Time catches up with everyone. Even the greatest of athletes are not immune to its effects. Rafael Nadal is fully aware of the principles of aging, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing everything in his power to stave off its effects and delay the coronation of the next generation of tennis stars. The 33-year-old has thrived at the highest level on the ATP Tour for 15 seasons, racking up 19 Grand Slam trophies and achieving numerous milestones along the way.
Despite his wide-ranging success, the Spaniard is quick to point out that every new achievement is unique and special. No. 2 in the ATP Rankings, Nadal works hard to ensure he still performs at his best every time he competes, just as he did to capture his latest crown: a fourth US Open title on Sunday. He currently trails only Roger Federer (20) in major titles.
Now back in Mallorca and resting after his epic five-set battle against Daniil Medvedev at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York just a few days earlier, Nadal spoke with ATPTour.com at a small media gathering to discuss his victory at Flushing Meadows, the recovery process, his plans for the rest of the year and his state of mind.
You became emotional after watching highlights of your US Open victory.
You have to understand the circumstances. The last three hours were especially hard for me; I had the match practically won. Thinking back, I realise how things suddenly took a turn [in Medvedev’s favour] and how quickly matters spun out of my control.
The situation reached a point so critical, I went from on the cusp of winning to on the verge of losing. Up until that third set, I was on course to win, but he took command from that point on. I realise not only how much we both fought, but what we put ourselves through, mentally and physically, before he showed a moment of weakness and I broke through.
Over the past several weeks, you’ve stated on several occasions that you’re “getting older”. Does that mean you “feel” older?
No, I don’t feel any older than my age! I feel what I am. I’m 33 years old. I’ve always thought that I don’t know when my last victory will come. But I feel as though I’m going through a solid phase in my career.
I’m simply aware as the years go on and I get older, I can’t lose sight of the reality of the situation. You must take better care of yourself, make wiser decisions and while you were able to play a lot more matches when you were younger, it’s important to be more selective as you get older. You must be calculating and put a lot of thought into what’s going to be most beneficial to extend your career.
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On Sunday, you became the first player in the Open Era to win five Grand Slam titles after turning 30. Not too long ago, many experts of the sport were saying that wasn’t a realistic feat.
My motivation has never been to disprove what others say about me or to demonstrate that I can do things others can’t. I stay away from all of that, not just in tennis but in my daily life as well. Ambition and motivation must be driven from the inside, not by any outside forces. I surround myself with positive energy and operate at the best of my abilities.
Apart from what others felt, did you have your own doubts?
Just as many have doubted that I could play on for so many years, I’ve had and will always have my own doubts. But here I am. It’s something I take day by day, and I’m satisfied with this approach. Above all, if my body allows me to train at a high level on a daily basis, I’ll continue to play as I’m still passionate about tennis. I enjoy setting goals and I relish the competition.
Coach Carlos Moya said after the final that, in terms of emotion and significance, this was the most significant victory since he joined your team. Would you also rate it among your best matches?
I haven’t watched the match again! (Laughs) I’ve only played through it and, without seeing it, it’s hard to comment on that. When you’re out there in the heat of the moment, you’re nervous and it’s impossible to process anything but what you have to do to win. The final definitely had all the ingredients necessary for a compelling, remarkable match that won’t be forgotten anytime soon, but I’d have to watch it from start to finish in order to give you my verdict as to where it stands among my best matches.
You haven’t discussed the possibility of reclaiming the No. 1 ATP Ranking, despite a brilliant season thus far. Instead, you maintain the goal is to be competitive for as long as possible.
Being competitive is one of my biggest motivators and I always aspire to be my best. My goal is to give myself the best possible options to compete at the highest level in the biggest tournaments for as long as possible. In order to achieve this goal, I’ve obviously been constraining myself to a less busy calendar. This year I’ve played only 11 events, and I don’t know how many I’ll have entered by the end of the year. But as you can tell, the calendar is shrinking, and that’s also partly due to the solid results I’ve obtained.
You’ve reached at least 10 semi-finals in 11 tournaments this year, capturing four titles (Rome, Roland Garros, Montreal, US Open). What’s been the most satisfying moment of the season so far?
Without any doubt, it’s the way I rebounded after Barcelona [Nadal reached the semi-finals at Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell before losing to Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-4]. I struggled the week before at Monte-Carlo as well and wasn’t performing at my best going into Godo [Barcelona]. In the end, that’s what leaves me most satisfied. I’m happy with the way I bounced back mentally from those events.
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Even though regaining the No. 1 spot is not an objective, you’re currently the leader in the ATP Race To London.
It’s true that obtaining the No. 1 ATP Ranking is not the main goal, nor has it ever been my ultimate pursuit. Obviously, becoming No. 1 would be very gratifying, but I can’t afford to let that be my top priority at this point in my career. I can’t waste time or energy trying to be No. 1; I need those resources to train and prepare to compete at my best on the weeks I step on the court.
If becoming the top player in the world is a result of that, then I’ll feel rewarded. If I don’t end the year as No. 1, it will still have been a very fulfilling year. I’ve played well on a consistent basis and to me, that’s satisfying.
You’ve insisted on restraining yourself from competing too frequently throughout the season. You ended your title run at Flushing Meadows in a state of exhaustion. What lies ahead for the rest of the year?
I’m tired. The truth is that I still haven’t fully recovered. I came home and we have already done a little recovery. I’m regaining my strength little by little. It’s too early to hash out plans, because since that match, I haven’t had a chance to discuss matters with my team. This week we will have that conversation, but apart from this, I will also have to wait a few days to see how my body heals. One thing I do have is Laver Cup 2019 marked on my calendar.
What are you doing specifically to recover both physically and mentally after such a grueling affair?
Mental recovery is done by resting! (Laughs) It’s not just about the last match; my body has been put through a lot of stress the past few weeks. You’re competing in one of the most important tournaments of the year and it requires a lot from your body on a daily basis.
When you finish, after such a dramatic final, the physical and mental effects are consequential. You have to recover steadily by taking all the necessary steps to ensure proper recuperation. As for the mind, I just need to rest and adjust my schedule accordingly to one that I feel will wield the best results and won’t hinder my recovery.
Are you doing anything differently this time around in terms of physical recovery?
No, nothing different. Preparations for my return have been similar to what I’ve been doing as of late following similar demanding tournaments like the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. I’m getting proper rest. The only thing that’s changed in recent times is that I spend more time training at home [in Manacor, Mallorca, Spain] and then take it up a notch when I arrive [on location] ahead of a tournament.
Medvedev is providing glimpses of the future, and indications that a new wave of talent is knocking on the door.
A changing of the guard has been predicted for years, but it’s developed a little slower than perhaps expected. The old guard has shown resistance but some mainstays like David Ferrer have recently passed the torch. The truth is, the three of us [including Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer] have gained so much success in these past 14 years, and we’re still atop the ATP Rankings.
Now here comes [Daniil] Medvedev, [Alexander] Zverev, [Karen] Khachanov, [Andrey] Rublev, Felix [Auger-Aliassime], [Matteo] Berrettini and [Denis] Shapovalov. That’s a formidable group and the overwhelming logic is that the next generation is already here. They’re making a lot of noise and attracting lots of attention. Several members of that next wave are already in the Top 10 and my guess is that we’ll see more and more every year.
What’s your take on the state of Spanish tennis?
Spaniards have achieved things in tennis over the past 30 years that almost certainly cannot be replicated. On the other hand, we are competing as a country with players from nations with economic capacities that outweigh us by infinity.
The budgets of federations that govern the sport in nations that host majors are tremendously higher than ours. You can include the Italian Tennis Federation and [Tennis Canada], which oversee two very big ATP Masters 1000 events [the Internazionali BNL d’Italia and Coupe Rogers, respectively] with that group as well. They have a much higher budget and far more funds.
During these boom years in Spain, we’ve made the mistake of not being able, as a federation, to establish our tournaments on that same level to potentially generate an annual income that could then be used to promote the sport, to help cultivate young talent and to provide them with resources to flourish. That said, we must see how our rising talent fares, Jaume Munar, Carlos Alcaraz, Pedro Martinez, we’ll see how they progress.
You are an inspiration not only to those players and Spaniards in general, but for the tennis community as well. This can be seen in the reactions from the stands after victories like the one at the US Open.
It’s not something that’s always on my mind but it is something to keep in mind. I always try to be myself and do the things that seem right to me. I apply the lessons that my family has given me since I was young. One has the ability to see things their role models do and try to emulate those things.
In the same way, one has the power to avoid destructive behavior. I always strive to imitate positive behavior and have the awareness to shun what could bring me down. It brings me a lot of satisfaction to know that what I do can help and inspire others. We all have to get up to go to work, fight through whatever life throws our way and simply keep a positive outlook, and if what I do somehow inspires someone to do that, that’s gratifying. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than making others feel more empowered or to raise the spirits of other people.