Rafa Nadal: ‘I want to be the best in history, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it’

Ahead of the French Open, the Spanish tennis champion talks to EL PAÍS about his plans for retirement and his efforts to balance ambition with wellbeing

Rafael Nadal, during the Australian Open in February.
Rafael Nadal, during the Australian Open in February.Eddie Jim (The Age/Fairfax Media via Getty )

Spanish tennis champion Rafael Nadal has been making the most of his time in Mallorca before he flies out to compete at the French Open, which he has won 13 times. And in Mallorca, where he was born, things are done differently. At the 15-day competition in the Roland Garros stadium, Nadal will chug down water and isotonic drinks as he tries to take home his 14th title. But on the Balearic island, he has been using this downtime to go fishing and play golf with his friends and uncles: Toni Nadal, his former trainer and Miguel Ángel Nadal, a former soccer player for Barcelona, who was also selected to play for Spain’s national team. Rafa Nadal – as he is popularly known – has surrounded himself with family, while he drinks non-alcoholic beer.

Indeed the tennis champion has been taking part in an international advertising campaign for Amstel’s alcohol-free product, for which he is a brand ambassador. Between drinking non-alcoholic beer and eating olives and cockles – “everyone should do what they like,” Nadal joked – he spared 15 minutes last week to talk to EL PAÍS about his future goals and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are in a very difficult time, with people who have suffered from personal loss, who have lost their job,” he told EL PAÍS. “We need to share happy moments with the people we love and we are moving towards this with the vaccination drive after a time of great but totally justified restrictions.” He added: “I trust that soon we will be able to share happy moments with others, which is what we value most, more than material things.”

If Nadal wins this year’s French Open, he will become the male tennis player with more Grand Slam titles in history. He currently holds 20, the same number as Roger Federer, but a win at the French Open would put him in the lead. A Grand Slam refers to a win at one of the top four tennis competitions – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Reaching this goal will be a feat he will remember for many years after he retires from the sport.

Although Nadal has made no decision on when he will retire, it’s something he says he has been thinking about. “I have things to keep me busy, several personal projects in different areas,” he said. “My life is heading toward this moment. I am a person who is bothered most by having nothing to do, so I have been planning this for some time.”

“Getting my strength back! Tomorrow Rome!”

Among his personal projects is his school, the Rafa Nadal Sports Center, which will play a key role in his future. Nadal also spends time working on the Rafa Nadal Foundation, which helps 6,100 children in 23 centers in Spain and India, and is aimed at building social integration through sport. “Both are key to my plans,” he said.

But Nadal will be fighting to win more titles until the day he retires. During his matches, his wife, Mery Pelló and his parents, Sebastián Nadal and Ana María Parera, are often cheering him on from the stands. Nadal’s sister María Isabel Nadal, his friends Carlos Costa and Carlos Moya and his uncles are also keen supporters.

As for his plans for parenthood – his rival Roger Federer has a considerable advantage with four children already – Nadal said it’s not just up to him, but also his wife Perelló, whom he married in 2019. “I have never hidden the fact that I’m a family person and I trust the day [for children] will come,” he explained.

But the more immediate goal for Nadal is the French Open and the opportunity to become one of the best tennis players of all time. It’s a challenge he approaches with a pragmatic attitude: “If it happens. I will enjoy it but suffer. That’s how I understand it, I experience it this way.”

“I have never hidden the fact that I would like to retire as the best in history and as the player with the most Grand Slams,” he added. “But I’m not going to lose sleep over it. It’s not that I don’t want to put pressure on myself, I say what I feel, I would love to end my career this way. Of course, it’s a goal for me, but I’m not obsessed with it. My principal goal is to be happy with what I do. I have not taken 13 titles in Paris or won 20 Grand Slam titles without being ambitious. Ambition is good, but you have to be healthy and not excessive. In every case, I set out the objectives. If I meet them, great, but if not, I am not going to get frustrated or stop enjoying being happy. I have a very calm life now, calmer even than in earlier years.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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