Rafael Nadal is frequently quizzed about football, particularly when he’s in Spain, being one of the most famous Madridistas on the planet.
An avid Real Madrid fan, Nadal turned some heads when he showed up at rival club Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium last Thursday to watch Atleti face Arsenal in the Europa League semi-finals.
The Mallorcan was photographed during the match with an Atletico Madrid jersey draped around his neck, and was asked about it during his press conference on Monday at the Caja Magica in the Spanish capital.
“The other day I went to the Atletico stadium. It was beautiful. They have an amazing stadium. It was my first opportunity to go to that stadium,” Nadal explained in Spanish.
“At the end, well, there is a problem in the society that we have today, that to be a real supporter of one team, it seems that you have to be anti another team. I just support Real Madrid. It’s a team that I know.
“I have a lot of friends that are from Atletico. They are playing in a competition in Europe against an English team. I just went there to support Atletico Madrid. I went there. They invited me. I just wanted to enjoy the day, to see a great football match.
“They gave me one of their jerseys. The president gifted me with a jersey. At night it was a little bit chilly, a little bit cold, and I just used it as a scarf. That’s all.
“But it’s always the same stuff. There is maybe too much hypocrisy, or I would say you people in the media have to write too many things, so you have to explore some stupid things. That’s my point of view.”
I hope his fans heard his words because what he said about aficionados of rival clubs also applies to tennis fanatics. Many Nadal fans are vigorously anti Federer, and many Federer fans are vigorously anti Nadal. Maybe the Spaniard’s views can get his followers to lighten up a bit?
Nadal will begin his Madrid title defence on Wednesday against either Frenchman Gael Monfils or Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili.
IN HER OWN WORLD
Elsewhere, Maria Sharapova was spotted in the corner of the players’ game room, reading a book a few hours before her opening round match on Sunday, with the ATP’s media hour taking place just a few feet away.
ATP/WTA combined tournaments are obviously busy and Madrid is no exception with something always happening on every inch of the Caja Magica.
Finding a place to relax ahead of a match can be a struggle but Sharapova was unfazed by the roundtable interviews taking place next to her while she sat on an arm chair reading in peace.
“I kind of zone out. I’m like, ‘You guys do what you got to do. I’m getting ready for a match. I have a book to read, more important things going on here’,” she said with a chuckle
“No, I think it’s important to kind of find your own space, especially as you’re focusing and getting ready to play. We all have our routines. It’s kind of what you know, what you do, what you’re comfortable with. It’s like, ‘Why change them because there’s a media hour?’
“No, I’m pretty used to, like, having a lot of – I’m good at having horse blinders on, just doing my thing, getting ready for what’s ahead of me, which is most of the time a tennis match.”
In case you’re wondering what book she was reading, it was Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity.
After I asked Sharapova about what she was reading, the following exchange then happened between her and a journalist.
Sharapova: Well, I have two books. What was I reading yesterday? Oh, I was reading a book by Alan Watts. What is it called? Something ‘of Insecurity’.
Oh, my God, Alexander is going to kill me. I don’t know. I don’t have it with me. I can’t believe it. I’m freezing. But I’m reading Trevor Noah’s book and this one. It ends with something ‘Insecurity’.
Journalist: ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’.
Sharapova: High five. Free chocolate. I don’t know what I think about it, but I’m in the middle of it. Did you like it?
Journalist: Haven’t read it.
Sharapova: How did you know about it?
Journalist: Google check.
Sharapova: The cheater. Wow! Actually the whole book is about being in the moment, like not being on your phone. So that was great timing. You still get chocolate for that.
The other book she’s reading is Trevor Noah’s.
Kei Nishikori heaped praise on his fellow Japanese player Naomi Osaka and believes the 20-year-old will crack the top-10 soon.
Osaka, currently ranked No. 21 in the world, is enjoying a breakthrough season having claimed the Indian Wells title last March.
While Nishikori, a former US Open finalist, is like a rock star in Japan, he tips Osaka to experience similar success, and says she’s gaining popularity back home.
“It’s very great for Japan tennis. The way she plays, I think she has very bright future,” Nishikori said in Madrid following his straight-sets loss to Novak Djokovic in the first round on Monday.
“Big serve, big forehand. She can really play with top-level players. I’m sure she’s going to be top 10 soon. Yeah, hope to see her winning Grand Slams in the future.”
Nishikori, who was out with a wrist injury from August 2017 until the end of January 2018, is still on the comeback trail and admits he is not feeling 100 per cent yet.
His wrist was taped in his match against Djokovic on Monday, for the first time since he returned from injury.
“Actually first time after coming back injury because it was little better with the tape. It’s not the best way to tape, better without. I kind of have to this week,” said Nishikori, who is currently ranked No. 20 in the world.
“My wrist is not 100 per cent yet, but close to playing enough tennis. I think I need couple more weeks to get used to playing on clay, as it causes more damage to my wrist, play more spin.
“But it’s not too bad. I recover from last week. I love these two tournaments (in Barcelona and Madrid). Unfortunate this year, but hopefully I do well next year.”
Nishikori was unlucky to draw the 10th-seeded Djokovic in the first round, and the result was an early exit at a tournament where he had previously reached the final.
“I’m expecting tough draw every round because I don’t have seeded this year I think. Well, yeah, I knew he wasn’t playing really well last couple weeks. But if something clicks for me him, he’s going to come back again to top 10 level,” Nishikori said of Djokovic.
“I think he was playing better after first set. I think I lost couple important points. I wasn’t playing deep. I could play little better. But I think he was playing good tennis today.”
Novak Djokovic’s life on tour these days is significantly different than what he had grown accustomed to throughout a decade of competing at the highest level.
Seeded a lowly No. 10 at the Madrid Open this week, he had no bye in the first round and was drawn to face another former top-five player who has slipped in the rankings due to injuries – Kei Nishikori.
It was a test that could ultimately prove a blessing in disguise as Djokovic claimed a confidence-boosting 7-5, 6-4 victory over the Japanese, who just last month had reached the Monte Carlo final but is still not 100 per cent recovered from a wrist injury that kept him sidelined from August last year until the end of January.
Djokovic, a two-time champion in Madrid, broke once at the tail-end of each set to wrap up the victory in just under two hours. The Serb faces either Daniil Medvedev or Kyle Edmund in the second round.
“Well, it was strange, I must admit, playing Kei in the first round. Our rankings dropped due to injuries and everything that was happening for both of us in the last year. I mean, it can happen and it did happen here,” said Djokovic, who didn’t play for the last six months of 2017 then had elbow surgery in February, amassing just a 5-5 win-loss record in 2018 heading into Madrid.
“Of course, I’ve played Kei on big occasions, in many of the big tournaments, finals and semi-finals. It was different to play him in the first round. It was a big test for both of us.
“I’m glad that match went my way, but it could have gone his way as well. It was a very few points that really decided a winner today.
“It was exactly what I needed for my confidence and for my game. I’m just happy to go through this one.”
Djokovic’s dip in form and poor results aren’t the only things that are different for him at the moment. They’ve resulted in a lower seeding at tournaments which means that after a decade of being one of the higher seeds, he now doesn’t get a bye at a Masters 1000 like Madrid, he can play someone like Nishikori in the first round, and doesn’t have to do the mandatory pre-event press conferences.
That last one is a welcome change for Djokovic he said with a laugh.
“There are some positives about it. Not that I don’t like you guys, but sometimes it’s nice,” said the 30-year-old Serb.
“I came in, I was, like, waiting for my team, Elena to tell me when the press conference is. She’s like, ‘No press conference’. I’m like, ‘Okay, great’. So it is different.
“Some things that I haven’t faced, haven’t experienced for a long, long time. I mean, I was very fortunate throughout my career to go in kind of an upward direction always with my results and with my success. Ever since I got to top 10, for a decade I didn’t go out from top 10. That’s something I’m very proud about and of course grateful for. At the same time it had to happen. These are the circumstances that I’m facing at the moment. I’m trying to get the best out of them.”
Djokovic isn’t shying away from the challenge and in fact is embracing his new position.
“That’s life,” he continued. “Life is there to test us, to allow us to understand that we can get the best out of all situations, to grow and to be the best versions of ourselves. That’s how I approach it. That’s how I see it.
“It’s not easy. At times, you know, you start to question because I achieved a lot in this sport. Then when you have to kind of start over again, start finding inspirations and ways and stuff like this to keep on going, it’s tricky. The mind plays games with you. You have to kind of dig deep.
“That’s what we are supposed to do if we want to get to a better place always, as people and as professional athletes. It’s a beautiful process.”
Djokovic appears to be heading towards the right direction this clay season. He won two matches in Monte Carlo before losing in the last-16 to Dominic Thiem and now has taken out a tricky opponent in Nishikori.
Thiem says he felt he saw the spark back in Djokovic’s eyes during that three-setter in Monaco and believes the 12-time Grand Slam champion looks on his way back to winning ways.
“I think you saw it especially in the match against me (in Monte Carlo), that somehow the fire in his eyes and his body is kind of back, the way he was acting when he broke me back in the first set was when I think everybody got reminded of his best times, how he was acting and how his presence was on court. I think if he keeps that up he’ll be back at the very top level,” Thiem told reporters in Madrid on Sunday.