Rafael Nadal has begun his preparations for the Australian Open. Despite withdrawing from the Brisbane International presented by Suncorp, the first ATP World Tour tournament of 2018, to recover from an exhausting 2017, the No. 1 player in the ATP Rankings plans to storm into this year’s Australian Open with the same ambition and enthusiasm he showed in his run to the final last year.
By Nadal’s side will be fellow Spaniard and former World No. 1 Carlos Moya, who made a successful addition to Nadal’s team for the 2017 season. Being rested going into the first major tournament of the year is essential if Nadal is to repeat the success he achieved in 2017, according to Moya. In this interview with ATPWorldTour.com, Moya reviews his 2017 as a member of Team Nadal, and what his charge needs to do in 2018 to reach the heights he soared to in 2017.
ATPWorldTour.com: It seemed Rafa needed a rest going into this upcoming 2018 season.
Carlos Moya: It’s important to be fresh and rested if he’s going to start the season off on the right foot. Rafa wants to be an even better version of himself this year.
Nothing too serious in terms of injuries occurred last year but at the same time, nothing good comes from rushing things. That’s why we want him to take his time returning to the court. There’s no need to hurry matters. We know Rafa; he doesn’t slow down often, whether in training or during a match. Nadal isn’t the type of competitor to hit the brakes. For the team, then, the goal has been to convince Nadal that rushing a return to competitive play could lead to more discomfort and injuries — both of which could derail our plans for a big year. He isn’t a 20-year-old now; we have to take things step by step and be smart about his health and recuperation.
ATPWorldTour.com: Ahead of his 2017 campaign, Nadal had an off-season of more than three months. The Spaniard won’t have the benefit of an extended “preseason” going into 2018. Will that have an effect on his performances later in the season?
Moya: When a player reaches this point of his career, the time you spend training during the off-season doesn’t matter all that much. Not everything that happened in 2017 was a result of the work we did in the weeks leading into the new year. We had a long preparation period ahead of 2017, that’s true, but the things you work on then don’t last throughout the year. We learned it’s better to take small breaks throughout the course of the year, as we did after Australia, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. That made him fresh throughout the year.
Of course, his knees are cause for concern; they limited his play the last two tournaments he entered. In past seasons, however, it might have been his state of mind or his attitude that gave out. He held those together to close out this season. His knees failed, but he was still playing at a very high level right up until the end.
ATPWorldTour.com: Playing fewer tournaments, is that an option?
Moya: Rafa played so many matches in 2017 because he won a lot of tournaments and reached the final in quite a few others. He was almost always playing deep into tournaments. He competed in 18 events and that isn’t an exceedingly brutal schedule. Can we fit in more breaks? Yes, although it depends on our objectives as we go along. It’s also difficult because of Nadal’s nature. Even now, he’s still very ambitious and wants to chase down everything, but at the same time he’s starting to see that that isn’t always possible. Could he have turned down London? Yes, but [the Nitto ATP Finals] trophy is the only major one he has yet to win.
ATPWorldTour.com: How about for you. Was this an exhausting season?
Moya: No. It has been a spectacular year. There’s little more I could have asked for on all levels: sports, professional, personal … I said earlier this season that this was the biggest challenge I would face as a coach. What can be better than this? Nothing; as an experience, nothing can overcome what I am experiencing right now, both in terms of results and just being a part of Rafa’s team. To be by the side of the No.1 in the world, who also happens to be one of my best friends and with whom I’ve experienced so much, little else can be asked.
ATPWorldTour.com: Does it feel better to succeed on the court or from the bench (as a coach)?
Moya: Nothing beats the success you achieve as a player. Nothing will ever beat earning a Grand Slam title or becoming No.1 in the world. Now that I can’t compete as a player, I try to be the best team player I can be, so that Rafa can be the best player possible. As a technical expert, it’s difficult to even aspire to accomplish more than I have in 2017. As for Rafa, he managed to surpass the objectives he set at the beginning of the year.
ATPWorldTour.com: Did you meet your objectives?
Moya: I did, more or less. Rafa was more conservative when he set his goals, though. But I’m glad that I was able to convince him that he could reach those goals.
ATPWorldTour.com: Do you discuss your tennis philosophies with Nadal?
ATPWorldTour.com: Is that a good thing?
Moya: I think so. I like that he listens, but also that he reads. If a player’s thoughts are only based on the opinions of others, then the player won’t grow much. Sometimes, I give him a point of view that is not his own, and I’m not always right — far from it. But it’s my duty to tell him what I think is best for him. And if I have one advantage, it’s that I’m seeing things from the outside. A player might try to go for everything, to tackle more than he is capable. It’s much easier to pull someone back from the outside, than it is for the player to rein it in. It’s possible the advice I give Rafa now isn’t advice I would have accepted when I was a player.
ATPWorldTour.com: Did you have to say things that are difficult to accept?
Moya: I’ve had to say it all, just about, so it’s important to find the right moment when dealing with an elite player like Rafa. The timing is as important as the actual message, sometimes more so. You have to know when and how to be sensitive. I spend a lot of time with Rafa, which is why I often say that a coach’s job goes way beyond the hours you spend on the court. My opinion doesn’t have to be in line with the rest of the team; in the end, Rafa is old enough and mature enough to decide what to keep with him.
ATPWorldTour.com: Why did Nadal decide to drop in weight?
Moya: It’s not something he gave much thought to in the past, but recently it’s something he’s decided to do.
ATPWorldTour.com: Was it that important for him to cut weight?
Moya: No, but at the same time, it wasn’t for just one reason but for several reasons. He decided to lose weight because he wants to try something a little different, something that he thinks will improve his game. That alone helps him mentally. On top of that, we believe that losing weight will lower the possibility of more injuries and improve his longevity.
ATPWorldTour.com: This upcoming season, Toni Nadal will not travel with the team. How does this affect you?
Moya: My role remains the same, so things won’t change for me. For Rafa, that’s one less person who will be with him, someone who was involved in his day-to-day life, but I’m sure he’ll be available if Nadal needs anything from him. Even for me, if I think Toni can help with something, I know without a doubt he’ll be there for us.
ATPWorldTour.com: Grigor Dimitrov‘s coach, Daniel Vallverdu, said he’s been in constant communication with Grigor. Is that the case with you and Nadal?
Moya: No, it’s different. Every coach is different, every relationship is different. My approach with Milos Raonic, for example, was different from the one I have with Nadal. Different countries, different mentalities, different directions in their careers, different objectives … When Rafa’s traveling and I’m back home, I’m talking to him on the phone often. But when we complete an event like Roland Garros or Wimbledon, we might be disconnected for four or five days afterward.
ATPWorldTour.com: Do you and Nadal strategize before matches?
Moya: We do sometimes, but I was discussing tactics a lot more with Raonic. The wrong approach, the wrong game plan, those things affected Milos much more than they do Rafa. The talks were a lot longer with Milos than with Rafa.
ATPWorldTour.com: You’ve developed different training methods with Nadal, focusing more on specific exercises. Did that work throughout the year?
Moya: Toward the end of 2017, we haven’t been able to train on any one specific thing. He’s done very little work on his serve due to his knee, for example. There have been few workout routines since the US Open, and he came back from China with a bad knee. It’s no secret that if you can’t train a specific stroke, it’s difficult to maintain your level of fitness or to make adjustments and improvements. That’s an area we’ve been lacking, but the physical issues just didn’t allow for it.
ATPWorldTour.com: Was not defeating Roger Federer a negative for Nadal in 2017?
Moya: The only negatives this year were in Paris-Bercy [at the Rolex Paris Masters] and in London [at the Nitto ATP Finals]. Based on how he played throughout the calendar year, I think Rafa could have won at both Paris-Bercy and in London, two tournaments he has never won. It would have been some feat, almost daunting, and in the end I guess it was asking too much of him.
ATPWorldTour.com: So, you aren’t worried about Federer?
Moya: It is clear that he has found a way to beat Rafa and we haven’t had an answer. Honestly, I think things could have turned out differently at the Australian Open final, which was very close. The truth is, things fell in favor of Federer this year but all credit to Roger. He turned the rivalry around and put a dent in Nadal in 2017. Now it’s up to us, Rafa’s team, to convince him that he has the weapons to beat Federer again. Obviously, adjustments have to be made. Nadal played an ultra-aggressive game in 2017 and maybe that works with 99 percent of his opponents, but maybe it just doesn’t against Federer. Still, I’m happy with the end result. I’m OK with Rafa losing to the same opponent several times if it means he finishes the season as No.1.
ATPWorldTour.com: Nadal finished 2008, 2010 and 2013 on top after spectacular seasons. He also experienced subpar campaigns and/or injuries each immediate year after ending No.1. Do you fear this trend will continue in 2018?
Moya: Do I fear it? No, but those are still facts and they mean something, and I don’t believe in coincidences. When something happens several times, then it isn’t by chance. As a coach, you have to be attentive to that and as a team, we’ll try to give Rafa the battery power he needs to avoid a slump. So yes, since it happened before, we’re alerted by it.
ATPWorldTour.com: Many top players who were sidelined in 2017 return in 2018. Do you think those players can accomplish what Nadal and Federer managed to do?
Moya: It will be difficult. What Nadal and Federer did in 2017 wasn’t simple. They made it look easy, but it wasn’t.
ATPWorldTour.com: Will Nadal and Federer dominate 2018 the same way they did in 2017?
Moya: That also won’t be easy. With Rafa, it’s about always evolving and not growing stale. Yes, there’s room for him to evolve but with each year, finding that space to grow gets smaller and smaller. The challenge is to anticipate situations, stay on top of matters and be one step ahead.
ATPWorldTour.com: Has Nadal changed much since his teenage years?
Moya: Of course he has. When you’re 17 or 18, you can count on being explosive, impulsive and playing without caution. Those factors help you at that age, but as the years go by, you grasp other aspects of the game. You might not have the same characteristics that made you successful before, but experience counts for a lot. The fact that Rafa is No.1, after all these years, it shows how he’s evolved. I can’t say that he’s a better player than he once was, but that growth, the change, it’s there.
ATPWorldTour.com: Nadal, by his own admission, has a lot of self-doubt. How have you helped to combat this?
Moya: Surrounding yourself with optimistic and positive people always helps boost self-esteem. I’ve never doubted Rafa and if I did, he’d pick up on that immediately. I’ve been honest with him from the day I started working with him. He’s surrounded by sincere people who trust and believe in him. The fact that a player of his caliber still has bouts with self-belief, though, I think that makes him a complicated person to understand.
ATPWorldTour.com: Can Nadal compete and endure as long as Federer?
Moya:It’s hard to say. That’s many years, almost 5 more. What Federer has achieved so far is something totally extraordinary. It’s necessary to keep on track, dosing energy as much as possible, both on and off the court. We’ll see how far this adventure takes us.