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‘I’m ready to die to get back to winning grand slams again’

Rafael Nadal, the former world No 1, tells Martyn Ziegler that he is ready to put an injury-ravaged 2016 behind him and add to his 14 major titles

When Rafael Nadal fixes his eyes on you and says, without a flicker of emotion, not once but twice that he is prepared to “die” in his efforts to return to the pinnacle of tennis next year, you believe that he means it.

Given the injuries that have wrecked Nadal’s body in recent years, it is little surprise that even his most fervent fans may fear that the 30-year-old has headed over the brow of the hill, and that the spirit may be willing but the flesh is torn, sprained and twisted.

But that flesh looked in pretty good nick on the balcony of his stunning new tennis academy in his home town of Manacor, in the east of Majorca. In shorts and then shirtless after he divested himself of a tracksuit that was too warm in the early-afternoon sun, he chatted unselfconsciously with visitors and VIPs.

This Marc Aspland photograph of Nadal celebrating his 2008 Wimbledon triumph hangs on the Spaniard’s wall at homeTimes Photographer Marc Aspland

Later, with shirt restored and sipping a milkshake, the ferocious intensity that Nadal displays on court reasserts itself as he contemplates the year ahead, and the prospect of adding to his 14 grand-slam titles, three fewer than his great rival Roger Federer.

“I’m going to die to be ready again to compete for everything,” he says. “I’m going to work more than ever to try to make that happen and I have big determination to put me in a position to fight again for important things.”

An injury to his left wrist flared up at the French Open, and then again in September, meaning that the season ended early for Nadal: apart from a gold medal in the Olympics men’s doubles, 2016 has been a forgettable year for him on the court.

It is, of course, by no means the first season that Nadal has been troubled by injury. He was unable to defend his Wimbledon title in 2009 because of tendinitis in his knee and the same problem continued to dog him, forcing him to pull out of defending his singles title at the London 2012 Olympics. A right wrist injury then kept him out of the US Open in 2014 before the other wrist this year ended his bid for a tenth French Open title prematurely and kept him out of Wimbledon.

“It has been a tough year for me because I got injured at the worst time possible when I was playing great and was having a lot of fun on the court,” he admits. “But that’s part of life and I just have to be positive and keep working hard and my main goal now is to recover and be ready for next season. And I’m going to die for that.

“When I had the problems in my knees when I was younger it was so tough when I used to wake up in the morning and go to practise, and I didn’t enjoy that. When you are not healthy then it’s tough. It’s tough now, but it was also tough when I was 20. But at the moment I am enjoying what I am doing and having fun. For me, it takes a lot of effort to come from last year, when I had a tough year and it was hard work, to get back where I was before the injury this year.

“So I’m really motivated to come back to where I was before the injury happened because I feel ready for it.”

If Nadal needs the fuel of anger to help his recovery, then it was in ready supply in 2016 after France’s former health and sports minister Roselyne Bachelot made completely unfounded claims in March that he had covered up a failed drugs test in 2012. Then, in September, two of his therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for corticosteroids to treat his tendinitis in 2009 and 2012 were made public by the Russian cyber-hacking group Fancy Bears.

For Nadal, who had spent years fending off whispered rumours of doping, Bachelot’s allegation was the final straw: he lodged a lawsuit in France and asked the International Tennis Federation to make public his drug tests results and blood-profile records.

“It was the moment to say it’s enough, that’s all,” he grimaces. “It’s not about being frustrated it’s just a moment to say, ‘Here is a line,’ because it happened in the past a couple of times.

“I hate problems and I hate . . . these things but when that happened with the minister of France I say, ‘OK, now is enough.’

“If somebody like her, who should be serious, can say this stupid stuff then now is the moment to say, ‘OK, from now everybody who is going to speak of this kind of stuff with no proof then I’m going to do the same and take legal action against that person.’

“I know how much I did to be where I am, and I know 100 per cent my values.”

It is those values, he said, which convinced him to plough millions of euros into his academy on the outskirts of Manacor, the town where he grew up. During the 1990s, he was a talented, left-sided and free-scoring attacker for the town’s junior football team, with half an eye on trying to follow his uncle, the intimidating Spain defender Miguel Ángel Nadal, into the professional game.

By the age of 13, it was obvious that his true talents lay in his hands not his feet, and he was forced to give up football. Just down the road from where he had scored all those goals however, was a patch of typical Majorcan scrubland that would, almost 20 years later, become his multimillion-pound academy.

“Back then, there was nothing here,” he says. “It’s something special now and for us it is a dream come true. We worked so hard for a lot of years to finally make it happen. Especially my father was pushing so much and without him probably this would never have happened. He was up here very often and every day overseeing the construction, almost living here.”

Now in place of that scrubland there is an impressive complex of 26 courts — including of course some clay courts, Nadal’s favourite surface — as well as two swimming pools, a gym, an artificial football pitch and an American international school. A year’s course, including access to the school and 17 hours of tennis coaching a week, costs €56,000 (about £50,000) — by comparison, a year at Eton costs £37,000.

The academy’s website suggests that the young hopefuls who join — and many have already signed up, including some from the UK — will be in a strong position to compete for the 931 full tennis scholarships offered by American universities, many of which charge a similar level of fees.

Nadal believes that Murray is just about to reach his peakTimes Photographer Marc Aspland

“Our main goal is to try to help them become professional tennis players, but we know even if we put the best coaches in the world together in one centre then still most of the players that come are not going to become professionals,” Nadal says. “We have some kids from Britain, I have been practising with them. They are some good players.”

What about any budding Andy Murrays? Nadal smiles. “It’s so difficult to be Andy Murray,” he says. “He’s such an amazing player, but if he did it and I did it then why not one of them. But in terms of mentality you cannot think about being Andy Murray, only about your next step. Our main goal is to help them grow up with the right values, prepare them for the tennis world if they finally make it, or for the wider world if they don’t. And we can achieve this through the international school we have here. And they will still be very good tennis players . . .”

Murray is only a year younger than Nadal, but the Majorcan was a grand-slam title winner as a teenager while the Scot had to wait until he was 25 for his first major title, the 2012 US Open. It was perhaps Murray’s misfortune to enter the fray when he had a trio of opponents as powerful as Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic to contend with.

Nadal believes, however, that Murray is just about to reach his peak, saying: “It’s 100 per cent that he’s going to be the world No 1, either at the end of this season or the beginning of the next one. He’s had an amazing second part of the season, Novak still has points to defend at the beginning of next season and he [Murray] has fewer points to defend.

“Andy is so good and even if he doesn’t win in the Paris [Masters] and London [ATP World Tour Finals] then at the beginning of the next season he will have a huge chance.

“Everything has an evolution and you have to adapt. Roger, myself, Andy and Novak, because of each other we all had to improve all the time, which is why we are able to be where we are for a long, long time.”

Until Murray and Djokovic started winning grand-slams, it seemed every major tournament from 2005 until 2010 had Nadal v Federer in the final. The 35-year-old Swiss, who took the trouble to travel to Majorca to visit his old sparring partner’s academy, said: “There was a time that it seemed almost every week there was a meet-and-greet between us on the court for a final. He was my ultimate rival and made me a better player.

“The first time I played him I had never seen someone with this much power, intensity and top spin all in one package.”

Toughest players Nadal faced

  • Best serve: Ivo Karlovic. He’s so tall and he’s able to create different angles. When he’s serving, you see the ball so far from you, it’s so difficult.
  • Forehand: Roger Federer. He’s able to take the ball so early and from his first forehand he puts a lot of pressure on you.
  • Backhand: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray. Both of them has a backhand that takes the ball very early, changing direction very easily and creating angles, and being very accurate.
  • Fitness: These days everybody is very fit and you can say Djokovic of course but I remember [Guillermo] Coria was very, very strong.
  • Game intelligence: Fabrice Santoro. He played some amazing shots.

The pair looked to have fallen out in a big way in 2011 when Federer was president of the ATP player council and Nadal the vice-president. Nadal resigned in frustration after his bid to change the ranking system was rejected, and his attempt to bring in Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, as chief executive was thwarted.

Any rancour left over appears to have dissipated — the pair laughed and joked together over lunch in the academy restaurant. In his interview a couple of hours later, Nadal says their friendship was never seriously tested.

“It’s 100 per cent true that we were thinking in different ways in some things in our sport — but if you are married you don’t need to think the same way as your wife about everything! That does not mean that you don’t appreciate her,” he says. “It’s actually good that when we were in the council we had some different opinions on different things.

“But at the end of the day other things are much more important. There is no doubt that both of us love our sport and in some way we help it and both want the best for it. Sometimes to get there we believe in different ways.”

Nadal’s determination to regain his old powers cannot be doubted, but neither can the reality that the number of years he can stay near the top are fast diminishing. Retirement, he insists, is not something that he fears.

“I have never been scared of that,” he says. “I love tennis and enjoy doing it but my life is much more than just tennis.

“I enjoy doing things away from tennis and I’m sure I will find things that make me very happy when I finish my career. I have other things in this world, this academy here is a very important part of my future.

“The last thing I am scared about after tennis is that I will not be busy.”

Marc Aspland presents Nadal with the photograph of him lifting the Wimbledon trophy in 2008Times Photographer Marc Aspland

He still has my picture on the wall
Marc Aspland, Times Photographer

The 2008 men’s singles final on Centre Court at Wimbledon is still regarded by many as the best final ever. After a dramatic and compelling four hours and 48 minutes, Rafael Nadal defeated the five-times champion, Roger Federer.

The scoreboard on Centre Court clearly shows the time, 9.26pm, and in near darkness that historic evening, I decided to try a technique which, if lucky, would allow me to capture one of the flashlights of the assembled press photographers in front of the Royal Box. As Rafa held aloft the trophy, one single frame was captured that illuminated the champion.

Fast-forward to a day spent a few weeks ago in Rafa’s home town of Manacor, Majorca, where he opened his impressive tennis academy. After a day of speeches — Federer was his guest of honour — and media appearances, he was ushered to meet the visitors from The Times. He saw me, pointed and said: “Wimbledon 2008, award-winning picture! It is still on my wall at home.”

His smile was as wide and as infectious as it has always been. Across the world, Rafa has always been a pleasure to photograph and is a true icon of the sport.

When our interview had finished he asked if perhaps The Times could supply the black and white picture for the wall of his Academy.

It will be a pleasure.

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