“I wouldn’t risk my neck for a Nadal comeback” – Interview with Alejandro Ciriza

Alejandro Ciriza
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It is the big question in sport in the run-up to 2024: will Rafael Nadal return to tennis?

A question that not even one of the men who knows him best, Alejandro Ciriza, dares to answer. A journalist specialising in tennis for the Spanish newspaper “El País“, Alejandro Ciriza is also the author of a recent book, “Vamos, Rafa!” (Conecta, 2023), in which he recounts unknown details of the life of the greatest sportsman in the history of his country.

Will Nadal return to the tour? Alejandro Ciriza is sceptical. “I wouldn’t risk my neck that he would return.”

During an interview with CLAY, Alejandro Ciriza also addressed the surprising statements in which Nadal compared his sporting ambition with that of Novak Djokovic.

Interview with Alejandro Ciriza

– The recent interview on Movistar Plus+ left more doubts than certainties regarding Nadal’s future, do you agree?

– I think that in the interview Nadal was more enigmatic than anyone else. In the interview he did nothing but ask himself rhetorical questions, it was a soliloquy with himself, he constantly asked himself “and if”. He himself doesn’t know what’s going to happen, he’s testing himself with blanks. He is at a stage in his rehabilitation where he is training at a medium level, without taking any risks, in that interview he said that it is in mid-November, December when he will do more demanding tests in terms of competition pace. I particularly do not venture to say absolutely nothing.

– Nothing?

– He is a man who has been living on the go for a long time and who is still living up to date today. I wouldn’t risk my neck that he would come back, that he would come back in Australia in particular. Today Nadal is an absolute field of unknowns. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. He said in May in Manacor that he wanted to say goodbye to the places that had been special in his career, I have no guarantee at all that he will be able to do it. Even if he wants to do it, I have no guarantee that he can do it. What might happen in Australia is very different from what might happen four months later in Paris, or six months later in London. The fact that we see it in Australia does not mean that we will see it in Paris, for example. I insist, I’m not putting my hand in the fire today that he’s going to come back. He would decide that as he goes along, although he himself doesn’t have the answer. If he doesn’t have it, it’s very difficult for the rest of us to have it.

– How did you take that comment from Nadal in which he talks about his “healthy” competitive ambition and compares himself to a Novak Djokovic who, he says, would have suffered much more from not winning a record number of Grand Slam titles?

– I was surprised, I was a little surprised by the tone of that statement. It was something he clearly intended to say. Being on hold since January and in the context of that interview I found it strange. It’s true that the three big players have always played their cards and have had their disputes, their dialectical struggles, but it caught my attention because of the context, with Nadal not playing. Of course, Nadal is an absolute competitor. I don’t know if he has more ambition or not than Djokovic, who said he wants to win everything. I don’t think Nadal’s life is going to change too much in terms of happiness for winning 22, 27 or 30 Grand Slams, but knowing him and knowing the competitive streak he has, I’m sure he’d love to be the biggest winner and the most successful tennis player of all time. I was surprised by the tone, the way he brought it up.

– I mean: it’s not true that Nadal doesn’t care about the race for Grand Slams, is it?

– No, not at all. It’s not possible that he doesn’t care, being the good competitor and sportsman he is. It is not his ultimate goal, he usually denies it and I believe him, but on the other hand it seems to me a half-truth. I am convinced that Djokovic’s triumphs have not pleased him, that he would pay to have been on court in 2023 to prevent it, but the decisions were made for him by his body.

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– Have you always had as a project to write a book about Nadal?

– I got the proposal, I hesitated at first, I wasn’t convinced or sure, but I liked the approach and the focus. The book has a strong motivational component. I won’t say didactic, it is motivational, it underlines a series of values that Rafa embodies, with which I agree very much. It combined an attractive project model, plus my experience travelling around the world with this man for more than a decade with many interesting things to contribute that can be rich for the reader.

– After writing a book about Nadal, what headline sums it up?

– Overcoming. I’m not particularly original, but it seems to me that he is a man who fits the perfect prototype. It is true that there are many sportsmen and women who surpass themselves day by day, but their disciplines are perhaps not as mediatic and international as tennis. He has thrived on adversity. He has had a thousand and one obstacles and he has overcome them all. Today he is about to hang up his racket and yet he will make a penultimate attempt. We don’t know if he’ll get it right or not, but he’s certainly going to try. I’m leaving, but I’ll try one more time. That’s overcoming.

– If he comes back, it’s because he thinks he’ll do well, that he’ll be able to play well. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t come back… Is that so?

– There is no doubt about it. I don’t think he can afford certain luxuries. His physique is at stake for tomorrow. He needs absolute guarantees. This is medicine. Nor can he afford to go to tournaments to play a third or fourth round. If he comes back, it is to do something big. The greatness of the character requires him to do something big, which I think is what he has in mind. Will he be able to implement it? I’m not entirely sure.

– And if he comes back and achieves great things, do you think he will keep his word to retire in 2024 and not try to continue in 2025?

– No, I’m not sure, because knowing Nadal, he’s capable of taking one last tumble, the umpteenth tumble. But considering what the circumstances are now, I think it’s the definitive end point. I think for him, in fact, if he does something big, it would be the ideal moment. As much as he’s an absolutely ambitious guy and he’s got that eternal bug of wanting to win more and more and more and more, I think it would be the smartest thing to do if he can leave it at the top having done something big, it would be the perfect ending.

– He likes to compete too much…

– What he will have to do, which I’m sure he has already done, is to make an approach for tomorrow in competitive terms, beyond the academy and so on. I’m sure he’s got golf on his mind or whatever. Or competing in a padel match with his friends… He’ll have to get his fill that way. I don’t think Rafa is going to be a guy who stays on the couch at home watching sport on TV.

– Do you see some of Nadal’s values in Alcaraz?

– Well, there are parallels. Inevitably Alcaraz has grown up watching Rafa’s matches, he has had him as a role model and several other inspirations: he has traces of Federer in his game, of Djokovic himself. But evidently in Alcaraz’s behaviour we can see things of Nadal. I don’t know if it’s a natural or inculcated way, but of course you can see the hints, can’t you? The respect he has for his profession, how he works, how he approaches matches and competition, the respect for his rivals. He has a similar work ethic.

– What do you mean when you don’t know if it’s natural or inculcated?

– The circumstances when Rafa started playing were different from today. Today the sport is in the hands of business more than ever, at its peak. So, obviously everyone noticed that Alcaraz is a top player, and that means that he is a big money-maker. From there, he has begun to shape it, to set up a structure that is basically very similar to Nadal’s at the level of the team, of the circle. From the family point of view, he has a good upbringing, his parents are good people. And also from the IMG side, to put it simply, he is also guided along a certain path.

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– Did Nadal start reading your book?

– I don’t know. I know he has it. He and his uncle have it.

– The uncle wrote a very complimentary foreword for your book.

– Yes. Generous. I have a very good relationship with Toni. The truth is that I wasn’t contemplating anyone else to do it, because I think that if anyone has the licence to talk about Rafa beyond Rafa, it’s Toni Nadal. Nobody can describe and x-ray the character better than Toni, because in the end Rafa is an extension of him. What Toni couldn’t do, because he didn’t had the level, his nephew has done. When you hear Rafa speak, you are listening to Toni. He is reproducing a practically identical message: one is another and the other is one. They are one, even though they separated professionally some years ago. At first I asked him to write about Rafa, but he sent me the prologue and I said “hey Toni, you should write about your nephew, this is a bit overwhelming”. He said: “No, it’s what came out of me, it’s what I wanted to tell”. I’m grateful.

– If Nadal had been coached by someone else when he was a boy, he would be a completely different person, wouldn’t he?

– He would be a worse tennis player, he wouldn’t have gone so far. He would be a different tennis player and a different person. Obviously he has a lot of talent. Sometimes the concept has been inflated that he is work, effort, sacrifice, physical… I think he is a very talented tennis player, but of course Toni’s hand is essential. He wouldn’t have even gone a quarter of the way. Rafa has said many times that he has faced the natural temptation to give up. Toni has always been there pushing.

– He said that his talent has been underestimated. His energy, his physique, his strength were always highlighted, but paradoxically it was always his body that held him back.

– The story of Rafa Nadal is very contradictory, like what is happening to Alcaraz, keeping the distances due to different ages and periods: his body is his great asset and at the same time his great hindrance. It is a miracle that Nadal is a tennis player because of the body he has. Under normal circumstances he would weigh between 85 and 90 kilos, a very heavy guy, and he is not as tall as today’s players. So it’s a miracle that he has been able to be a tennis player, to have that constitution and to be able to move like he has moved… He has a footballer’s body.

– Like his other uncle…

– Of course, like Miguel Ángel, he’s very similar to him. He’s a real wardrobe.

– Besides, with that physique he has played a contradictory tennis: he has to rely a lot on his physique and at the same time his tennis is too demanding for that body.

– Yes, well, it’s his nature, his way of interpreting the game, tennis. Then, obviously over time he has had to learn to play differently. His evolution has been very interesting, because if you look at the Nadal of 18-20 years old, he was fantastic, wasn’t he? In terms of how he covered the court, he was all legs, he had a brutal strength, pure energy, it was absolute adrenaline. Now we have a mature Nadal who applies much more intelligence to his game. I think he is one of the most intelligent guys on a tennis court, and on a strategic level he is the most intelligent. He interprets matches better than Djokovic, he finds better solutions on the fly than everybody else. That’s why I want to say that he is more than a physical player, he has improved practically in everything: his forehand is his master stroke, he has improved his backhand a lot, he has learned to serve better, to move better, to interpret better. He is a very important tennis player.

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