Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on ATPTour.com/es
To reach the fourth round of the US Open, Rafael Nadal has had to wipe plenty of sweat from his brow, and also some blood. In his second-round clash with Fabio Fognini, the Spaniard lunged for a backhand, which resulted in his racquet bouncing off the court and causing a cut on his nose. Nadal then was forced to take a medical timeout as the physio bandaged his nose. Carlos Moya, the 22-time major champion’s coach, wasn’t immediately aware of what happened.
“We couldn’t see very well what had happened, so I quickly went online to watch videos,” Moya explained to ATPTour.com. “If you’ve taken a knock, it’s not as worrying. It’s a different story if something is twisted or sprained. A knock is painful, nothing more.”
Nadal, who will play in the round of 16 against Frances Tiafoe Monday, has had to work extremely hard to make it to the final Grand Slam of the season after suffering a seven-millimetre abdominal tear that forced him to withdraw from the Wimbledon semi-finals in July. Moya said that Rafa’s road to getting back to full-steam was a process.
How was the recovery after Wimbledon?
He rested for a week. It’s an injury that doesn’t prevent him from training, but it does mean he can’t serve. After a few weeks, he added the serve back into his routine. We thought he would make it to Canada, but that didn’t happen. He just made it to Cincinnati. Now we’re taking it day-by-day. At the moment, everything is under control, with a few variations. With that in mind, we believe Rafa will be competitive.
Withdrawing from the Wimbledon semi-finals…
Obviously it hurts. Being in a Wimbledon semi-final and not being able to play… above all with the level he had. It was one of the best Rafas I remember from the baseline, being aggressive, without speculating. We decided to evaluate the risks, analyse the pros and cons. When you’re not involved every day, it’s difficult. I wasn’t there, but I think it was a good decision. Rafa is 36, and he had various Masters 1000s and the US Open ahead of him this year. The best thing for him is trying to be healthy. If he is, he is still competitive at any tournament.
Were you surprised by what happened in Cincinnati?
If you look at how the week went… he had the best result against Coric, who went on to win the title. He had, and let slip, many opportunities, something that doesn’t normally happen. At this level that comes at a cost. It became possible because he was only just fit enough when he arrived.
In New York, he’s playing with a different serve. During the training sessions, we saw that he was struggling to serve like before, going after the ball at the top, reaching. To protect the area, we changed to a serve that allows him to be competitive. So far, he’s serving pretty well. It’s a different method, but on a fast court, or even at Wimbledon, it’s a serve that can be very effective. He’s getting more confident and he hasn’t lost any speed. And the bounce is livelier with the new serve, the spin he puts on it is having more effect.
Isn’t it a big risk changing his serve before a Grand Slam?
If we didn’t change his serve, there was a very high risk of relapse. You go to war with the weapons you have. It’s Rafa, it’s a Grand Slam. He also said that after losing in Cincinnati, that he would activate ‘Grand Slam mode’. Clearly, the first matches could have been better, but we’ll see what happens.
During the second-round match with Fabio Fognini, Nadal approached and told you he was very anxious.
The way the match was going, we asked him to get more balls in, to play with margin for error, no angles, and to run. It was something that I hadn’t told him for many years: aim for the middle and run. We also knew what our opponent was like. He was faultless for over an hour, but then he made some mistakes. Rafa relaxed and then his level wasn’t bad. He got back to a more recognisable version of himself, average cruising speed.
Why did that happen to him?
The mind is difficult to control. He explained that he has been through a lot of tough situations in recent months. We all think he will find his A-game. We have past experiences with Rafa, starting tournaments really badly, going through the rounds and ending with an exceptional level. Wimbledon was similar. We’re confident something similar will happen here.
He’s won the Australian Open, Roland Garros, he’s unbeaten at Grand Slams, he has an opportunity to be the No. 1…
It’s a perfect year, but one that has been full of incidents. When he’s played, his level has been spectacular, above all at important moments. But it’s true that there have been incidents, preventing him from having the continuity he would have liked. We mustn’t forget one thing: he’s a 36-year-old player, with a lot of miles under his belt. It’s normal for the body to gradually start faltering.
Nadal has always said that he won’t do anything crazy just to be No. 1, but now it is so close…
Being number one again has a lot of value; ending the year at the top of the rankings, even more so. If you look at his schedule, it’s clear that it’s not a goal. The most important thing for him is looking after his body and being well for the Grand Slams. But if it’s put in front of him, of course we’ll go for it.
And for his first Nitto ATP Finals title?
If he can win the tournament, even better. In 2020 he was very close when he lost to Medvedev in the semis. He was a set up, serving at 5-4. It was the closest he has got, although he could have lost the final. The way he was playing and the feeling we all had. If he can win it this year, great.
After Djokovic won Wimbledon, how is the race to be the greatest of all time looking?
The team doesn’t speak about that. He wants to be well, competitive. Obviously, there are comments, but no importance is placed on it. There is enough pressure every day.
His US Open debut was in 2003, the first title in 2010 and in 2022 he is bidding for his 23rd major. Which Nadal is better?
They are different eras and the physical change is very big. In 2010, his game had some characteristics that he has lost because circumstances have forced him to make changes. That was an amazing version of him, but so is today’s. If he had continued playing like he did in 2010, he wouldn’t be as competitive and possibly would have retired. Everyone on the team would love to have a fresh Rafa, 22 years of age, but we have to adapt to a body and a mind. He has things that are better than before, others are worse. He has had to evolve to continue being competitive in 2022.
Evolving is what sets players apart, right?
A 35-year-old player like Djokovic, 36 like Rafa, or 37 like Federer when he came back in 2017… for them to still be capable of winning Grand Slams, they have to evolve. They have beaten the new generations for all these years. Everyone knows them better, but almost nobody can stop them, they can’t find a way. Rafa would have retired if he hadn’t evolved. Without that evolution, all three of them would have retired.
What would you ask of him at this point in the tournament?
Basically, to play with calm and peace of mind, more than looking for any specific tactic. The tennis is there, but during these moments of difficulty, the court looks very small. Your arm tenses up and you make mistakes. You have to be calm. Different things are required depending on the situation. Right now, it’s easy; be calm, forget about what has happened… and play.