This story appears in the February 2020 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here. To see more from L. Jon Wertheim’s interview with Rafael Nadal, watch this week’s episode of 60 Minutes, airing Sunday, January 12 on CBS.
Rafael Nadal’s 2019 was his career writ small. He suffered a comprehensive loss to Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open, the first major of the season. A knee injury forced him out of his next big event in March. He was dispirited and he was 32, ancient for players not named Roger Federer. Nadal admits that last spring, even he wondered if his career was drawing to a close.
But then he returned, rising ever higher, like one of his topspin-laced forehands.
He won the French Open—of course he did—for, comically, the 12th time, pushing his career match record at Roland Garros to 92–2. But he also took the U.S. Open in September, his 19th Grand Slam singles title, reminding the world that while he’s a peerless clay-court player, he’s also plenty good with the other surfaces underfoot. (Fun fact: Nadal has as many major titles off clay as immortals on the order of John McEnroe and Venus Williams each have in total.)
In the fall Nadal nudged ahead of Djokovic to finish the season ranked No. 1. He single-handedly—or double-handedly, as it were—led Spain to a sixth Davis Cup victory. He also married his longtime girlfriend, Maria Francisca Perello. (Otherwise, it was a slow year.)
Here is a player who entered the ATP’s top 10 as a teenager in 2005 and has never left. The embodiment of relentlessness, Nadal has endured all manner of physical injuries, yet each time he has battled past them and regained his form.
This January, Nadal will arrive in Melbourne as the 2020 Australian Open’s top seed. In the Great Tennis G.O.A.T. Race, Nadal’s 19 majors put him three ahead of Djokovic and one behind Federer’s record of 20. (The last time Nadal was this close to catching his rival, Federer led 1–0.)
Before he renewed his quest, Nadal sat down for a wide-ranging 60 Minutes interview in his home of Mallorca, the Spanish island where he was born, where he lives and where he intends to always reside. Here are some excerpts from the interview, lightly edited and translated from Nadal’s native tongue for brevity and clarity.
SI: You’re 33 years old. You’re World No. 1. How do you explain that?
Rafael Nadal: No one could have predicted this. I always repeat the same things. No one could have foreseen that I was going to be a 12-time Roland Garros [champion] or No. 1 in the rankings as a 33-year-old. Things don’t go zero to 100. But with the day-to-day, trying to win a match here, a match there, trying to improve. . . . People say, “This is a sacrifice.” But for me this is not a sacrifice because I do it with enthusiasm.
SI: You don’t feel you’re making sacrifices?
RN: No, I don’t think so. I never felt that what I was doing was a sacrifice. I trained, yes. I have worked very hard, at the maximum, yes. But I have enjoyed every single thing. For me, a sacrifice means that you are doing the things that you don’t like doing.
SI: You’re a lucky man.
RN: I can say very loud and clear that I’m very lucky for all of the things I have enjoyed in life. But I have to say that my life is not only tennis. I have been out partying with my friends. Not every Saturday night, as they did, but I’ve been out partying with my friends. I have been fishing with my friends. I’ve had a normal life. Maybe less often than my friends, but I don’t think I’ve missed out on important things in my childhood. I’ve done all of the same things that my friends did, but less frequently. Which makes me feel very happy.
SI: We met for the first time in 2005. You were 18 years old. Who was this guy?
RN: For me, that year, in 2005, everything went very fast. But then everything slowed down. In 2003 and ’04, I had some significant injuries. So, in ’05, I went from No. 50 in the rankings to No. 2 in four months. That was really a radical, fast change in my career and in my life.
SI: In many ways, you seem to me very much the same person as that 18-year-old kid. You hear it all the time: “Nadal hasn’t been changed by fame and celebrity and success.” How does that make you feel to hear that?
RN: I think this is good news. It means that at least you have still maintained the essential life values. And it’s much more important than winning any match or tournament.
SI: The tennis world sometimes writes: “Nadal might be starting to fade.” One journalist— whom I won’t name, who might be sitting across from you—wrote, “We are undeniably witnessing an athlete in decline.” That was in 2016. Four years later, you’re No. 1. It must give you such satisfaction that you’re still on top.
RN: Yes, but let me explain. Negative comments can be motivating for some people, like a charge of energy. Not for me. It neither motivates me nor gets me down. I wouldn’t criticize the journalist who said that. At the time, maybe this was something that may have happened. So I’ve always respected this point of view.
SI: You and your body have a long history. Some- times you’re getting along and sometimes you’re fighting. How are you now?
RN: I’m O.K. The body is O.K. Sometimes I feel better, sometimes I feel worse. This can be tough during the bad times. But I always hope that things are going to be fine. I have encountered many problems, this is true. But I have been able to overcome the problems in a positive way.
SI: What has Carlos Moya [the former top-ranked player who is Nadal’s coach and a fellow Mallorcan] brought to your game?
RN: He has brought many things, like a different way of training compared to the way I had been doing it all my life. And now at this stage of my life, I think it has worked very well. This more organized way of training has been very useful, and it has allowed me to have a longer career.
SI: Two men from this small island, one in his 30s, one in his 40s, now taking on the world. It almost seems like a movie. . . .
RN: To be frank, it’s a very nice story. All my life I admired Carlos. So having someone that was an idol for me is very positive and very reassuring. He builds my trust, my self-confidence. And he makes my life easier as well, which is very important at this stage. The impact was not only on my tennis.
SI: We know about your Uncle Toni [who coached Nadal from youth to 16 major titles before retiring in 2017]. You have another uncle, Miguel Angel, who played professional soccer in Spain. Big, big soccer star. What did you learn from him about the job of being a professional athlete?
RN: My uncle was an excellent athlete. He played on the Barcelona soccer team for nine years and with the Spanish national team in the World Cup in the U.S., France, Korea and Japan. I learned many things from my uncle. He’s an exceptional person. Soccer players are big stars here in Spain and everywhere. But he managed to have a normal life, close to his family. And for me, that was a very good example. Having someone close to me that had achieved a lot of success in the sports world was very helpful. I could talk to him in complicated moments.
SI: What is your motivation these days? Why is tennis important to you right now?
RN: I’m happy playing tennis, and I love competing. I’m very privileged to be able to live the life I am living. I never lose sight of the fact that I’m very lucky to have gone through unique experiences—and still do. All of this thanks to tennis. The feeling I have when I’m on the tennis court and I see these stadiums full of people sitting there, looking, cheering—this is something amazing and very difficult to describe. It’s very satisfying, because at this stage of my career, everybody is still supporting me. People are fond of me. And I think this means that I have done things right, both on-court and off-court. I think that my attitude has always been right. And this has been a source of satisfaction.
SI: Has it ever gotten easier talking about yourself?
RN: No, I don’t like it. No. [Laughs.] Because I cannot be praising myself. I can express my feelings, but I cannot say that I’m a nice per- son or a good person. I cannot say that. I have tried to be do the right things and have a proper attitude towards everybody. But the fact that I am like that or not is not up to me to say. So I’m a bit shy.
To watch L. Jon Wertheim’s full interview with Rafael Nadal, tune in to CBS on Sunday, January 12, or go to 60minutes.com.