As you jostle your way through an irritable and slightly boisterous crowd outside the main practice court at Delhi’s RK Khanna Tennis Academy, you are greeted by deafening chants of ‘Rafa, Rafa’. It’s 11 in the morning, and inside the plush vicinity overlooking the synthetic blue court, the crowd consists mostly of teenagers, who have turned up with their parents, braving the early morning December chill.
Rafa Nadal is a huge draw anywhere, not just in Delhi. The excitement surrounding the 29-year-old’s presence should, therefore, not come as a surprise. Out in the centre, the man in question was at his playful best. Dressed in a casual white T-shirt and shorts, he indulged with a group of tennis aspirants at a clinic.
However, being well aware of the swelling crowd, he would look up and smile, and on other occasions just stop for that fleeting moment to give a customary wave. After the session, which lasted barely 20 minutes, he signed autographs and even obliged to pose for a selfie. Having set up an academy at Anantpur, in Andhra Pradesh, to train young talents, he surely knows a thing or two about identifying them. This brief, but rather intensive, session with these aspirants is indicative of this fact.
Nadal conceded that he was no different from these youngsters when he started playing tennis. “When I was a kid, I dreamt about playing at the Roland Garros, at Wimbledon and other such professional tournaments. I am no different than most kids who have assembled here. My motivation and passion to try and realise that dream was the key to my success. If I can do it, they (pointing at the kids) too can do it,” Nadal said.
The two key ingredients, according to Nadal, for succeeding at the highest level in this sport is hard work and having the right people around. He was lucky, however, to have uncle Toni around since his formative years. Toni, who has over the years also teamed up as his coach, has helped him hone his skills to turn him into a world champion.
“The only thing I can advise is that try to have right people around you…people who know the sport. Thankfully, I was lucky to have my uncle Toni. I am lucky to have someone from my family coaching me. We are passionate and concentrate on doing the right things to help me improve my game,” he explained. After the session with the youngsters, as Nadal settled down for the press conference, the organsiers advised the journalists to restrict questions to the Spaniard’s academy and his association with Mahesh Bhupathi. Nadal, however, is quick to intervene. “It’s okay, I will answer any question,” he said, much to the relief of all journalists.
His form has been a raging topic. For the uninitiated, the 14-time Grand Slam champion has had a rather tepid year so far, failing to win a single trophy. However, the silver lining was that he had looked in a better shape in the last three months, and his performances have improved post the US Open.
“To be honest, this has been not been a great season for me. However, there have been improvements in the last three months and I have looked in much better shape. I am happy with the way I am playing right now, and all I can add is that I need to keep improving,” he noted.
Going forward, he hoped to begin the year 2016 with an improved vigour. Over the last 12 months or so, a spate of injuries have taken a toll on the Spaniard, putting his future in the game in doubt.
Tough road to recovery
Nadal admitted that injuries were part and parcel of every sportsman’s life and chalking the path to recovery is perhaps the biggest challenge. “It’s always difficult to come back from injuries. Sometimes it gets faster, sometimes it is slow. There are no reasons why sometimes you go faster or slow. When you are back, you have to be ready to accept the situation at the beginning and play with best possible tactics,” he said.
Inevitably though, the presser ended with the most pressing question. Would he win another Grand Slam? “I don’t know when that is going to happen, I don’t know if that is going to happen. All I need to is to play well,” was his answer. Nadal’s last Grand Slam win was the 2014 French Open title. Since then he has continued to struggle with form and fitness. He began the year as the defending champion at Qatar, but lost to Michael Berrer in the opening round.
After quarterfinal exits in the Australian Open and French Open, his struggles compounded after a shock second-round exit in Wimbledon to Dustin Brown. However, after a third round exit at the hands of Fognini at the Flushing Meadows, Nadal regained some of his old form, which saw him tame Murray and Wawrinka at the ATP year-ender in London.
An in-form Rafa Nadal squaring up against Roger Federer here over the weekend for the IPTL is sure to raise expectations and whet the appetite of hard core tennis fans. “The rivalry with Roger has been great for a lot of years and we hope to play more matches. Day after (when they clash in IPTL) it will be a great scenario here (in India) for fans. I am excited to play against him here,” he added.