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Rafael Nadal: "I don’t think about retirement"

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Rafael Nadal is at a crossroads. For years he was the golden boy of tennis (if you overlook the capri pants and sleeveless tops he used to wear) and the only player who could challenge fellow legend Roger Federer on a regular basis. But the grand slam titles aren’t coming thick and fast any more and his body is showing signs of slowing down. Until now, his only previous ‘down year’ (hey, it’s all relative) was 2009 – one of only two years since 2005 that he didn’t win the French Open, and although he won his first major hard court title – the Australian Open – it was the only time from 2006-2013 he didn’t triumph in at least two grand slams.

Which brings us to now. Nadal was cursed with injuries and issues last year, ranging from appendicitis to stem cell surgery on his spine. After coming off a stellar 2013 (ranked world No1, 10 titles, including two grand slams), 2014 saw him withdraw from a number of events, and his only big win came at Roland-Garros. And 2015 has been tougher still; although he has three championships under his belt, a grand slam has eluded him (the US Open starts in a few days so let’s not write that off). So at this point the 29-year-old is probably starting to think of a life beyond tennis, right?

ShortList has been invited to find out. As we sit down with him in a plush hotel we notice how relaxed he looks. As though troubles on the court have not fazed him in the slightest. He’s dressed head to toe in Tommy Hilfiger, looking every inch the natural model. That must be an easier gig than punishing yourself on the court. The past couple of years have taken their toll, but can he imagine ever falling out of love with tennis? “One hundred per cent,” says Nadal instantly, “and I’m not scared about it. Tennis is an important part of my life, but it’s never been everything. I’m sure I’d be happy not being on a tennis court; I’d be doing new things, new projects, enjoying things I haven’t had the chance to enjoy as much because I’ve been a professional tennis player. But for the moment I’m happy, and I don’t think about retirement.” So what would make him retire, we ask. Injury? Poor results? “I didn’t retire in the past, so I cannot tell you,” he says, looking slightly peeved. “I don’t know what’s going to happen."

That’s us told, but we’re actually heartened by it. Anyone who enjoys watching tennis wants to see Nadal with fire in his belly and the bit between his teeth. If this is the beginning of the end for one of the best players we’ll ever see, he’s going down fighting. He knows you doubt him. He knows you’re saying he’s a 
spent force. But it doesn’t matter at all. “I accept that people have doubts,” says Nadal. “I have doubts. Everybody has doubts. If you don’t have them it’s probably because you’re arrogant. They are good for life, and for tennis. It’s good, to be honest. My motivations have always been personal, never connected to the negative things I’ve heard from others.”

LIFE EXPERIENCE

He seems relaxed again now as he leans back on the sofa. And surprisingly sharply dressed if your mind still associates him with capri pants. But Nadal has the advantage of being the new face of Tommy Hilfiger Tailored. He actually appears to be in his element, which seems to shock even him: “The world of fashion wasn’t a big deal to me as a kid, but as you get older and you appreciate things, you want to be well dressed,” Nadal admits. “To 
have the support of Tommy Hilfiger is a big help. I’ve enjoyed the campaign and the teamwork during the shoots. I have a great relationship with Tommy himself. I met him in Monte Carlo many years ago, and it was very exciting when he called me personally.”

Getting a wide variety of experiences in life is what keeps Nadal interested. He tells us how much he enjoys life on tour – he hopes to be on tour “for a few more years” – and that it’s opened many doors for him. “I like to know different worlds,” he says. “All the things you learn stay with 
you for the rest of your life. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to enjoy so many experiences that a normal person wouldn’t get the chance to enjoy. And I’m only in my twenties.”

Just. He’ll turn 30 during the French Open next June. His 29th birthday was not a happy one – he was beaten by Novak Djokovic that afternoon. How much has Nadal dominated the French Open? That loss was only the second time he’s ever been beaten in the tournament; he has a stunning win-loss record of 70-2 there. He’s won it nine times – more than any player has ever won any single grand slam. He’s helped Spain to four Davis Cup titles and won Olympic gold in Beijing. Plus, in major tournaments his record against Federer is 9-2, with the two defeats both in Wimbledon finals. 

His grand slam total of 14 (the same number as Pete Sampras) is second only to Federer’s 17 (if Nadal had won those two Wimbledon finals he’d actually be top). Is he desperate to catch him? “I’m motivated for everything, but if I have to talk about motivations that’s not my main one,” he says. “I’m not waking up every morning thinking about it. If in any year I can arrive at that number it would be fantastic, but it doesn’t worry me. I’m happy with 14 and the things I’ve done in my career. I did it without thinking of big goals. I had small goals I personally tried to reach. It worked well for me, so I’m going to continue like this.”

PLAY YOUR AGE

And what can he do to make that continuation possible? “It’s about adapting your game to your age,” he says, “and I think during the years I was always able to keep going, keep improving my tennis, and that was key to the prolonged success I’ve had – 12 years of playing at a high position in the rankings and competing for the most important titles. With the years you lose things you had when you were a kid, you lose energy, but you improve on other things. If you lose something here you have to improve elsewhere.”

It’s clear that, like any sportsman who is regularly facing younger opponents, ageing is something he’s acutely aware of. In 2014 at Wimbledon he was defeated by Nick Kyrgios, the first time a teenager had beaten the man at the top of the rankings at a grand slam since Nadal himself did against Federer in 2005. Does he miss being a teenager, we wonder? “Everybody wants to be young,” he responds with a smile.

Young or not, Nadal has achieved so much in his career and still has the chance to reach the point where he’s the most successful player in men’s tennis history. As he prepares to go to his next appointment, we go back to a life after tennis. If he stopped playing right now he’d go down in history as the best clay court player who ever lived. Would that be enough for him? “I’ve been a little bit more than that, but let’s wait until the end of my career to see what people say about me,” he says. “The most important thing is how I am as a person. Even if I don’t win another match in my career – and that’s probably not going to happen – I will have a position in the history of this sport, and it’s something far bigger than I ever dreamed. For me, that’s enough.”

Rafael Nadal will appear in the Tommy Hilfiger Underwear and Tailored campaigns, beginning autumn 2015

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