Nadal rocketed up to No.1 in the world after winning two Grand Slams in 2017 and has regained his top form to end the season at the summit of the rankings.
Still, that dream year has winded down to a tricky situation, where Nadal is dealing with a right knee injury that is denting his chances at this week’s ATP Finals.
The 31-year-old Mallorcan believes he will be ready to contest his first match against David Goffin on Monday, but the build-up to that showdown has undoubtedly been filled with stressful times in the Nadal camp, as they attempt to manage his injury while preparing him for a tournament that will pit him against the world’s very best from the get-go and an event he has never won before.
Sport360 sat down with Nadal’s coach and ex-world No.1 Moya at the O2 in London to discuss the current mood in the team, his first year with the 16-time Grand Slam champion and more.
How has it been for the team in the build-up to this event? Has it been stressful with the injury or have you all been able to stay calm through it?
Well, trying to… being the last event of the year, we know that things are not easy, it’s been a long year, not just for him, but for all the other players. Obviously we had to change plans in terms of practice. But he’s playing well. It’s the last effort. He achieved his goals, he finished No.1 in the world, so in that part there is no stress but otherwise he wants to compete, try to win this event, but overall it’s okay.
What’s Rafa like in these situations? If he’s injured, would he still try to go all out in practice and you and Toni have to ask him to slow down? Or is he more careful and cautious?
He’s learning to be careful, he’s listening to his body more than before and probably if this was the beginning of the year and another tournament he wouldn’t play. It’s the last tournament, it’s the Masters Cup… he’s listening more and more and he has to.
He has never won the ATP Finals before and he mentioned the other day that the tournament always being played on indoor hard court is a factor in that. Do you think Rafa can beat all those top rivals on this surface?
Of course he can. He probably beat all of them during his career in these conditions. So I don’t know exactly why in the past he wasn’t able to win this tournament. Hopefully this is the last year where he hasn’t been able to win here. But usually it takes for him a while to start the tournament but in the Grand Slams or other events, the first couple of rounds are guys who are outside the top-50 or top-70, here the first match is against a top-10 player already, so maybe that’s one of the reasons but I don’t know exactly.
This is my first year with him in the team. Try to always analyse why things are happening but let’s see how it goes this year.
How do you feel about your first year coaching Rafa, and what have you learnt the most from it?
I think it can’t get any better than this, he won two Slams and finished No.1 in the world, it was like a dream come true. When we started at the beginning of the year that’s something I thought could happen and it actually happened. All has been achieved and that’s great.
What I’m learning, I try to learn every day being with such a tremendous player. This is my second year as a coach, trying always to be open, trying to learn. Last year I learned from Raonic and his team, this year I learned from Rafa. Even though I know him very well there is always things you get to know better.
Anything in particular that jumped at you?
The mentality he has, that never giving up attitude, I don’t think he gave up not even one point this year, so that’s something that you rarely see in all the other players, how he’s able to turn things around when he’s in trouble, that thing still amazes me. I don’t know if you can teach that or a player can learn that but it’s something, after what I’ve seen all these years, it keeps me really amazed what he’s doing.
This year may have been dominated by two all-star veterans – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – but the next two players in line, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, are from the younger generation the tennis world has been waiting for.
It seems fitting that Federer and Zverev have landed in the same group. One is a 36-year-old six-time champion at the event. The other is a 20-year-old making his tournament debut. The contrast is huge yet they are 1-1 head-to-head this season and 2-2 overall.
Zverev grew up idolising Federer and met the Swiss when he was just five years-old asking him for an autograph at the Hamburg Masters. Today, they are peers in the Group Boris Becker at a tournament celebrating the eight best players of the season.
The world No.3 remains in awe of Federer, who took his tally of Grand Slam finals to 19 this season by winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, despite missing six months of action at the end of last year due to injury.
Nadal has also won two majors in 2017, and returned to No.1 in the world rankings.
“I think Roger and Rafa have been playing the best tennis of their lives this year. I really think that, especially Roger,” said Zverev, who won the Rome Masters by beating Novak Djokovic in the final, and Montreal by defeating Federer.
“He’s only lost four matches this year. It’s quite amazing how he’s able to play at 36 years-old; I’m not saying he’s old or anything.
“What he’s doing on the tennis court is amazing.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) November 11, 2017
“Also Rafa, how he came back and played the clay-court season was unbelievable. The most he lost in a set in the French Open was three games. Winning a Grand Slam losing three games in a set, max, is something that I don’t know if we’ve seen before.
“All of us are working hard to try to replace them a little bit.
“This is what we’re all working for, to win the biggest tournaments in the world. I’ve won two Masters this year. I’m still working on Grand Slams.
“At the moment what they’re doing on the tennis court is amazing.”
Federer could not compete in London last year as he was out of action with physical problems and he won the last of his six titles at the event in 2011.
The Swiss started the year ranked 17 in the world due to his extended break in 2016 but stunningly claimed the Australian Open on his first official tournament back.
“Last year I couldn’t be here so it’s nice to be able to do it again because this year I had to start further back in the rankings,” said Federer on Friday.
“The early goal was to be maybe halfway point, before or after Wimbledon, around eight in the world or something but that was always going to maybe put me in an interesting situation for the rest of the year trying to qualify for the World Tour Finals.
“So by winning the Australian Open, pretty much I was in a good position throughout after that. I was very happy how I played throughout the entire season, stayed pretty much injury-free apart from the back issue in Montreal that carried over a bit but I played great and I’m very happy to be here again and get a chance to compete with the best.”
Federer begins his campaign on Sunday against ATP Finals debutant Jack Sock while Zverev takes on Wimbledon runner-up Marin Cilic.
Cilic hit a career-high ranking of No.4 in the world last month and is making his third ATP Finals appearance.
“The year has been extremely consistent for me,” said the Croatian.
“I played great tennis and I found that key in my own game to play on a good level almost every single week. I had a lot of victories in the last six, seven months that has given me good confidence, and good belief when I’m playing the top guys, which is very important here.”
Some high-profile regulars are absent from the ATP Finals this year with Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka all out of action since Wimbledon due to injury.
But there’s still plenty to look forward to and debate ahead of the season finale, which begins at the O2 Arena in London on Sunday.
Here are the main talking points surrounding this year’s ATP Finals…
Rafael Nadal’s right knee has naturally dominated the discussion heading into the Finals but he’s been looking decent in practice so far in London and the team’s spirits appear to be high. If he decides to play, we can expect him to pose a real threat, but the fact remains that he’s never won the title on any of his seven previous participations in the event.
Nadal pointed out on Friday that the fact the tournament is always played on indoor hard courts has been a factor in him never winning the title. Only one of the Spaniard’s 75 career trophies were won on indoor hard court (Madrid 2005 where he climbed from two sets down to beat Ivan Ljubicic in the final). Is it really impossible for him to beat his top-eight rivals on this O2 Arena surface? No it’s not. But with a troubled knee, it’s certainly a big ask.
The good news for the world No.1 is that he has a positive head-to-head against all of his fellow Pete Sampras Group members this season. Taking on the power-hitters from the other Group, or Roger Federer is a whole other story though. If Nadal does end up winning this title, it could be one of his most impressive triumphs to-date.
Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, and Jack Sock are all making their first appearance at the ATP Finals while David Goffin, who played one match as an alternate last year, is enjoying his debut as an outright qualifier for the event.
With the format being so different from what the players experience year-round, having to contest a round-robin group stage before reaching the semi-final knockouts, and the fact that you face a top-eight player from the get-go, it’s understandable if a tournament debutant doesn’t perform well at the ATP Finals.
The last time a first-timer made it out of the group stage on his debut was Kei Nishikori in 2014. Stan Wawrinka achieved the same result on his debut in 2013.
Each one of this year’s debutants has a unique storyline. For some, it’s surprising that this is Dimitrov’s first time at the Finals. It feels like someone of his calibre surely must have competed here in the past.
But the 26-year-old had just missed out on the opportunity in 2014 and he has finally sealed it this year thanks to his title run in Cincinnati, and semi-final showing at the Australian Open.
For Zverev, he is the youngest of the group and at 20-years-old, is the youngest to qualify for the ATP Finals since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008.
While he said that clinching a berth at this tournament is almost like winning a title, we shouldn’t expect the German to not fully turn up for his matches. Zverev has risen to big occasions in 2017, winning two Masters 1000 titles by defeating two ‘Big Four’ opponents in each final, and I don’t think he’ll be fazed by the grand stage at the O2 this week.
Sock’s situation is rather funny. The American had no idea he had a chance to qualify for London when he was at the Paris Masters last week except when a journalist told him during a press conference mid-way through the tournament.
Sock started the year well winning Auckland and Delray Beach in the first two months of the season and going deep at Indian Wells and Miami but he went on a five-match losing streak between August and October and his challenge faded.
Then suddenly he won the Paris Masters, made his top-10 debut and sealed a spot in the ATP Finals. It was a surprise for him and us as well. Someone who didn’t expect to be here can be a real threat, and he certainly has the weapons to do lots of damage on this indoor surface.
Federer isn’t just a six-time ATP Finals champion, he’s also only lost four matches this year and is a clear favourite for the title. Zverev will probably be his biggest challenger in Group Boris Becker, although Cilic shouldn’t be underestimated on this surface and their Wimbledon final was marred by the Croatian’s foot blisters that hindered his performance.
Still, it’s hard seeing anyone other than the second-seeded Federer lifting the trophy on Sunday.