BEIJING – Rafael Nadal has made headlines in 2015, but not for the usual reasons. The 14-time Grand Slam champion failed to win a major title for the first time in 10 years and did not reach beyond the quarterfinals at a Slam this year.
But the Spaniard and his camp have reason to believe next year will yield better results, despite the negativity surrounding his 2015 season.
“It’s normal that when I was winning a lot, they’d put me to the moon and now they put me very low,” Nadal said in Beijing. “That’s part of the show, that’s part of the game. So I accept everything and know what I did in the world of tennis, know how difficult are all the things that I’ve done. I’m happy and proud about what I did to be where I am today, all the work that I had to do to become the player that I am. So I’m gonna keep working hard, keep waiting for chances for my future and I believe I’m gonna do it.”
Nadal’s fans, competitors and coaches have seen him in every state of mind this season: hopeful, frustrated, dejected, upset. “I am No. 8 in the world. I am not No. 100. Seems like I am No. 200 in every press conference,” Nadal said after a second round match at the U.S. Open, when asked if he understood why his fans were worried about his recent form. But now, as Nadal is into his first hard court semifinal match of the year at the China Open, he seems very calm about place in the game and is actively preparing for the 2016 season.
“The positive thing is that Rafael played really bad this year but he’s still seventh in the Race [to London for the ATP World Tour Finals]. That’s the best thing to come out of this, because it means he has enough space to come back faster,” Rafael's uncle and coach Toni Nadal said in Beijing. “Mentally it hasn’t been easy because he isn’t used to losing, but in life things aren’t lasting for ever so you have to accept that. We’re moving forward, trying to train with a better focus and intensity. He is really improving, so I don’t know if his game will be back this season, but I believe Rafael will be very good again in 2016.”
The former World No. 1 has the same mindset as his longtime mentor: hard work will soon pay off. Rafael says practices are improving and the final hurdle is to make things click again during matches. But he’s not surprised at how long it’s taken.
“When you have longer without playing well, then it takes longer to play well again. It’s something that I accept, and I am working hard,” Rafael said. “I feel happy about every improvement, with the way we are working. I think we’re on the right way, with positive attitude from everybody in the team and knowing that things are difficult but that we can be there again.”
The question is: what point in his career is there? Is it his 2013 level of play, where he won the French and U.S. Opens, and eight ATP titles? Or is it simply making his game evolve again, or reconnecting his rivalry with Novak Djokovic?
“A bit of both,” said Toni about Rafael's season two years ago and the development of his game. About the possibility of catching up with Djokovic, Toni is less optimistic.
“No, because at the moment we’re way too far from him,” he said with a sigh. “First we need to get the game back, and then we’ll be able to be competitive with everybody. But let’s not forget that you have young guns coming up now too, so it won’t be easy. Yet, if you’re mentally strong and you still want to be out there, then it will always be possible.”
Rafael hasn’t won a Masters title in the fall since 2005 and his last major title came in 2014 at the French Open. But even World No. 1 Djokovic spoke about the Spainard's chances at a title before this year’s U.S. Open.
“He always has a chance. You can’t sign Nadal out, 14-time Grand Slam champion, he deserves [to be] a favorite,” he said.
Nadal’s demeanor in Beijing shows a strong will power—no sign of sadness, no sign of a lack of desire to go on—and he speaks very calmly of his 2015 doubts and troubles. He says he wants continue to treat winning and losing the same way. “All that I know is I’m decided to work as hard as I can, and decided to do everything that I need to do to be back to the level where I want to be. But without an obsession, without getting crazy,” he said. “Things are easier. I feel very lucky with all the things that happened to me already so I’m gonna work hard in order to have the possibility to enjoy this sport. I’m with calm and with the right motivation to keep going.”
After several tough losses and disappointments, Rafael's motivation is still intact for the end of this season and for his ambitions for 2016. “My goal is to recover the level especially to play my best on clay next year,” he said.
“His confidence is built on that, his game is built on that,” Toni said of Roland Garros, where Rafael has won nine titles. “So yes, in order to regain those two we need to win back the clay. Of course we shouldn’t wait for the clay to start playing well again but the main goal remains to be again the No. 1 on the clay.”
And for this, there’s a clear plan set up for the months to come. Toni and Rafael have already changed some things at practice and assessed his game for areas of improvement.
“In 2013 his level was higher because his game was stronger. He was taking the ball more forward, he was going for his shots and for the points. This season, the legs have stopped a bit,” Toni said. “But when you are tighter, then the legs don’t move that well anymore. We need to do better and I think we know how.
“We’re working on how he moves, but mostly we need to get his forehand back. That’s what he’s been missing the most this year. But recently at training it’s been better, we just now lack the safety of knowing that he can repeat those sequences over and over again.”
Toni is still the main person in charge of bringing Rafael back to his best, but he’s also aware of recent comments suggesting that his nephew needs to try another coaching method. He says the remarks do not hurt him, but he isn’t impressed either. “It’s easy to talk, and many people are talking about a lot of things and many times they do without knowing. To know, you have to come and watch a practice session, you have to know what the coach is saying,” Toni said. “We’ll see if Rafael thinks that we must change or that we must add a super coach [smiling]. If I thought it’d be better for Rafael, I’d do it. I don’t want the best for me but for him. I’m the coach but I’m the uncle too. If he tells me that, I don’t know, [Ilie] Nastase is arriving, and then Rafael ends winning Roland Garros, I say come, come Nastase! I’d be very glad.”
Toni and Rafael will open an academy in Manacor, Spain, next May, marking the pair’s largest project outside of Rafael’s career and one that’s been in their minds and hearts for years. The academy will not only help kids develop their tennis skills and values, but will also serve as a school, giving students an opportunity to attend an American university. “We’re going to work hard to try to help them to have a good future, hopefully in tennis, but if not, to prepare them for the life,” Rafael said.
“We feel we were prepared for this project because of all the experience we have on the Tour for sure but also on life. I’ve seen the transformation of this little boy to the No. 1 player in the world. I’ve seen every step of the way,” Toni said of his nephew.
Whether it’s his outlook, adjustments to form or the symbolic meaning of academy, Rafael and his camp both believe there are signs indicating better results for 2016.
“Tennis is Rafael’s life,” Toni said. “As he earned enough money he could have picked whatever he wanted to, but he still chose tennis. Because he loves it.”