Rafael Nadal on his future, Roger Federer & Novak Djokovic rivalry, and ‘crazy’ records – EXCLUSIVE

Rafael Nadal is sat, biceps bulging out of a pink t-shirt, looking at ease ahead of what could be a career-defining clay-court season. More on that later.

He’s here, formally, to promote the latest in a long string of brand partnerships – this time with Amstel ULTRA®. It’s his first agreement with a beer company and it’s somewhat coincidental that we meet – virtually between London and Monte Carlo – on the day pubs are reopening in the UK.

‘That’s good news,’ he laughs, before warmly advising not to get ‘too drunk’ amid the excitement. ‘I mean, for the world and in general for the people it’s important to come back to the normal, old life and live in a little bit happier world with less negative news than what we are hearing every day since more than one year ago.’

Nadal is regularly voted as the celebrity Spaniards would most like to share a beer with – in the most recent edition of the annual Brewers of Spain survey, he and Penelope Cruz shared the gong – but it’s a tough ask to find any images of him supping a cerveza.

He laughs when I enquire whether he’s much of a beer drinker: ‘I like to enjoy life, too.

‘I always say the same: one of the things I am most proud of is I have been a very good professional tennis player when I’ve been working inside the court but at the same time I’ve had the chance to enjoy life. I am not 18 anymore, I am 34 so I find my moments…’

Nadal says he’s ‘had the chance to enjoy life’ (Picture: Amstel Ultra)

Nadal – who played his first professional match as a 15-year-old – admits he’s surprised he’s maintained a career at the top for the best part of two decades.

He has not dropped out of the world’s top-10 since first breaking it in April, 2005 and is currently No. 3 in the rankings, behind Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev.

His 35th birthday is on the horizon – he will celebrate it in the first week of the postponed French Open in early June – and, like all athletes in their mid-30s, it’s hard to look too far ahead. It doesn’t escape my attention that this latest partnership runs until 2024. An omen, perhaps?

He chuckles: ‘I mean, I don’t think that’s… you can’t predict what’s going on in the future.

I have all my partnerships with my brands, some of them much longer than that.

‘Of course, I will not be playing until the age of 45, no? I am always trying to do things as best as possible to play as long as possible.

‘As everybody knows, of course it’s going to arrive one day that you cannot keep going. For the moment, I’m happy what I’m doing. I’m enjoying it and I hope to have the chance to keep around the tournaments for the next couple of years.’

Twenty years into a career that’s delivered 86 ATP titles – 20 of which are Grand Slams, 209 weeks at world No. 1, Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles and £90million in prize money alone – not to mention the extra dough he’s made through lucrative sponsorship deals – what is it that keeps him motivated?

The obvious answer, one might think, would be the tussle for history with great rivals Roger Federer and Djokovic.

Djokovic and Federer have been Nadal’s greatest rivals (Picture: AFP via Getty)

While Federer, the oldest of the trio, has conceded he will end his career with fewer major titles than his toughest opponents, Djokovic – at 33, the youngest of the ‘Big Three’ – has openly spoken of his desire to topple all significant records in his path.

Nadal is keen to stress his approach is very different.

‘I enjoy what I am doing,’ he says. ‘I am happy playing tennis. I am happy about being here in Monte Carlo [where he was beaten in the quarter-finals by Andrey Rublev] to play a great event again and, of course, I want to win more Slams, yes. No doubt about that.

‘But I never get – I mean, Novak is more obsessed about this, more focused…’ he pauses for a moment before quickly shaking his hand and head, adding: ’Not in a negative way.

‘No, he’s more focused on just these things and it means a lot to him all of this stuff. Like he’s always saying and talking about these records and well done for him… but it’s not my approach to my tennis career.

‘I have a healthy ambition. Of course, I am ambitious, if not I would never be in the position I am today but I have probably a different kind of ambition than him, for example. I just keep going, keep doing what I’m doing and just try to put myself in a position to keep enjoying the tour and, of course, try to achieve as much as possible.

‘I am super satisfied about the career I’m having. Not today, I was super satisfied years ago already but I am not making a step back in motivation because of that. I don’t get frustrated if I am losing one tournament, I am trying to approach the thing in a different way.’

Come the end of the clay-court season, should Nadal, as expected, win a 14th French Open, he will hold the men’s record for the most Grand Slam titles – which he currently shares with Federer – outright.

Perhaps even more incredibly, he will boast as many title wins at Roland Garros as Pete Sampras – the man with the most majors outside of the ‘Big Three’ – managed in his entire Slam career.

‘I know some of the numbers are completely crazy and I could never dream at all about these numbers,’ says Nadal. ‘At the same time, I never had a lot of time to think about numbers.

Most Grand Slam titles (ATP)

20 – Roger Federer
20 – Rafael Nadal
18 – Novak Djokovic
14 – Pete Sampras

Most Grand Slam title per event (Open Era)

Australian Open: 9 – Novak Djokovic
French Open: 13 – Rafael Nadal
Wimbledon: 8 – Roger Federer
US Open: 5 – Jimmy Connors/Pete Sampras/Roger Federer

‘Hopefully at the end of my career, when I stop doing what I am doing, I’m going to have the time to analyse more these things. Today, I’m just focused to try and keep going.

‘Tennis, it goes quick. We have a lot of tournaments throughout the year and, for example, during this clay-court season I’m playing in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and then probably Madrid and Rome and then Roland Garros so it’s not plenty of time to enjoy success or to think about, “I have this. I have won this”.

‘Okay, I know I had a lot of success in this part of the season but in the past. This year is another year. The only thing that I’m doing is try to play and practise every day with the right attitude and try to put myself in a position again to be very competitive in the beginning.’

There’s a school of thought, which boasts Djokovic and Federer among its subscribers, that the three greats of men’s tennis have pushed each other to greater heights during their career. Would the records have been smashed so ridiculously and brilliantly if they weren’t motivated by beating the others?

‘Well, of course, when you have great opponents in front, it helps to have a clear way about what you need to do to become better and better,’ says Nadal.

‘I always had great opponents in front, since the beginning of my career I had Roger there and then Novak came a little bit later, but not much. I always had good examples of amazing players in front of me, competing for the same things so that helps to give you a clear way.

‘But in some ways, I want to think – and I do believe it’s really like this – that my personal motivation is much higher than the motivation to have other players in front. I’m just playing for myself, for my team, for my fans, for my family, for myself, of course.

‘Not for the others, no?’ He adds with a laugh: ‘Not for my rivals.

‘I’m just trying – my approach to that is I always wanted to be a better tennis player, because I understand the sport like this. I understand the sport going on a practice session every day with the goal to improve something, with the goal to be better.

‘Not because I need to be better because I have Roger or Novak in front of me. I want to think that I want to do it because that’s the way I understand the sport. And of course, having these kinds of players in front of you helps to give you a clear way about the things you need to do better.’

Nadal remains highly motivated (Picture: Getty)

Records, as Nadal knows too well, are there to be broken, which goes some way to explaining his introspective approach to his career: focus on the attitude not the results.

Indeed, he’s not sure his 13 French Opens and 20 Grand Slam titles will stand the test of time.

He adds: ‘Of course, when Pete achieved that great number of 14 a lot of people in tennis thought, “Okay that’s going to be almost impossible to go beyond that for the next years”, but in relatively short period of time there is three players that have more than 14 and in the same era.

‘That puts that in perspective about what we did in the last 15-20 years, it’s something difficult to equal. But everyone thought the same about Pete and we did it better.

‘And now, probably there’s going to come someone in the future who is going to do it better than us even if it’s not easy.’

The youngsters of today’s game will have to get going quickly if they want to get anywhere near those totals. Only Dominic Thiem – who is hardly especially youthful at 27 – has won a Grand Slam title outside of the ‘Big Three’ since 2017 and he didn’t face Djokovic – who was disqualified in the fourth round, nor Nadal or Federer – both of whom skipped the event – en route to his sole US Open triumph.

Detractors of the so-called ‘Next Gen’ are agitated by the lack of success against the golden oldies of the sport, with some stressing the importance of beating Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to major titles before they’ve hung up their racquets.

‘For us, it’s not very important,’ he laughs. ‘Well no, I’m just joking. That’s normal. We are getting old. It’s true.

‘It’s normal the young generations are coming and it’s true that now they are a great new generation of great tennis players. It’s super interesting now.’

The best of the bunch? He sighs: ‘It’s difficult and I don’t want to pick one because I will probably make mistakes, no?

Nadal is chasing a 14th French Open title at the end of the clay-court swing (Picture: Getty)

‘But Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas, Thiem – but he’s not that young like the others, of course Shapovalov, maybe Felix, Rublev… I mean there is a big generation of great players. Lots of players, young, with power, potential – let’s see what’s going on in the next couple of years. The player who will be able to improve the most will be the player who has better chances to have better success.  

‘So they’re going to do it their way, we already did it our way and we are here to keep going and keep fighting for these things and in some way I’m excited to play against these young great players.’

For now, the only future Nadal is concerned about is the immediate. To reel off clay-court title after clay-court title, with French Open No. 14 the ultimate prize. You’d be a fool to bet against him doing exactly that. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll celebrate with a beer.

Follow Metro Sport across our social channels, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

For more stories like this, check our sport page.

Rafael Nadal is the official global ambassador of Amstel ULTRA®, Amstel 0.0, Amstel ULTRA® Seltzer and Amstel Malta ULTRA®, through to 2024.

Source link

Related posts

Leave a Comment