The following article by Frédéric Bernès appeared in L'Equipe on 7 February 2013. It has been translated for us by Moondancer.
I want to become like beforeL’Equipe, 7 February 2013
By Frédéric Bernès
So, there is a post-Lukas Rosol. But, we had to wait almost 8 months before Rafael Nadal could turn the page on that nightmare of a defeat in the second round of Wimbledon on the 28th of June 2012. He’s suffering from Hoffa’s syndrome on his left knee, infiltrated since Roland Garros and it still hurts him today. But, according to the doctors, the healing is right around the corner, very close.
The idea for this interview in Chili was discussed and sealed with his PR agent during the Australian Open. When we arrived here, we were suddenly stopped. He was said to be stressed, worried, not wanting to open up and not very eager to have an interview before his first round. And since Monday morning…ring, ring…the telephone sounds. If we could meet in his hotel. Arriving there, we witness him undergoing a weird event organised by the sponsor of the tournament. A room, teenage music and whole collection of guests from reality tv shows. All in mini-skirts and revealing shirts, the jet-set of Viña del Mar has its time in the spotlights with Nadal. The women ask him questions he can’t hear because of the music, cameras light up and then, it stops. Done. So, we go upstairs to his room with his press agent Benito Perez-Barbadillo and his manager Carlos Costa.
As usual, Nadal doesn’t look at his watch. At the end of his last answer, after a 50-minute conversation, the tape recorder is stopped. But Nadal kept on talking. He went downstairs to the lobby to join his uncle Toni and his physio Rafael Maymo after which the discussion continues. Since two or three lolitas are still in the vicinity, he had to pose for more pictures. Which he did, calmly.
Q: What’s the predominant feeling today? Relieved to have been able to put an end to the forced stop, joy to be able to play again, stressed out of fear of not going to do well or fear of still hurting…?
Rafa: Fear? No. Stress, yes. That’s normal. I feel relieved and joyful, that’s certain. In fact, the theme of the moment is patience. I need to take it step by step and accept that I’m not going to be at my maximum level right away. I haven’t played in seven months. If I’m not humble, it’s not going to work. I’m not afraid because I know in what state my knee is in. Since three weeks, all the tests I have undergone have shown perfect results. The truth is that my left knee is in fantastic shape compared with the other one (laughs). I know now that if I run, I won’t risk torn tendons. That’s “importantissime”. The doctors have promised me that. So, it’s alright, no anxiety. Even if the tendon still gives me pain...
Q: Is that pain normal. Did the doctors warn you about it beforehand?
Rafa: Yes, they told me that it would disappear gradually. Normally, it should be gone by the end of February. I will regain my normal mobility on court. I just need to give my patellar tendon time to get used to intense efforts.
Q: How would you describe that pain?
Rafa: It’s a settled pain. I could feel it in the morning while getting up and in the afternoon while I’m eating or while hitting a backhand. My first two days in Chili were difficult: I was feeling a lot of pain and I didn’t have one good training session. On Sunday and Monday, it went well. So, I was very pleased by that. I need to accept it. Before, I had pain 9 days out of 10, then 8 out of 10 and it’s getting less and less….But, well, pain or not, the overwhelming feeling is the joy of being here, to train with the pros, to have a match, to play, to feel the competition…
Q: You have never had to stop for such a long time. Starting again now must be more stressful than in 2006 when you had a foot injury which forced you to stop for three months.
Rafa: Honestly? No. Remember that my foot injury was bad. Doctors painted me a picture of the end of my career. With my knee, that was never the case. What was different is that in 2006, I was just starting out. Today, I’m still only 26 years old. I still have time and I want to continue playing for years. What both injuries have in common is that nobody found the formula to get rid of the pain.
Q: Being sidelined for nearly eight months, what was the toughest moment?
Rafa: The worst was when I realised that I could not compete in the Olympic Games. At the start, I thought that I would heal quickly. What was difficult is that my knee let go at the best moment of my career.
Q: The best? You’ve won more in 2008, 2009 or 2010…
Rafa: Yes, but in 2012, I really played better. The Australian Open final against Djokovic, even if I lost it, was great. I continued to win Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Roland Garros. I exploded on court.
Q: If you had lost against Delbonis, would that have been bad?
Q: How about having high expectation? And ambitions?
Rafa: I haven’t lost them. That, never! But here, the result is the least important of all things. Same with the ranking. If all goes well, my goals will change obviously within two months. I aim to be at 100% to attack in Monte Carlo and in the following events on clay. To lose here, pffft, that’s no problem. Seven months of rest, seven months of never being able to practice at full tilt: the logical thing would be for me to lose here. It would only be a drama if my knee would hurt too much.
Q: If those knee tests are perfect since four weeks, that means that even without that stomach virus in December, you wouldn’t be ready to compete in the Australian Open.
Rafa: That’s correct. The question was: can I win in Melbourne? The answer was no. I don’t see myself going to a grand slam with that answer is no. Here, in Viña, it would not affect me as much as if I would have lost early in Melbourne.
Q: A lot of people are talking about your return as if you’re starting a second career. Is this correct?
Rafa: My career is already quite full as it is. I don’t feel like beginning another one. (laughs). I will continue with this one if that’s alright with you (laughs). I’m still the same. I still feel passionate about the game. I still have the same demands with every shot I hit. I’m still as motivated as before to train. If my knee allows me to train for longer than three hours per day at full tilt and if I can run without thinking about my knee or the pain, why wouldn’t I be able to do what I did before? The fact that I was playing excellently when I was forced to stop, is helping me right now. The memory (of those good sensations) is really fresh.
Q: With what’s happening with your knee, are we going to get back to the Nadal of before? Very strong on clay, capable of winning Wimbledon but in difficulty on hardcourts?
Rafa: Everything depends on the knee. If it holds up, I don’t have the intention of changing my schedule by playing more on clay than before. Why? Because if you want to become the first, second or third in the world ranking, you have to play and win on hardcourts. Honestly, I think it’s possible.
Q: If we tell you that you will win the US Open next year, do you think that this would be possible?
Rafa: I will tell you that I don’t know. And I’m telling you that I didn’t know it in 2010 before winning it. But if my knee is well, give me a reason to prevent me from believing in it. Just one. I spent the previous eight years being the world number one or two, so I dare to hope that I haven’t forgotten how to play tennis within seven months. I don’t want to appear arrogant but I just want to say think that I can go back to that level.
Q: And if we tell you that you’re going to win Roland Garros in four months, does that seem possible to you?
Rafa: I’m telling you that I don’t know (laughs). Nobody knows. If I can play Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome the way I want it, I will have a chance. And I will try it.
Q: In Australia, Mats Wilander said that you won’t have enough time and that even if your name is Nadal, you will be an outsider in Paris this year…
Rafa: Good. Alright. We’ll see. It’s true that I won’t be the favourite in Paris but I don’t need to be in order to win.
Q: Agreed, but do you need this here in order to get back to the top 4 in order to prevent a quarter final against Djokovic, Federer or Murray?
Rafa: First of all, I still need to get to the quarter finals and given all the points that I have to defend in the coming months, it will be difficult from here to the end of May. After that, do I need it to win Roland Garros? No. I can get back to the level needed for the top 4 without being in the top 4. After all, what’s more difficult: to get back to the top 4 from now until Roland Garros or to win Roland Garros? In my opinion, the first is harder.
Q: After the recent finals in New York, Melbourne, some – among which Marian Vajda, the trainer of Djokovic – have said that this is the start of the Djokovic-Murray era. You have an ego. How does it take this?
Rafa: My ego is calm. (laughs). It doesn’t bother me to hear that. It’s not wrong. It’s correct at the moment, isn’t it? These are two superb players who have played the last two grand slam finals. It would imply and end to the Federer-Nadal rivalry one but who knows. I’m only one year older than Djokovic and Murray so perhaps now is not the time to bury me. Eight months ago, I was in an excellent position to become world number one again. Let’s not forget to quickly. Now, I will try to nudge myself in that Djokovic-Murray era (smiles).
Q: Did you watch the Australian Open?
Rafa: No, I didn’t have access to Eurosport.
Q: Excuse me?
Rafa: Our satellite tv channels have changed in January so that’s why. Well, I did see images of it. What can I say about it? First of all, Djokovic has proven once again that he’s a great competitor he is. Secondly, that he’s a superb tennis player. And thirdly, that he is a player who doesn’t get injured. That’s lucky. He can do what he wants and it all works well for him. Give me two years without an injury and….
Q: Have you undergone anti-doping tests during your time off?
Rafa: Nine. Three blood tests and six urine tests. That’s a lot for somebody who is stuck at home without being able to play. The last two weeks, I was tested four times, two of which close together.
Q: At the end of the previous season, Murray and Federer regretted the fact that they had less doping tests in recent months, esp. out-of-competition tests. Do you agree?
Rafa: If they decide tomorrow that I’ll need to be tested weekly, that’s no problem at all. Great. Life is beautiful, perfect. I need to know that those I’m playing against are as clean as I am. So, if you say that more testing needs to be done, that’s easy. When you say a thing like that, everybody applauds and everybody would sign for it.
Q: Don’t you think that the results of the doping tests need to be made public?
Rafa: That would be the best. That’s the thing! If all tests would be made public, it would calm down the rumours surrounding the sport. I’m all for it.
Q: What do you think of the possibility of introducing a biological passport in tennis?
Rafa: I don’t know what it is (laughs). Biological passport, the Puerto trial, that’s far from my world. What’s happening right now in Spain in a court of law, is something that I don’t understand. I don’t understand why doctor Fuentes doesn’t give names. I don’t understand why the judge doesn’t ask him to name them. That has disappointed me…It would be best if the doctor just tells them and those who are caught, suffer the consequences. I don’t know why they don’t go right down to the bottom of it all. We need to cleanse it properly. I have heard that this doctor has worked with foreign athletes but because the doctor is Spanish, the prejudice is mainly aimed at Spanish sports people. As a Spanish sports person, this affects me badly. Because of people like Armstrong, all our reputations are in doubt.
Q: Do you know that some people think that your 7-month absence is due to a silent doping ban?
Rafa: Yes and those rumours exist because those doping tests are not made public. The ITF needs to be transparent. Same with WADA. If not, it will continue and I will be forced to have to hear the stupid comments Christophe Rochus (*) utters without any evidence. It’s incredible to me that something like that gets published without any evidence. Give me evidence and I’ll be okay with it.
Q: The ITF says that the blood tests are too expensive and that…
Rafa: (interrupts). You know what is costly? The bad image of the sport. That’s what has a high price.
Q: Viña del Mar is your first tournament since the umpires were asked to be more strict with the 25 seconds of time between two points. This change could be called the “Nadal-Djokovic” change since you two are particularly slow and particularly targeted. Did you train in respecting that time?
Rafa: I’m slow, I recognise that. But for me, to apply those 25 seconds in all circumstances will affect the quality of the game. If you strictly apply 25 seconds, my US Open final in 2011, especially the third set, and the Australian Open final in 2012 would not have the same level. It’s impossible to keep on playing incredible points one after the other if you don’t have time to take a breath. It happens that I’m slow after a normal point. When the umpires sanctions me then or gives me a warning, no problem. But if you’ve just played a crazy point, no. Otherwise, what will happen after an enormous point is that your serve or the shot after that will miss the line by 3 meters. That’s not tennis, that. They tell me that those changes are made for the tv public, but don’t you think that those people watching tennis on tv would prefer beautiful points being disputed? No?
(*) Mid-January, the Walloon who was the world number 38 in 2006 and now retired, has uttered suspicions on Belgian radio on the true reason behind the long absences of Rafael Nadal and Robin Söderling, both sidelined for months, the first because of a knee injury and the second because of mono. About Nadal: “How can you be so strong in Roland Garros and a month later, supposedly, you can’t play any more? That’s what is suspicious, but there is no proof. It could be that he really is injured.”