Interview with Rafael Nadal 'Tennis Is a Lesson in Self-Control'

Tennis star Rafael Nadal has won 14 Grand Slam tournaments and is still a force to be reckoned with. Recently, he opened a tennis academy to train the next generation of players. SPIEGEL spoke with him about the academy, the modern game and his plans for the future.

Tomeo Coll / DER SPIEGEL

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If you fly to Mallorca, you're almost sure to run into Rafael Nadal shortly after landing. At the airport in Palma, brochure racks full of blue pamphlets have been set up next to the escalators. They are there to attract tourists to Manacor, where the tennis star's new academy is located.

On the 50-kilometer drive from Palma to Manacor, located on the east side of the island, Nadal is also everywhere, with gigantic billboards on the side of the road showing Nadal celebrating, mouth open wide.

Manacor is famous for its windmills and for a factory where artificial pearls are made. Soon, though, the city will also be known for sports, because on a road at the edge of town, the Rafa Nadal Sports Centre has been built on a 40,000-square-meter (10-acre) site surrounded by palm trees and cactuses. The facility, with an original budget of 15 million euros, opened in June, though local papers have reported that costs exploded as the project neared completion.

Rafael Nadal, 30, is one of the most successful tennis professionals in history. He has won the French Open nine times and is widely considered to be the best clay-court player ever. Now, the Spaniard has erected a monument to his career in his hometown, a sports complex that is to become a training facility, boarding school, legacy and talent factory in one. It will be a place where fans can view his many trophies and where young players can develop into global stars.

It is a Monday morning in September and employees in white polo-shirts are bustling about the facility, which includes 26 tennis courts, a football pitch and a basketball court. At the edge of the site are two building complexes. The first contains a hotel, a sports medicine clinic, a swimming pool, fitness centers and a museum. The second is the Rafa Nadal Academy, a boarding school with training facilities for 140 teenagers between 12 and 18. English must be spoken both at school and during training.

It is 10 a.m. when Rafael Nadal begins his own training session on center court. He is wearing a tank top and white sweatbands on his wrists. Nadal pounds the balls back across the net, his grunts echoing through the facility.

When two balls in a row end up in the net, he curses in Mallorquí: "Ves-te'n a prendre…", which can be loosely translated as "go to hell." Toni Nadal, his uncle and trainer, stands behind him with his arms crossed. "Slower," he says. "Wait longer before you hit the ball."

Two hours later, Rafael Nadal takes a seat on a white sofa. He has brought along a cola drink and a bowl of nuts for the interview.

SPIEGEL: Señor Nadal, suppose you had attended your own tennis academy when you were a teenager. Would you have won more than 14 Grand Slam tournaments today?

Nadal: No, it would be presumptuous of me to assume that. We don't promise the kids that they are going to win this or that title in the future, either.

SPIEGEL: What, then, do you promise them?

Nadal: That they will develop. We have hired experienced coaches who used to train professionals such as Carlos Moya. If the girls and boys have talent and feel like working on themselves, they can become champions.

SPIEGEL: The most famous tennis school in the world is the IMG Academy in Florida, which was set up by the legendary coach Nick Bollettieri. Andre Agassi and Serena Williams trained there. Why does the world of tennis need a Nadal Academy?

Nadal: The Bollettieri Academy is an established institution, but I think that we are going with the times here. Every girl has her own character, every boy his own mind. The young athletes are supposed to mature, to improve their personality. With us, a single coach looks after three kids at most. On some days, I attend their training. When I'm there, I make a point of telling them that anyone could become a star, but everyone must be a human being.

SPIEGEL: How are the young talents coached?

Nadal: My uncle developed the training philosophy. His idea of good tennis training is basically quite simple: you must try to gain time.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean?

Nadal: All sports are continuously developing, but what they all have in common is that the speed is increasing. That's also true of tennis; the ball is getting faster and faster. If you want to belong to the best, you need good technique and, perhaps even more importantly, a good eye. If you see the ball sooner, you have more time to think about how and where to return it.

SPIEGEL: How does one train one's eye?

Nadal: It's important for the young players to practice other ball games as well, basketball or table tennis. On the tennis court, you can improve your eye through a kind of overexertion. Let me give you an example: The US player Andy Roddick reaches speeds of 220 kilometers per hour when he serves. If I train with him every day, I will later be at an advantage against a player whose service crosses the net at 190 kilometers per hour.

SPIEGEL: Only very few children in your academy will make the leap to become professional players. What about the others?

Nadal: Hopefully they will not regret having been here despite that. We try to teach the young people values that are useful to them whether they become professional athletes or not.

SPIEGEL: What values are those?

Nadal: Honesty, willingness to exert oneself, friendship -- all these things shaped me too.

SPIEGEL: Today, many teenagers are excited about creative types of sports which allow them to express themselves. Slopestyle, skateboarding and surfing have now become Olympic disciplines. Why should children start playing tennis?

Nadal: What matters is for them to exercise at all. What distinguishes tennis is respect for one's opponent, one's conduct on the court. There are many moments during a match when you are tense, wrestling with yourself. Tennis is a lesson in self-control.

Afternoon has arrived and training for the youngest players has begun. Girls and boys aged 12 and 13 hit balls with topspin across the net. Their trainers stand next to them, wearing sunglasses and holding clipboards on which they jot down notes.

Adolescents from 28 countries live at the academy -- from Germany, France, England, Syria, India and Kazakhstan -- and many of them are the best up-and-coming players from their country. Their daily schedules are full: rising at 7 a.m., breakfast at 7:30 and school from 8:30 to noon. In the afternoons, they train for three hours with a 15-minute break in the middle, the so-called Energy Point when they eat bananas. Each student has their own diet plan, depending on age, size and weight.

The Rafa Nadal Academy wasn't conceived with the children of poor parents in mind. One year at the private school, including tennis training, costs 56,000 euros.

In the evening, the players go to the gym and do their homework at 9 p.m. The students live two to a room. On the ceiling above each bed is a poster depicting Center Court from one of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Lights out at the academy is 10 p.m., at which time the adolescents doze off while looking at the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon or the US Open.

SPIEGEL: Suppose one of your pupils asked you: "I want to become number one in the world, what must I do?" What would your answer be?

Nadal: Most probably: "Forget it!"

SPIEGEL: Why?

Nadal: Because it's very difficult, and because it should not be a child's only goal to become the best player in the world. That would be a bad, a harmful attitude. I would tell the child: "Don't think about being the number one in the world, try instead to get through today's program as well as you can. Then we will see whether one day you'll end up as number one or number 100."

SPIEGEL: It is often said that if you want to be successful you have to set lofty goals.

Nadal: I don't worry about how I am going to win the French Open next year. I think more in the short term: about my training tomorrow, what I want to achieve there. It is important to recognize the small successes. It is the small steps which bring you satisfaction at the end of the day.

SPIEGEL: You started training with your uncle when you were four years old. What do you remember?

Nadal: He taught me early on to hit the ball hard. He said: "First you need to be able to do that, later we can worry about making the ball land on the opponent's side of the court."

SPIEGEL: When you once won a youth tournament in South Africa, people were planning to hold a welcome party for you on your return, but your uncle cancelled the celebrations and ordered a training session instead. Was it tough to train with him?

Nadal: Moral behavior was always important to him. When I forgot my water bottle at home, he wouldn't give me anything to drink during the training session. That was his strategy for teaching me discipline. I became a player who goes to a lot of effort while training, who can rely on his will and his mental strengths. That also has something to do with my uncle.

SPIEGEL: How much strictness is necessary to shape a world-class player?

Nadal: Our sport is not mathematics. Something that works for one person could be a disadvantage to another. But we do have rules in this academy, if that's what you mean. You will not see any of our young players throwing a racket in anger. If they do, it only happens once.

SPIEGEL: To what extent are you a role model for the kids?

Nadal: We do not use my career as a blueprint. Some people may learn something from the way I play tennis. But there are also players who are better than me in certain techniques. In our theoretical lessons, we also show the kids videos of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal's last Grand Slam victory was at the 2014 French Open. Since then, he hasn't been playing his best in the biggest tournaments. At the Australian Open in January of this year, he lost in the first round and then had to withdraw from the French Open due to pain in his wrist. He didn't even play in Wimbledon.

At the Olympics in Ro de Janeiro, Nadal won the gold medal in doubles with playing partner Marc López, his greatest success of the year. Currently, he is ranked fifth in the world.

Together with Roger Federer of Switzerland, Nadal helped define an entire era of tennis. The two of them were involved in several epic duels in recent years, such as the 2008 Wimbledon final. Nadal emerged victorious after four hours and 48 minutes. The match is considered the best Wimbledon final ever.

But Nadal's career these days is more characterized by injuries and time off. He has had two knee operations and suffers chronic pain in his elbow and shoulder. His powerful game has worn out his body over the years and, as is the case with Federer, many are wondering if Nadal should already have retired.

SPIEGEL: How do you manage to get out of bed the morning after a five-set match?

Nadal: I manage; I can assure you of that. But I do notice that I am tired.

SPIEGEL: You were always considered to be a gladiator on the court, whereas your greatest rival, Roger Federer, was considered an artist. Do you sometimes envy his lightness?

Nadal: Certainly I would like to have some of the qualities of other players and obviously from Roger. But believe me, there are plenty of other abilities that are important, particularly mindset and strength. These are attributes other players would like to have as well.

SPIEGEL: The surfaces used in tennis have been made slower and slower such that today, rallies are much longer, increasing physical strain. How do you cope with that?

Nadal: You had some long rallies in the past, too, and points developed more slowly. The difference is, though, that today people hit the ball with much more strength. Almost every player is capable of playing a winning stroke from any position. This means the balls arrive more quickly. If you want to reach them, you have to slow down from a high speed or suddenly change direction. These are moments when you can injure yourself, and that's what wears us out.

SPIEGEL: The spectators like games to be fast and spectacular.

Nadal: But they don't like tennis to be a game of only serve, or only brute force, when all you see on the court is bam, bam, bam, bam. Tennis is beautiful when you can see tactics, when players don't just react but are able to act and think.

SPIEGEL: What needs to change?

Nadal: The balls bounce up so high off the ground, which means you can hit them with a downward motion, which makes them fast. The balls ought to remain lower down. It is a question of the material.

SPIEGEL: In 2005, you won the French Open as a 19-year-old. Since then, no teenager has managed to win a Grand Slam tournament. Why are there no longer any young stars in tennis?

Nadal: Our sport has become more complex. It is no longer enough to play very well. You need to be able to give an answer at all times and everywhere. You cannot hide. This has something to do with maturity, and that is something you only acquire over the years.

SPIEGEL: You have just finished a season with lots of injuries. Are you thinking of stopping?

Nadal:No. I was well prepared, it could have been a good year. The fact that it didn't work out will not stop me from continuing to work. Next year, I am going to fight for important things.

SPIEGEL: Andre Agassi won the Australian Open at the age of 33 and became the oldest player to top the world ranking list. Are you going to break his record?

Nadal: I would have nothing against it. I take pleasure in tennis and the hope that it requires.

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