Interview: Eternal Nadal


Eternal Nadal

Nobody escapes the passage of time, not even child prodigies. Rafael Nadal, who a decade ago astonished the world playing the final of the Davis Cup in 2004 as a teenager, and who no longer competes in capris or sports a wildmane that swings around his shoulders while he devours his opponents. No. Not at all. Today the Spaniard is 28, has won 14 Grand Slam tournaments and knows he has played more games than he has left to play. Ready to attack 2015 with a sharp racket and the ever present voracious appetite, Nadal does not only think about the present.

While recovering from an appendectomy and stem cell treatment to try and solve his back problems, the world number three plans his return to the court and thinks about tomorrow, the future, what will become of his life in a few years. And he imagines children. A tennis academy. His role as ambassador for Banco Sabadell. His charity projects. Managing his investments. And then, when he thinks of all that, there is no fear, no unsteadiness. Quite the opposite. He moves his hands to explain that when the time comes he will be ready to face the challenge.

"All my life I have thought about what was going to come after tennis. It is something that has never caused me any precipice, or panic, it is not a problem", the tennis player told us in Madrid, where he appears dressed up, with his curls tamed above the ears and the reflective tone of someone who has everything already analyzed, measured and thought out. "Yes, you will have to respect what may come after", he admits, because he knows that there are many examples of people who have failed in the transition from the stadium to simple home life. "I am not going to say that I will not have any problems transitioning into another life after my career, but I am sure, convinced, that I have many things in my life outside of the professional circuit that make me happy. I think that I will have many other things that I will bring fulfillment", he mulls over his arguments calmly, as if playing with the idea, because he realizes that he still has a career ahead of him, years to compete and titles to celebrate.

At some point, however, it is going happen. The day after an athlete retires is similar to that of a politician's. As soon as you say good bye to the ministry, the phone will stop ringing, the invitations to receptions of the most influential events will stop coming, and consequently you can feel an endless void, a blow to your self-esteem, belittlement and a question: wasn't I more than this? The athlete, less recognizable on the street, no longer being asked for an autograph or hired for promotional campaigns and, above all, the lack of the excitement that you feel competing at the highest level and on the most prestigious stages. Expelled from the bliss of of the big stadium, where you are the main attraction of the impossible and write epic history regularly, many struggle to make the transition. Some wallow in the eternal memory. Unable to return to the past and not able to live in the present.

José Manuel Beirán, sports psychologist, and former Spanish basketball player with Real Madrid Baloncesto who also played for Spain at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games where he won a silver medal, explains it as follows: "It is retirement at 30, not 65. It's a total change from what had been your life since childhood. You should be preparing long before, yourself and your environment because you will live like a normal person many more years than you live like an athlete. In 50 years we will continue to remember Nadal. Those who are not superstars no one remembers after a short while. And if that person has valued himself on what they think others thought of them based on results... ", warns Beirán. "You think you're more professional if you live just for the sport 24/7, if you only think about sports. That's a risk. You are tired a lot. It is a tremendous mental effort. You have to relax physically, but also mentally, and doing anything else is a rest".

There is only one solution, says the psychologist. Planning. Preparing. Get ready while you are still active as an athlete. Find something to fill your time once you are no longer competing. Just what is making the Majorcan tick? Nadal, still in his prime, still able to fight for all the big titles, something he has demonstrated until now with the possibility of becoming a tennis player who has won the most Grand Slams in history (he has 14, compared to Roger Federer's 17), says he has already found the project which will keep him motivated in the future.

"I have people helping me with these things, like my father", he explains about his plans, plans in which his family is will always be a fundamental pillar. "The project of the academy is both emotional and personal and a collective project". He describes the high performance international tennis center he will open in Manacor (Mallorca), his home town, and for which the first brick has already been laid. "It allows me to remain connected to the world of sports and the sport that I have played since I was three years old. It will be in the place where I grew up, where I live and I will live. That emotional connection is important: for Manacor to create something that can be a sports center of international recognition", he tells us. "It motivates me to give Mallorca and Manacor a facility of this level, create jobs and make it so citizens can enjoy it", he explains while moving his hands with vehemence.

"Training young people for the future also motivates me. It is fact, and should not be covered up, that the percentage of people fully dedicated to tennis since the age 10 to reach professional status is X. We try to have as many as possible reach X but the vast majority fails so the first and foremost thing is to train people, provide them with a solid foundation to give them a future with possibilities, training them personally, have them study and prepare them for university", reflects the player, keeping in mind his friend Tomeu Salva, a tennis player who never made it to the professional circuit. "There came a day when competition led to anxiety, nervousness and unhappiness in Tomeu and he managed to find joy taking a different path. The academy will aim to turn the maximum possible number of children into professional players, but to also prepare them for an alternate future, university and values that will help them in their personal lives whatever their destiny."

Values! The inner sanctum of Nadal. The Majorcan's concerns go beyond the court. The teenager who had no interest in reading but was attached to his PlayStation video games and always ready to participate in a practice soccer match is now an adult talking about creating jobs, starting a family, creating, managing his legacy and especially his values. This is a key concept in the life of the world number three. Today and for the past decade Nadal's effort, passion, humility, perseverance, achievement and gratefulness for what life has afforded him are legendary. Today and for the past decade on the court and through the Rafa Nadal Tour, a circuit for young players, the Spaniard has attempted to transfer those values to practice. Talk is cheap, he says. Put it into practice.

"Talking about values is much easier than exemplifying them, acting upon them and turning them into reality", he says with a raised eyebrow, another Nadal characteristic. "Giving advice with words is much easier to do than living by example," he stresses after walking through the streets of Madrid dragging his suitcase and people encouraging him with his "¡VAMOS Rafa!" for his "Closer" campaign with journalist John Carlin for Banco Sabadell. "My father did not need to give me that advise because I see how he works every day, what he has done for us, how he has strived to make his business successful. For many years, year after year, he has worked hard to outdo himself at his job," says the tennis player who has applied on the court what he observed at home, an attitude he will likely keep in the management of his assets, which include investments in hotels. "My father did it. He has the largest glassware company in the Baleares. To me that's an example of starting from scratch and creating what he has created. It is not a fluke. He has been working hard and continuously seeking improvement," he adds.

"Everyone has to do what makes them happy if they can. Not everyone is able to do what they like but it is important to be happy with what you do and not just do what makes you happy. That is a great virtue," says the player who is also advised by Carlos Costa, former world number 10 and his agent since childhood. "For many years I have done what I love which is playing tennis, and I have been happy. But I have also worked from a very young age to achieve what I have achieved. Am I able to do what my father does?" he asks. "I do not know for sure that I could but I will not be sitting on the couch because I like to be active. My passion is tennis, my father has his company, work he enjoys doing. The idea is to have a job and also enjoy other things. My father does that now but for many years he did not."

When the time comes Nadal will be more involved in his education and charity projects of his foundation, which does work in India. He will remain an extremely valuable figure for brands and companies who see him as a spokesman able to relate like a family member in the living room of any home and he will take a more active role in the talent and event agency he shares with Carlos Costa (they have already signed Chilean Christian Garin, the 2013 Roland Garros Junior Champion) and otherwise enjoy his love for tennis, golf, soccer, fishing and the ocean.
Nadal, the ninth highest paid athlete in the world according to Forbes (35.5 million Euros in 2014), imagines a future in which his currently busy life style (nearly 11 months away from home, tournaments on four different continents, travel and constant training) will be replaced with an equally intense life but with less travel. "I do not see myself being a personal trainer and traveling the world," he says. "Being a Stefan Edberg [Roger Federer's coach and winner of six Grand Slams] or Boris Becker [Novak Djokovic's coach and winner of six Grand Slams]... I do not see that for myself".

Because the best Spanish tennis player of all time, winner of the Prince of Asturias Award, individual Olympic gold medal winner, the only Spaniard to win Wimbledon since Manûel Santana (1966), the first to win the Australian Open and win all Grand Slams, wants to be a father and surrounded by children. "More than two," but he does not put a date on it as he is still competing and his girlfriend also wants to have a career in the field of her work. When that day come and with it independence (the champion still lives with his parents during the little time he spends in Mallorca) it is more than likely that Nadal will continue seeing old friends and occasionally Pedro Riera, the coach with whom he started playing soccer and whom he nick named Torment. Today soccer is the sport for his cousins whom he watches play when the season permits.

"I've never lost touch with these people," says the athlete whose family has been established in Manacor since the fourteenth century. "I'm lucky that I have many cousins between the ages of 9 and 12 who are playing soccer and when I have free time I go watch them play because it is fun for me. These are beautiful moments. When I was small playing soccer made me more nervous than playing tennis. Soccer has always been a passion. To Pedro whom I know well, as Pedro Torment."

Nadal still has battles with Roger Federer ahead of him, the opponent who marked the beginning of his career, with whom he played the unforgettable Wimbledon Final in 2008 and who denied him the Masters Cup in 2010. The Spaniard also faces matches against Novak Djokovic's, his nemesis, a fierce Serbian tennis player with whom he has shared the most major titles over the last five years. The world number three is looking forward to 2015 spurred on by a 2014 filled with trouble in which the ninth Roland Garros title was a ray of light in a dark year overshadowed by a back injury, problems with the right wrist (which caused a three month absence from the tour) and appendicitis which gave him a scare. "I had surgery and was lucky: I had been told that the appendix could erupt again," he says. Ready to continue competing again at the highest level the champion of 14 majors knows that everything has its purpose. That although he is fit for the race ahead the racket is not forever. And so, with full maturity, he is looking straight ahead into the future with open eyes.

Source: ElPais
Translation: Chris Boardman

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