If you thought Rafael Nadal was slipping even just a little, then you should hear him musing on the possibility of achieving something utterly fantastic this summer. For mere tennis mortals, winning one Wimbledon in a career would be a dream fulfilled; here is a man who fancies he could win two Wimbledon singles finals in one glorious month.
By Steven Redgrave
“Sure it’s possible to win both,” the Spaniard tells me without a trace of arrogance as he considers the unique challenge of pursuing a third Wimbledon triumph and then setting out on the defence of his Olympic crown on the same SW19 lawns less than three weeks later.
“Yes, two Wimbledons for me. It’s the best tennis club of the world so to have the chance to enjoy it as usual and then at the Olympics will be something completely different, amazing. Confidence is the most important thing in this sport and the confidence from winning Wimbledon would make it easier to win the Olympics too. Either would be very difficult, both even more — but the player who wins Wimbledon will be the favourite for the Olympics. It can happen.”
Listening to him, I would not put it past this most astonishing of sportsmen. He is so extraordinary that even though he won a sixth French title and reached the finals at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, losing only to the all-conquering Novak Djokovic who has usurped him as world No1, we somehow perceived 2011 as a disappointing season for him.
Well, here’s the bad news for his rivals: 2012 may just have ushered in a new Nadal, a colossus on a new mission after ending 2011 by helping Spain regain the Davis Cup with a couple of magnificent performances in Seville and now ready to target the annexation of an 11th grand slam title when the Australian Open begins this weekend.
“To be better than ever; that’s what I’m going to try,” he says. “To be ready for 2012, which is going to be a big year for me, and to be a better player than I was in 2011. I want to be better at every moment.” You would expect no less a mission statement from one of the great sportsmen of this or any other generation.
It is fascinating to come face to face with Nadal. He talks with the conviction of the sporting warrior you know he is but, in conversation, he seems almost a little timid. He doesn’t look you in the eye when you are talking, which may perhaps be the automatic defence mechanism of a superstar who has had to live in the public glare since he was a teenager, but he does answer questions openly and courteously.
It had always struck me that he was probably a humble champion, someone who in an oppressive era of superstardom still seemed to exude modesty and sidestep much of the hype. And he does not disappoint in that regard, his politeness and humility being quite striking.
When he talks about his family, you can perhaps understand why. “Sometimes, with stars in sport, what happens is that people around you are telling you everything you’re doing is great. Well, even stars are not doing everything great, doing bad things, so the most important thing is to have people around you who really love you, who are not afraid of telling you the truth, who don’t lie if you’re doing something bad or wrong. And my family do that for me.”
It is great to hear him talking so affectionately of his close-knit Majorcan family — from his uncle Toni, who coaches him, and Toni’s younger brother Miguel Angel, the former Spanish football star who was famed as the ferocious “beast of Barcelona”.
“The physical performance of Miguel Angel is still really impressive today. I practise with him and he’s unbelievable,” smiles Rafa. “My father [Sebastian] is the only one who doesn’t practise sport but he loves it, watching everything on TV. Sport’s in our blood.”
When tennis was first brought back into the Olympics in 1988 after a 64-year gap, I was one of those who felt it shouldn’t be there because it wasn’t a sport in which winning the Olympic gold is the ultimate accolade.
Yet when you listen to Nadal talking about how much it means to him to be Olympic champion, it is hard to feel cynical. He is a multi-millionaire but this gold, he makes it clear, feels quite beyond price. To him, it is a fifth grand slam.
“To me, it’s special, different,” he says. “It’s true we have a fantastic tour, with all the facilities, all the money but the Olympics is the real spirit of sport.
“In the Games, you see a lot of sports that work really hard for that one event. It’s unbelievable; they are not winning money, they are just doing it for passion and for the personal satisfaction. And in my opinion that is what sport really is. It’s the spirit of sacrifice.”
Would he dream of staying outside the Olympic Village during the Games? He sounds incredulous that I would even ask. “No question about that. Everyone’s free to decide what is better for him but I think if you go to the Olympics, you have to stay in the village. If you’re not there, then somehow it’s as if you’re playing a normal tournament — and the Olympics is not a normal tournament. The experience of the Games is the village.”
This is no Olympic tourist. When Nadal won in Spanish colours in Beijing, he felt it one of the most emotional triumphs of his career. No player has ever successfully defended a singles title and in a crowded, competitive calendar, it would be an astonishing achievement.
“For tennis players, what you achieved — to win five Olympic golds in succession, or even four — is impossible,” he tells me. “You would have to be on top for 16 years, it’s too much for a tennis career. Even just playing in four Olympics would be unbelievable. So, if it’s not impossible, well almost.”
Sometimes, though, when you watch Nadal’s incredible physical abilities on a tennis court, his brutal power and all-court athleticism, you feel nothing is impossible for him. What worries me, though, is that, at 25, he is still a young man but has suffered consistently with injuries.
The idea that the sheer pounding physicality of his game is prematurely hammering his body is clearly a contention that wearies him a little. “When you bring your body to its limits, then it’s normal that injuries happen. I usually work a lot on the prevention more than being in the gym, doing weights, but sometimes it is impossible because tennis is a very aggressive sport and we play too much,” he says.
My sporting life was almost a mirror opposite of Rafa’s. I used to train 49 weeks a year and race only six times. “But for us, we have races almost every week,” says Nadal. “The worst part of our sport is that we cannot train, to try to improve our skills as tennis players. We can only practice for the next event.
“That’s something I miss. Because when I was a kid at 14 or 15, I had a chance to work hard and improve specific components of my game — my backhand, my forehand, my serve. You had time then. Today — bang! — there’s no time before you’re back on court to compete.
“I could step back but you cannot afford to stop if you want to be on the top positions of the rankings. That’s the problem. We have pressure every week; if we are not playing, we are losing position. It’s tough, complicated, there are a lot of interests there. I believe that a few things have to change for the future. We have a fantastic tour but we could have an even better one.” Not that regaining the world No 1 spot from Djokovic, who beat him six times last year, is the all-consuming ambition for Nadal any more.
“It’s not my goal. My goal is to be competitive in every tournament, to feel that when I go out on court I can beat everybody and that I’m ready to win the tournament.
“I was No1 before for three years and for me it would make me more happy to win, for example, Wimbledon or the Australian Open, than to be No 1. It’s a different feeling for me today; my priority now is, one, to be healthy and, two, to be a better player than I was last year. If, as a result, that gives me the No 1 spot back, then great but the important thing is to be competitive in the biggest events.”
When he is competitive, what better sight in sport is there? Especially with the stellar standard of competition now lined against him. When I suggest we in Britain have a fixation about at last finding a tennis man to beat the world, Nadal knows the question is coming and smiles: “But you have one already. I say it every year because I really believe that strongly. Andy Murray’s level is really fantastic and he is one of the favourites to win every tournament he plays, including Wimbledon and the Olympics.
“I think he deserves it because he’s been so solid for the last few years. And he’s a a fantastic guy who I like a lot. You put too much pressure on him. Let him keep doing it his way, he’s doing great. He will win that grand slam.”
But here is an indomitable obstacle to his ambition. Before we say our farewells, I ask Rafa if he had a choice between winning Wimbledon or the Olympics this year, which would he plump for? “Wimbledon,” he says, eyebrows arched, after a little pause. Then the grin. “Only because Wimbledon comes first. Then, later, we’ll think of Olympic gold!”