Nadal: "We already know that what I have is incurable..."
The Spaniard met with Diario AS and L’Équipe reporters after finishing the obligatory trophy photo shoot after winning the Australia Open in Melbourne
Under a blistering hot Australian sun, Rafael Nadal took a small break in the photo shoot that, as Australian Open champion, he is required to do the day after winning the final. Having barely slept the night before, after posing for the cameras of the world’s media on the pristine lawn at Melbourne’s Government House, the official residence of the Governor of the state of Victoria, the Spaniard sat down for an extended chat with Diario AS and L’Équipe magazines in which he revealed that it would be “difficult” to continue playing “at a competitive level”.
What were you thinking on November 15th? Did you imagine yourself holding the trophy in Melbourne?
No way! I thought that at best it would be difficult to return to playing. Because we were working without seeing any positive progression in that foot, I was very frustrated and had some tense moments with the medical team. I was having conversations with my family and couldn’t really see a viable path to take. But then, little by little, things started to improve, the treatments started to have a small effect. We already know that what I have is incurable, but we at least had to try to find something that would allow me to play. And those three weeks did the trick, which I find incredible.
And what did you feel in those moments? Fear, frustration, pain…?
A little bit of all of those. At the end of the day, I love what I do. I am passionate for tennis, but I have never been afraid of retirement, because I have a sufficiently happy life outside of the sport so that it won’t so traumatic when that time comes. Having said that, when you are hoping to continue and working daily as I have been all these months, you have hopes of coming back as a competitive, professional player. For me, obviously, winning the tournament has been unbelievable, but also to see that I am still really competitive and am once again a tennis pro, able to train and compete with the best in the world, has been just as beautiful a feeling for me as lifting the trophy.
So have you thought any more about retirement?
No I haven’t, nobody wants to think about retirement when you still don’t want to retire. The possibility was always there, not to “retire” in the sense of never playing again, because I would definitely have played, but in the sense of not being able to return to playing at a competitive level.
When did you realize that you would be able to come back?
After the operation, it wasn’t improving the way that we had hoped, or at least it was taking longer than expected. So we decided to change some of the injections to see if it got any better, and that is when we began to see some progress. After nearly two months there was a tiny step forward that allowed me to begin some light training, to move just a tiny bit more, and even though there were good days and bad days, at least we started to have some good days. For me that was amazing and from then on, even though we still had bad days, little by little, taking anti inflammatory medicine, I was able to continue with my training. Being able to play in Abu Dhabi was a big goal of mine. Then there was the virus, which meant an enormous break.
How were you feeling during those training sessions?
Really good, it’s true! In Mallorca I felt good. I couldn’t move very much, put just being able to touch the ball felt wonderful. During training, the little that I could do was going well and sometimes that can be even harder, because from a tennis perspective, I was doing surprisingly well but I hadn’t yet figured out what types of movement I was capable of. When I got to Melbourne, after not being able to leave the house for ten days (because of covid), I was training better than I was in ting competition, even though I would win this ATP 250 tournament. Everything felt good during training, I had practice sessions with very good players, the best in the world, and I had been surprisingly competitive with all of them. So I had some idea that it would cost me in the competition, but I hadn’t forgotten how to play tennis. I’m still very competitive when I train and to me that is extremely important.
What did you do during all those months to not get overwhelmed?
I’m a naturally calm person in general. I have a lot in my life outside of tennis. When I got back from Toronto I took a week’s vacation, I went to the beach, just to disconnect. I went to Sardinia so that I could just relax for a week and it did me a world of good. At the same time, we were looking at what could be the possible solution, or at least what else we could try in my healing. Anyway, we have known for quite a few years that this (Müller Weiss syndrome) is incurable, so anything that we tried would just be trying to lessen the pain, just enough for me to keep playing. It is the same thing that I have done throughout my career, even though, obviously, everything has a degenerative factor, as logic would dictate. I am a more or less positive person and I always think that whatever is going on in any given moment will get better, even though this time the process turned out to be much longer than I imagined.
You said that you had conversations with your family. What were some of the things that you spoke about?
With both friends and family. We just talked everything through and in the course of a normal day you have to make decisions and look for other solutions if the ones you try don’t work. There were many moments of doubt and not really knowing which way to go. Those are the moments that you need to speak to someone, when you need to express what you are feeling inside and who better to do it with than with people that you love and who love you in return.
There has been a comparison that is becoming iconic between a photo of you on crutches back in September and the one from Sunday of you kissing the cup in the Rod Laver Arena. How do you feel seeing those?
I understand the comparison but it doesn’t seem as spectacular as everything that happened after the first photo. I mean, if after leaving the hospital or a month later I had been fine and able to start training, then I would have said that it was incredible, but I couldn’t really train properly. (Look at the pictures before continuing) The problem is that after this photo, there were several months when I wasn’t on crutches but I was limping a lot, and that is what I find makes it even more incredible.
What were you thinking during match point in the final?
I was just thinking about winning. I had dropped my previous serve and was absolutely exhausted, we had been out there on the court for several hours. I was just concentrating on being relaxed, not messing up again, and being aggressive. That is all I was thinking, just trying to make the right decision more than anything else.
How does that decision making process work? Is it a question of instinct, experience…?
At the start of the tournament I said that I needed to get back of my automation so that I could make quick decisions. Because when you have a lot of time off, months without competing, all of those things that just occur naturally don’t happen as quickly as before. I needed a few hours on the court in competition to regain that quick-fire analysis to help me make quick decisions. How do I decide? Well, there are a few factors: first is how I feel, is this a good shot at that moment, and also what I think might put my opponent in a worse situation. As a general rule, in those important moments I believe that the decision, for me at least, has always been clear. Afterwards, whatever happens, happens. In the end, what you need to do is try and have a clear idea of how you want to play the point. Understand what will happen if you hit it to a particular spot, to leave yourself more options to hit a backhand or smash the return. In those important moments you normally want to go with your best shot. When you are nervous, the things that you are best at will be better for you. Try to find a way to play the point where you feel most comfortable.
A lot of people follow tennis because they want to see Federer, Djokovic, and you. What do you think will happen when none of the three are playing anymore?
The same thing that has always happened, tennis will continue. There is no player that has ever been more important than the sport itself. Not on the women’s circuit either, not Djokovic, nor myself, nor anyone is more important that the game of tennis. At the end of each season there are the four Gran Slam champions and the nine ATP 1000 Masters champions and all the champions of all the other tournaments. And that will continue whether we are here or not. So don’t worry, tennis is in good hands. It is clear that these last 20 years we have been living in a special time, there is no getting away from that. When you see the numbers that the three of us have put up, and here I am not just talking about the number of victories but in the elongated regularity in our careers, which would be very difficult to repeat and has a lot to do with many circumstances, but tennis will continue and new champions will come along.
All over social media, dozens of your colleagues, including some Russians, in fact every nationality, have said that Sunday was one of the biggest achievements in the history of the sport. What do you think about that?
I’m not one to big myself up like that. Putting everything that happened into perspective, with how I got here, what I achieved, I would say that it is something that is almost unimaginable. I am much more cautious than my team, who really have a lot of faith in me, but on this occasion, and you can ask them, but not even the most positive one of them, not even in their wildest dreams, would have dared to hope for this, and it is true. Even though they are always positive, I think that they believed that it was impossible.
What does it really mean to you to have won 21 Grand Slam titles?
For me it is just one more. I mean, we haven’t finished yet and 21 isn’t the most Grand Slam titles ever won by anybody in history. I sincerely mean this, just as I said in the press conference, I stand by what I said. You can’t always look around. For me, winning number 21 was unforgettable, and the way that it was done makes it so much more special. I will just keep going, enjoying playing tennis.
Marc Márquez said that after he saw you win this way, he went running to the gym to “keep fighting”. Do you like being held up as an example to other great sportsmen?
Yeah, it’s great, of course. If I can be a motivation for a friend like Marc, who is one of the greatest MotoGP riders in history, for me that is a great honor. Everyone who has ever gone through an injury knows how difficult it is. Marc has had a really rough time, because when he was looking almost unstoppable is when he broke his arm and his rehab has been pretty difficult, but I am absolutely certain that he will come back and be just as great as always.
Has this been the most difficult challenge of your career?
I’m not sure… I think that, putting it all in perspective, winning here in Australia has been the most difficult. With how little I was able to train, the months that I was out of competition, being 35 and a half years old, so it’s different than being 25… there are a lot of factors that make this my most surprising and unexpected win.
Medvedev looked really down at the press conference and even threatened to sit out Roland Garros and Wimbledon because nobody supports him. What did you think of that? Do you think that sometimes the effect that you, Federer, and Djokovic have on other players is perhaps unintentionally devastating…?
I think that it is different now. It is true that, for a number of years, and I won’t name names, there have been some very good players who have gotten a lot less credit than they deserved because they were living in an era where three players practically hoarded everything. Young people today know that the path is open, because their true competitors in relation to their careers in general are their own age, not us and so it is easier for them to accept. For those of our generation, who competed against us every week when we were at our best level, I think it has been much more difficult. Medvedev’s public image doesn’t reflect how good he really is, but afterward, and I say this with my hand on my heart, when we are face to face in the dressing room, he is a great guy, really likeable, approachable and not at all arrogant. Someone who you can relax and talk to. I really like him and think he is one of the good guys. When he loses, he always treats his opponent well and I have a lot of respect for him. I think that he is a great champion and he has a lot of courage to change things when it is not going so good. And that is why I think that he is a real candidate for winning the most important tournaments. He has the capacity to adapt and fight that is enormous. I think that what he said in the press conference was in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, he will make these kind of outbursts and he knows how to fix it as well. He has done it several times before and he is always very intelligent when he puts it right. Sometimes you just can’t control your emotions at that moment, but I don’t think that he really feels that way. I wish him all the best and I am sure that he will go on to have wonderful moments with his fans.
What would you say to the huge number of people who really enjoyed watching you this Sunday from Spain and around the world?
All I can say is thank you for all of your love, your support, and I really mean it. I have always felt the support of so many people, obviously in Spain, where they always treat me so well, but also around the world. Everywhere that I have ever gone I have found nothing but love and support from the people there and for me that is a beautiful thing. When you get that sort of response it is because I guess it means I am doing something right, not just in tennis. For me, that has been as important, or maybe more important, than any title or sporting success. The successes will pass away but the people remain, so I give them much more importance.
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