Lifting a crown never becomes routine, not even if the player lifting the crown is Rafael Nadal and when it’s for the 12th time. Such is the situation in which the Spaniard finds himself after defeating Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 to win his 12thRoland Garros title and improve to 93-2 at the season’s second Grand Slam.
Nadal, now dressed in a white shirt and gray shorts just a few hours after lying on the clay of Court Philippe Chatrier in celebration, is ready to discuss how he got to this point, a point that just a few weeks ago was almost unthinkable. And that is precisely the starting point of this conversation.
Did you see yourself in this position a month and a half ago?
I did not.
If I made it to this point, it was because I believed that I could. If I didn’t think I could make it happen, I wouldn’t have followed through; I would have gone a different route.
You hit a bit of a roadblock a little while back.
It wasn’t a roadblock – there are times you just have to make certain decisions. I’ve suffered a lot of injuries throughout the past 18 months. If you’re referring to the knee injury, which has admittedly given me problems, you can add a bunch of other things that I’d consider setbacks that have affected my game. Too many setbacks, honestly. I’m always pushing forward but there’s a point where one hits rock bottom. Not being able to train or compete, it’s frustrating and it takes its toll on you.
What happened after Indian Wells in March, when you injured your right knee and couldn’t compete in the semi-finals against Roger Federer?
Mentally, after Indian Wells, I suffered a major downturn. Ideas and scenarios were swirling inside my head. I considered shutting down my season to see if my body would recuperate instead of playing through injury after injury. Another option was to press on and play through the pain. Either way, the outlook was bleak. It required a change of mindset this time, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Your coach, Carlos Moya, recently said: “Since I’ve starting coaching Rafa, I’ve never seen him look so [downtrodden].”
I was reluctant and hesitant to return. Physically, because of another tendon tear in my knee, and on top of going through all the treatment required in the recovery process, there was dealing with the pain. That’s the reality of the matter — it was different this time. That’s not how it usually works with me.
Normally, the injury is diagnosed, I rehab, practise and go through the routine like it’s no big deal. I’d play through pain and wouldn’t even consider that as suffering. This time was different … considering my history of competing, of fighting. Normally, this process isn’t what I would consider “suffering”.
Can you explain?
Between the level of pain and just being sidelined, there came a time when I just felt tired of all of this. I was sick of always being in pain. I get it: with competing comes pain. But when you’ve accumulated injuries, decided to deal with them, recovered from them and before you even get back on the court you’ve acquired another, that takes a toll.
After Indian Wells, I took a moment to make sense of all of it. I felt a little more upbeat around the time of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, but I was still in a very low place and hardly positive.
Following a first-round win over Leonardo Mayer [6-7(7), 6-4, 6-2] in Barcelona, you stayed in your room with your team for quite some time to contemplate things and come to some sort of conclusion.
I promised myself that I would play through Roland Garros with the attitude and energy necessary to confront all obstacles in my way. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to compete at the highest level possible throughout this clay-court season. I spoke with my team and we thought things over.
I needed motivation and there are things you can do in the moment to get that sort of uplifting feeling. YouTube is good for that; there are lots of inspirational videos on there. But I also had to think long-term and summon my inner strength. I did a lot of reflecting, self-evaluating.
You’ve said in the past that when you lose the illusion, the dream, that will be the day you start the next chapter.
I wasn’t in that situation. In this scenario, I was weighing the option of taking some time off to recover. It’s not a case of losing the drive of playing tennis. I had just lost the strength to face down every problem that sprung up on a daily basis and to deal with the debilitating pain. I had to make a decision, but not that drastic of a decision (retirement).
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So you weren’t considering retirement.
No, not at all. Just contemplated a break for time to recover.
Did you feel all alone at that time?
I never feel alone, no matter where I go. I have lifelong friends, people I consider friends since I was three years old. I have the same core team. And I have my family in Manacor (on the island of Mallorca, Spain). Village life is different from life in a big city. I communicate daily with my family. There’s always a time, though, that whatever I’m going through, I’m the only one who knows what it feels like and to live through it. Sometimes I need help from the people who know me well, from people who love me. In this sense, I have always been very well accompanied, accommodated and advised.
All things considered, no matter how big the wound has been, you’ve always found a way to close it.
When I win, I bask in the glory, and when I lose, it feels like everything has gone wrong with the world. Don’t get me wrong, through the good and bad, I’m always emotionally stable, and staying on level ground helps me accept the positive with the negative and handle my feelings.
It’s a matter of reflecting and assessing things as they happen, then evaluating why they happened. Win or lose, I strive to do even better. The basic principle stays the same, though: I respect the game, and I respect my opponent.
What are you most proud of these past few months?
Playing in Barcelona, in Madrid, in Rome, at Roland Garros … this is the most beautiful time of the year for me. I’m pleased to have stuck to the promise I made myself going into the season, to give it my all, to appreciate the little improvements and to just be thankful for the opportunity to compete day in and day out. From that time in Barcelona through now, I’ve steadily improved. The self-evaluation has paid off. I made lots of small but important steps along the way.
What are you most satisfied with?
I’ve done almost nothing wrong. I wasn’t playing out-of-this-world tennis, but I have come through at important moments. My backhand has been on target, and my forehand is operating at a very high level. Just the fact that I’ve been able to play five tournaments in a row without withdrawing once is satisfying.
I’ve never said it before, but going a stretch like that gives me confidence that my body can hold up under pressure. I can rely on my body to endure what I put it through, even if it’s something as simple as running down shots or twisting and turning, without the fear of something going wrong.
Read More: Nadal Flipped The Script To Run Away With His 12th Paris Title
You’re always the favourite when you step onto the court at Roland Garros. Does that affect you?
What people think has no effect on how I play. I control how I play. Feelings and opinions don’t fit into the outcome. I see this time of the year as a chance to add to my success, and I feel I’ve done that this season.
Have you ever stopped valuing everything you have achieved?
I haven’t made that mistake and don’t intend on doing so. I value it all. In the past, I sometimes felt more excited about some wins more than others, but even that sensation isn’t one I’ve felt since 2015. It’s dangerous to think that way.
The feeling shared among your rivals is that your peerless on clay. Do you consider yourself your own biggest rival?
I haven’t been. Maybe I’ve failed myself a little when it came to maintaining that always positive attitude and with my level of play (following the most recent injury).
But when I play my best, I achieve the intended results and have done so throughout my career. I said it in Barcelona this year: All I needed to do was to get well. They asked me if I had to win in Rome to win at Roland Garros (Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 to lift his ninth Rome title in May). My response was “No, all I need to do is feel well to play well.”
You’re recovered and in top condition. Is anything possible once again?
I’ve never seen myself as capable of anything. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far, it’s all special. But the path doesn’t end here; this isn’t the end of the road. There’s still work to be done. I’m going to have to adjust my schedule a little bit, but that’s a matter I’ll discuss with my team. I want to be able to play my best in every tournament I enter and that’s the approach we’ll take moving forward following Wimbledon.
As you’ve said, you’ve strung together five consecutive tournaments without injury. With the grass season already here and the hard-court stretch not too far out, how concerned are you about another possible setback?
The option is always there to take some time off like I considered some months back. After all I’ve been through, acquiring an injury isn’t something that goes through my mind when I’m on the court. I’m an optimistic person, so all I can say is that I’m going to play and I’m thinking about playing at a high level.
It’s true that clay is a little less hard on the body, but I can’t dwell on that and also aspire to be successful going into the grass- and hard-court seasons. We’ll play with an adjusted calendar to give me the best possible chance to succeed.
Are you eager ahead of Wimbledon?
Realistically, I’ve had my chances at Wimbledon when I’ve been fit and playing well. I played five finals in a row there (2006-08, 10-11; DNP in 2009). I was on the cusp of reaching the final last year (l. to Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8). Winning at Roland Garros has definitely given me a boost in confidence going into Wimbledon. If I’m fit and I can prepare sufficiently, well, we’ll see what happens.