, finalist in Australia, semi-finalist at Wimbledon, plus at least the semis of all six Masters he played. No wonder he has not dropped out of the top two for the last three years, and ended 2019 as world No1.
He has, then, two Majors to defend this year, and as things stand, they could be played back-to-back. Would he play both, or would he choose one over the other?
“I don’t know. I can’t answer this question because I don’t know the situation… Honestly I’m just trying to follow up the information, trying to stay calm… When arrives the moment to make decisions, we’re going to make decisions thinking about what we believe is the best for my tennis, the best for my future, and the best for my body.”
And what if playing in New York means travelling with only one team-member, some players forced to withdraw, and the action taking place behind closed doors?
“If you ask me today if I want to travel to New York to play tennis tournament, I will say no, I will not. In a couple of months, I don’t know how the situation’s going to improve.
“Hopefully going to improve the right way. I am sure that the people who organize the event, USTA, wants a safe event, the same as the French Federation… I am confident that they will make the right decisions in the right moment to be sure that if the tournament is played, going to be under extremely safe circumstances.
“If not, in my opinion, doesn’t make sense. We need to be responsible. We need to send a clear message to society. We need to be a positive example on how we need to do things.
“Of course, organizing events of eight people, 10 people is much easier, but organizing an event that there’s going to be more than 600, 700 people, even if it’s with just one coach, but is doubles, singles, men, women, qualifiers—I don’t know. It’s difficult.”
“If we are not able to organize a tournament safe enough and fair enough—when I talk ‘fair enough’, is that every player from every part of the world needs to have the chance to play the tournament—we can’t play tennis. That’s my feeling.”
Naturally, his primary worry is very much the same as that of everyone in the world:
“For me the key is, of course, to find a medicine that helps us to be sure that we can travel and we can compete, we can play tennis without being scared about having the virus and bringing back the virus home.
“The feeling is strange. My feeling is we need to wait little bit more. We are in a worldwide sport. For me is not the same like football or tournament that can be played in just one country. When you mix people from every single part of the world, the complications are completely different.
“I don’t know if we will be playing tennis again this year or not. Is something that today is not worrying me much honestly. What really worries me is to come back to normal life and come back to the healthy life for most of the people.”
And he admitted that he has not been practising: He does not, he said, have a tennis court at home because he lives in an apartment.
“I couldn’t practise a lot because I am in a country that we couldn’t go out during two months and a half… As you can imagine, I need to take things step by step. I am trying to avoid injuries. That’s the main thing today… So I am not practising every single day—just a couple of days a week. I am not having three hours’ practice. I’m practising some days one hour, some days one hour, 30. That’s all.”
So the man who used, once upon a time, feel the need to practise for hours at a time—and the intensity and length of his inter-match sessions at tournaments became the stuff of legend—has moved on. Yes, he has evolved, matured, taken the longer-view. And like the rest of us, has been reminded of the important things in life.
“It is important for me to be positive and in some way to value how lucky we are to have the life that we have, because there are a lot of people that don’t have the luck that most of us have.
“Today probably because of facing all these problems, we are more sensitive about how nice it is to stay with the family, how nice to stay with friends… The negative thing is, humans have the ability to adapt to situations quick, but at the same time we have the ability to forget about the negative things soon when we come back to a normal situation.
“The only thing I learned is we need to try to not complain every single day for stupid things.”
Amen to that.