No other player has more Mutua Madrid Open titles than him and in 2018 he will be back in a bid to win a record sixth crown. Rafael Nadal (Mallorca, Spain; 1986) was victorious last year after beating Dominic Thiem in the final, as he continued to grow his legend on clay, a surface on which he has long been the best player in history. Before the start of the tournament, the Spaniard spoke to The Magazine and analysed the challenges he faces.
This year is the tenth anniversary of the Caja Mágica.
The tournament has been at the Caja Mágica for 10 years?
Yes, since 2009.
Time flies. The tournament has evolved every year. In general it has improved so much. As is the case with all new events, in the first year there were things that could be improved. In Madrid a lot of the time it was hard to get the clay to settle well, for it to play like a normal clay court. The first few years they didn’t quite manage that, it was very slippery, but now the courts have been impeccable for four or five years.
Since 2013, when all the courts were refurbished, the tournament has been a huge event. We are lucky to have a tournament of this calibre in Spain. We should look after it and appreciate it. Let’s hope all the Spanish companies continue to support the event because it sets a benchmark in Madrid and in Spain. It’s true that we have had a lot of Spanish players throughout all these years, and that helps. But it’s also true that for the moment there are not as many as we used to have. It’s important to be aware of this. Although there aren’t as many Spanish players fighting for things these seasons, something that can happen, it would be very good if the Spanish companies stuck with the tournament.
Your victory in 2017 confirmed your status as the dominant force at the Mutua Madrid Open, with five titles at the tournament.
Last year I was playing really well. The first match against Fognini was a turning point. The first day you always experience some difficult sensations; playing at altitude, at home… You arrive keen to do well and everything becomes a little more complicated. I got through that match with Fognini and then I played really well. I started off losing the final against Thiem, but when you come into the match feeling positive and with momentum… the reality is that you have more solutions because you have confidence and things work practically automatically.
You had suffered seven consecutive defeats to Novak Djokovic, one of the biggest challenges of your career, until you ended his run in the semi-finals in Madrid last year. Did something click?
It’s true that I hadn’t beaten Djokovic for a while, but really you can tell how things may turn out from each person’s form. But it’s also true that you are playing one of the best players in history and anything can happen. In that match in particular, I was coming in with much more momentum than him, and I think I was more likely to win. It’s not a match in which victory means anything extra. It was an important win against one of the toughest opponents of my career, but nothing more.
Although Roger Federer won’t be playing on the clay swing this season, you have met each other several times in the Caja Mágica. What are your memories?
I’ve played Federer a few times here. In 2009, 2010 and 2011. It’s practically impossible for Federer to play better on any surface or in any conditions, but it’s also true that clay may suit him a little more at altitude. Matches against him are always difficult, but in Madrid they are a little more so. They were special matches, and having been able to experience them at home is unique. Feeling the support of the whole stadium against your biggest rival is a very special thing.
Do you understand his decision not to play the clay swing?
Yes, of course I understand it. He must think that the cost is greater on clay, that he has amazing winning momentum and that on clay he could lose more matches and lose that invincible aura that he has on other surfaces. I think those two factors together have led to him taking that decision. It’s respectable, and as long as it works for him… In 2017 it was perfect, why would he change it?
Manolo Santana is looking at his final season as tournament director. What has he done for the Mutua Madrid Open?
Manolo is a figurehead in our sport, both globally and in our country. He is the one who paved the way for the rest. He is a great ambassador for Madrid and for tennis in Spain in general. We should be grateful for all the work he has done promoting the tournament and also our country.
Evidently, we have been lucky enough that the public in Madrid always responds, both at Casa de Campo and in the Caja Mágica. And I’ll tell you something… if there’s one place in the world where I feel that the fans help me win, it is Madrid.
Feliciano López will be taking his place in 2019.
It’s a logical replacement. Feliciano has had a very long and successful career, and he is a good successor to Manolo. It’s fantastic that someone who has represented us around the world is involved in the tournament. He is a magnificent candidate. This year will serve him as experience for what will come later. It will help him a lot in the future that he has a different perspective, from inside the tournament.
Tommy Haas is director of Indian Wells, James Blake in Miami, Feliciano will be in Madrid, is it a positive thing for the players that other players that were active until very recently take charge of big tournaments?
It’s positive for tennis in general. It’s very good that ex-players who have been important in our sport remain involved. It’s something that tennis has to take care of, even more if possible. Golf does it very well. There are facilities for great players from the past to have their own tournaments. Jack Nicklaus has a tournament, Arnold Palmer, who passed away recently, has another, Tiger Woods has one in Albany… It’s very positive. It needs to start happening more in tennis because it is significant in terms of promotion. I think it’s great that Feliciano is there and that there might be more legends of our sport involved in the future too.
There are many representatives of the #NextGenATP such as Alexander Zverev, Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe and Andrey Rublev who threaten to occupy the top spots that you and your peers occupy now.
They will occupy them, either because they overtake us or because we get too old, which is also a possibility. Are they good enough? Yes, of course they are. Are we going to have another generation like that of Federer, Djokovic and myself? I don’t know, we have to be realistic. We’re in a generation where Federer has won 20 Grand Slams, I have 16, Djokovic has 12… And practically in one generation of the same age, although Federer is a few years older than us. Having all those wins in one generation is very unlikely. And it will be difficult, but there is a lot of talent coming through. Kyrgios, Zverev, Shapovalov, Tiafoe… they have a lot of talent. Some of them have shown that more than others, but when it comes to being consistent and winning a lot, it depends on their mental capacity to take on all the challenges.
And the young Spaniards?
It all depends. In sport there is always one thing that prevails over the other. There are people who have talent, but there are others that have the capacity to improve. And those that have the capacity to improve are normally the ones that have more chance of success. Kuhn, Davidovich, Munar… it’s always the same story. It’s the capacity you have to improve, to not rest on your laurels and to get up every day looking forward to training.
I don’t use the word ‘work’ because I have never taken this as a job, and I think that it is a mistake to see it like that, above all at certain ages. You have to get up to go and train with the excitement of improving. You have to think about winning, because in the end it is what makes you competitive, but you have to wake up and go and train to improve. And those that have the greatest capacity to improve will have the best chance of doing significant things.
You very frequently repeat that your goal is to be happy.
Also to win, let’s be honest. But basically to be happy.
This year you were injured for practically the first three months of the season. Can you be happy like that?
They were difficult times. I feel like I’ve missed a lot of important chances in my career. One day I counted all the majors in which I was not able to compete in normal conditions and there are a lot. When it happens to you in the quarters in Australia, winning the match, and with a good chance of reaching the final and competing in it, even if it is against Federer… then of course it hurts. I went back home, did everything I could to recover, flew to Acapulco and the day before my opener I got injured again and missed Indian Wells and Miami, which are two tournaments which historically I have done well at. They are unpleasant times, where you have to weather the storm. You have to be patient.
You must have a lot of patience.
Yes, but it’s also true that it depends on the injury. There are some that allow me to play golf, go diving or do other things… then it’s different. You are injured because you can’t play tennis, but at the same time you can distract yourself doing other things. With this iliopsoas injury I couldn’t do anything. I was at the academy, at a lot of meetings. It was good for me to get up to date on some day-to-day things. I was patient and I had the right attitude to try and reach the clay season as fit as possible. Coming into the clay swing with four matches is not ideal preparation, but honestly I feel like I’m playing well. If my body responds, and I win matches, I think I’m ready.