Rafa Nadal: ‘This crisis has overwhelmed us all, but we are a great country’

The Spanish tennis champion reflects on the effects of the coronavirus, what politicians could have done differently, and what lessons we can learn

Rafa Nadal during the video interview from his home in Mallorca, Spain.
Rafa Nadal during the video interview from his home in Mallorca, Spain.
Alejandro Ciriza

The season was shaping up to be a significant one. And then the coronavirus hit. Rafael Nadal, 33, is one of the millions of Spaniards who have been sitting at home throughout the prolonged confinement that began in mid-March, and which has only recently begun to ease up. The Mallorca-born player, who is ranked world number two in mens’ singles tennis by the Association of Tennis Professionals, spoke with EL PAÍS via video link about life under lockdown and offered his views on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The following is an abridged version of the Spanish original.

Question. Not long ago you expressed vexation at the fact that tennis players were not being allowed to train. Have you been able to now?

Answer. I wasn’t annoyed, and nobody should think that. I understand that we are not able to train, but these are very sensitive times. Any comment or message you put out there gets politicized, and those who feel attacked take it the wrong way. I am just another tax-paying citizen, so I have the same right as anyone else to say what I think. All I said is that I thought that if some people are going to work at construction sites... A mountain climber and a triathlete have the ability to train alone. I am not demanding anything, and tennis is not the first sport that should come back, as ultimately you need at least two people to play. But there are some sports that are completely individual. Why can’t athletes go running by themselves? This is our job. I wasn’t talking about me not being able to go surfing, because that’s not my job, but for a professional surfer to do so... why not? The top priority is saving lives and health, and to me, sports take third place. I understand that everyone is in confinement, but at the end of the day, this is our job. It makes little sense for people to congregate and for us not to be able to do so. All sports have been treated the same way, and I think it shouldn’t be like that, just like not all regions of Spain are being treated the same way.

If preventive measures had been adopted earlier, it would have avoided the need for all the extreme measures we took later

Q. If all this was foreseeable, why was nothing done to prevent it?

A. The economic situation cannot be salvaged, because some activities such as tourism cannot be saved. The world is suffering a pandemic, so people cannot travel and that is an inevitable situation, but I feel that when it comes to saving lives, things could have been done differently. If preventive measures had been adopted earlier, it would have avoided the need for all the extreme measures we took later. Don’t take this as criticism of the government, because ultimately this has overwhelmed me too. I did not think that I would ever go through something like this, and I accept my share of blame for it. I was prepared to play at Indian Wells without considering what was about to descend on us.

Q. The wave was too big, wasn’t it?

A. Nobody had been expecting it, but the people in charge here should have had access to all this information, and in that sense, I do believe a mistake was made. I regularly make mistakes and I own up to them, and that makes us more human. I am not being opportunistic here: I too am overwhelmed by the situation; I don’t have all the information and I only make decisions about myself. The situation has overwhelmed us all, and not just in Spain. It’s as if I lose a game and so do [Roger] Federer and [Novak] Djokovic... I can’t hold up their defeats as an excuse for my own performance. Everybody has done things badly.

Q. The latest figures are more optimistic. Are you as well?

A. We have the figures that we have, and we are in the situation that we are in. Luckily, we are in a better place now than two months ago, and that’s something to be grateful for. It is not up to me to assess what politicians have done. I am very satisfied with how my own regional premier [Balearic Islands leader Francina Armengol] has acted; they didn’t let her, but she tried to halt flights because we felt that, as an island, we were in a better position to protect ourselves. I think we were late to some situations, and once you are late... it is human. It was very hard to get it right. Only a few got it right.

When things like this happen, a time comes when we have to focus not just on the negative

Q. Fingers are being pointed at globalization. Did things get out of hand?

A. In situations like these, there is a lot of demagoguery and we become hypocrites. What’s happened is that a virus came along and we were affected by it. Humanity was not ready. Of course there are things we should take better care of, such as nature and our planet, but I don’t think there’s a common denominator or a cause-effect relationship. What happened happened, and we should learn our lesson from it. I think we can learn from these tough times.

Q. And what is the best lesson you are taking away from this?

A. How tremendously lucky we are, how fortunate to be living in this great country. Some people are better off than others, evidently, but on the whole this is a safe country with a low crime rate and where, speaking broadly, a majority of people lead pretty decent lives. When things like this happen, a time comes when we have to focus not just on the negative. For two months we have been getting negative messages, and in the end this affects us morally and leads us to believe that we are not living in a great country, and I disagree.

Q. What should be done to put the puzzle back together again?

A. We have a good welfare system that we must protect more than ever, because a very tough economic and social situation is coming that will make a lot of people suffer. Many will lose their jobs and we need to show solidarity; help should be extended by all the sectors, by labor and employers, by the government... If businesses are not protected, neither will workers. We need to find a balance in order to be able to keep living in a country that in my opinion is admired by much of the world. We will have to strive to become a tourist destination again, because tourism is an engine of growth and right now it has been destroyed. We will have to reinvent ourselves and mount good campaigns, good advertising, sell ourselves well again. We cannot sell ourselves short. We need to project self-confidence to the world, or we will suffer greatly. We need to work on this, starting right now.

Q. Have you rediscovered yourself in some way, or found yourself doing things that are out of the ordinary?

A. Of course I’ve found myself doing things I didn’t do before, because I was never at home! I like being here, as long as I am sharing things with my people and my friends. Suddenly, my activity has been halted 100%. It’s been a shock for everyone. We were used to travel, but there are people who work at an office and it was slightly less complicated for them. I found it hard to adapt at first, but then I started to get the hang of it. I’m back to double sessions, morning and afternoon, and I’ve set schedules for myself and restored my routines. I’ve also stopped watching the news, which was a very important step.

We need to project self-confidence to the world, or we will suffer greatly

Q. At first you took an emotional hit. Have you recovered?

A. I am a sentimental person who is affected by things, and seeing so many people suffering so much, so many people who have lost relatives without even being able to say goodbye... in the end, being able to hug your brother or sister takes some of the pain away, and to think that they haven’t been able to do that... We must be positive and forge ahead. There’s no choice. I have had superlative good luck. We have not fought the same healthcare battles here as in other regions of Spain, and there is a greater sense of safety.

Q. The world of sports in general has made an effort to help during the crisis. Do you think that perceptions of athletes have changed?

A. Honestly, I think that I have almost always been close to people. Here, where I live [Porto Cristo, Mallorca] I lead a normal life. All this time I have been constantly making videos and more videos for people who are going through hard times, and at the financial and social level I am helping as much as I can. Pau [basketball star Pau Gasol] and I have joined the Red Cross Responds project and we are trying to attract the largest number of people in order to create something beautiful. I am very grateful for everyone’s collaborative effort: athletes, artists, businesses, federations, citizens... some of them cannot be named because they have asked me for discretion.

Q. After this is all over, do you think we will be better and stronger, as some say, or are you skeptical?

A. I don’t believe in the new normal. I like the old normal, with adaptations. I am learning from everything that has been happening to us. If there’s a good thing about humans, it’s their ability to adapt, but there’s also a bad trait, their great ability to forget. Sometimes we forget the bad things and how good we feel when things are going well. I just hope that all this is a learning process, but unfortunately I fear that soon enough we will start complaining again about silly things. Humans have that defect. In the end we only value health when we are sick, we only appreciate having food on the table every day when it is no longer there, we only appreciate the goodness of sharing a simple meal with friends or family when we are no longer able to do so.

Q. As for the future, will we see you on a tennis court this year?

A. I wish, but I doubt it. I am more concerned about the Australian Open than about what will happen at the end of this year. I see 2020 pretty much as a lost year. I have the hope of starting again next year. Let’s hope it is so.

English version by Susana Urra.

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