Nadal: “The goal right now is not to come back and win the French Open, but I’m not saying it’s impossible”

In an interview with Spanish television, Rafael Nadal answered a number of questions about his future, his health and the race for Grand Slam titles

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal in September 2023 (Zuma/Panoramic)

Snow has fallen, buds have bloomed, leaves will turn yellow, snow will return…and Rafael Nadal still hasn’t made an appearance on tour. But after the rain comes the good weather. Absent since January 18 and a defeat in the second round of the Australian Open with a left psoas worn down by two decades on the circuit, the Spaniard is getting closer to a hoped-for return to competition in early 2024.

On Monday evening, the man with 22 Grand Slam titles gave an interview to the Spanish TV channel Movistar+. “Yes, I want to play again and I’d like to become competitive again, but the goal is not to come back and win the French Open…or the Australian Open, don’t get me wrong,” he said in Spanish quotes translated by Tennis Majors. “I’m perfectly aware that, at this point in my life, all that is a long way off. But I’m not saying it’s impossible – anything can happen very quickly in sport.”

So much so, in fact, that he still has no definite plans for his future. “I maintain that 2024 will probably be my last year, but I can’t confirm it,” he replied to journalist Juanma Castaño. “I see the state of my body right now, but I don’t know how it will be in three or four months. Maybe I won’t be able to play at a high level, maybe I will but without being well enough to be 100%, or it will be perfectly recovered and I’ll feel full of energy to carry on (beyond 2024).

“But I don’t even need to answer these questions, my body will do it for me,” he continued. “I hope to know more precisely where I stand mid-November, so I can draw up a roadmap. Ideally, I’d like to be able to compete at the highest level. If that’s the case, I’ll use that opportunity to play the tournaments that interest me most. In the meantime, I’m working, and then my body and head will give me the answers.”

Nadal: Leaving tennis at the Olympics would be nice – if I’m ready

As for retirement, no specific thoughts yet. “Leaving tennis at the (Paris 2024) Olympics would be a nice finishing touch, yes, if you’re ready to do it,” he expressed himself. “If I think I have a chance of winning Roland Garros, I’ll adapt my calendar to choose my preparation tournaments. If not, I’ll probably want to play in a lot of places that are close to my heart to make a farewell tour (…) I don’t know where and when my last match will be, I haven’t thought about that.”

Naturally, the man nicknamed “Rafa” was asked about Novak Djokovic, who, in his absence, has passed him in the race for Grand Slam titles, with 24 trophies to his name. “Would I have liked to be the player with the most Major titles? Yes, but it’s never been an obsession, and it doesn’t frustrate me for one simple reason: I’ve always done as much as I could within my means. You can’t get frustrated with 22 Grand Slam titles.

“Novak experiences it in a different way. For him, it would have been more frustrating not to get there, and that’s probably why he did it. He had the ability to push his ambition to the limit.”

Castaño then reminded him of his 14 missed Grand Slams due to injury; Djokovic having missed one in the same way, in addition to the two due to his unvaccinated status. “Novak was better, his style of play allowed him to play more than me,” reacted Nadal, who has taken part in 67 Majors in total, including two withdrawals; Djokovic 72.

“I’d change a lot of things in my career”

“Maybe I’ll come back and win three more Grand Slam titles, but it’s unlikely,” he continued, comparing Djokovic’s physical health, treating his body like a sacred temple, to his own. “Yes, if I could, I’d change a lot of things in my career. I made some bad decisions when it came to protecting my physique, especially when I was younger. I made mistakes thinking I was doing what was best for me.”

Following his injury at the Australian Open, the left-hander had announced an absence of six to eight weeks. In the end, almost five months later, he had to resign himself to an operation and a season off. “I had hip surgery on June 2,” he explained. “My psoas was in a very bad state. I was told that without surgery, I wouldn’t heal even if I stopped for a long time. The operation went well, but the recovery time is long.”

To take his mind off things, he cut himself off from the world of tennis, its news and the results he could no longer take part in, he then decided to take to the sea. “I went on vacation for five weeks, and I only did physical exercises in the gym,” he revealed. “I needed to disconnect. The sea disconnects me, schedules seem different when you’re on land. It’s always been my escape. Before, it was for a few days. Here, for five weeks, I hardly touched my phone or anything else (connected to the internet).”

Despite the rest and treatment he received last year, the Müller-Weiss syndrome afflicting his left foot is still making itself felt. And – unless science advances – it’s incurable. Nevertheless, the pain is mitigated. “Living with quite a bit of pain has had an impact on my mood,” he confided. “I now live with controlled pain, which doesn’t make me bitter. Even though it’s hard for me to be very happy when I’m having trouble getting down my stairs.”

Despite the erosion caused by the alliance of time and the weight of all those years at the top level, Nadal has picked up the racquets again, but only in small doses. “I train for 40 minutes three times a week, and I do quite a bit of work in the gym,” he detailed. “Right now, when I train, I get bored, whereas I normally love it. I can’t move with the intensity I used to, even though I hit the ball well. I have to contain myself despite the urge to run. I’ve always been bored during fitness periods, but that’s never stopped me from being focused and motivated.”

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