INTERVIEW: Rafael Nadal spotlight burns brightly in New York

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  • Loving the glam life: Rafael Nadal.

    No player will have more to prove or be questioned deeper than Rafael Nadal at next week’s US Open.

    The Spaniard has entered the stage of his career which all legendary sportsmen fear, being contemporarily associated with fallibility rather than the remarkable feats which elevated him to all-time great status as a 14-time grand slam champion.

    As recently as last summer, the 29-year-old was World No1 after a ninth French Open triumph. He was on the coattails of his perennial rival Roger Federer, needing just three more major victories to draw level.

    Yet while the timeless Swiss has stylishly sashayed back to his best, Nadal’s game has been in the grip of a downward spiral, a worrying trend not helped by injuries such as the wrist problem which denied him the opportunity to defend his crown at Flushing Meadows last August.

    That bitter pill was even harder to swallow given persistent knee problems had also seen him miss the US Open in 2012.

    Nadal heads into the impending competition a once-unthinkable eighth in the ATP rankings, and his unsightly third round defeat to countryman Feliciano Lopez last time out at the Cincinnati Masters was no aberration when you consider he has not contested a hard court final in 17 months.

    Speaking to Sport360° in an office overlooking New York’s splendid Bryant Park which had been packed hours earlier for an event to celebrate him becoming a global brand ambassador for Tommy Hilfiger, Nadal opened up about his frame of mind.

    “Last year was a tough year. After being back to my best level after Roland Garros, I had the wrist injury,” he said. 

    “To then get back and have appendicitis immediately made it a tough second part of the season. It made it tough to get back to my level in the year after that. Always, to miss a tournament like the US Open is an opportunity lost – especially when you feel like you are playing well. In 2012, I was playing great and in 2014 I was playing well.

    “Those two years I was playing at a very-high level and I did not get the chance to compete in one of the best tournaments of the year and one I know I can do well in. Today is another opportunity and I am here to hopefully do well again. I will try my best.”

    Nadal’s fall from grace has taken up as many column inches in the build-up to the US Open as the reinvigorated rivalry between 
    Federer and World No1 Novak Djokovic. 

    A painful stage is unfolding for a player whose athletic prowess and unbending will once defined his greatness, body and mind currently being his main weaknesses. 

    The ‘King of Clay’ used to look invincible behind the baseline, but the sight of him ambling about at the back of court has now become all too familiar. Is his situation a case of him having to mentally accept he is no longer ironclad?

    “I think during all my career I did,” he replied.

    “I had to accept that in 2005, after having my first big season, No2 in the world and winning a lot of big tournaments. I then had an important injury in my feet and some doctors told me I would not be back on a tennis court as a professional player.

    “I have accepted from the beginning I couldn’t be at the 2012 Olympics, Wimbledon 2009 defending my title… All these types of things, have been unbelievable moments but also low moments. Everything is part of my career. My mentality and point of view always stays the same.”

    Nadal has endured an annus horribilis in 2015. The die was cast when he suffered a shock three-set defeat to Michael Berrer in round one of January’s Qatar Open, continuing with quarter-final defeat to Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open which ended a 17-match winning streak against the Czech.

    And prior to a last-eight reversal to Djokovic at Roland Garros he dropped out of the world’s top five for the first time in a decade with defeat to Andy Murray in the Madrid Open. The shock caused by July’s second-round setback at Wimbledon to dreadlocked journeyman Dustin Brown was not seismic.

    – Also: Who is tennis’ greatest? Federer, Nadal or Djokovic?
    – Cincinnati: Federer defeats Djokovic for seventh title
    – Related: Serena claims another title with victory over Halep

    “I have had a tough season, but not a very bad season,” Nadal insisted. “It has not been a disaster. Playing not very well but being at the number I am today [No8 in the ATP rankings] is still something positive.

    “I am playing better now than a few months ago, that is the real thing. I am playing better than the results said in the last two tournaments. I am practising well, let’s wait for the right moment to find that momentum [snapping his fingers] which brings you back to the next level.

    “I do not know what will happen at the US Open. I feel I am playing better than in other parts of the season. I feel I can play a good tournament. But the competition is full of good opponents – anything can happen.”

    Away from the court, New York – already baking in the August heat – is being warmed further by ubiqutious billboards featuring Nadal in just his underwear as part of a prominent Tommy Hilfiger campaign.

    The sense of glamour was added to on Tuesday by a tennis match played between Nadal and leading models such as Chanel Iman, Constance Jablonski and Hannah Davis.

    “I am still shy with some things, not so much with others,” he joked when asked about seeing his adverts.

    “Obviously, I started very young and have had a lot of years being in front of people. When I am shooting that [the underwear campaign] I do not believe it will be on the television. I do it and try to have fun with the people who are around shooting.”

    Inevitably when a sportsman shows signs of being on the slide, conversation moves to his plans for when he puts down his racquet. 

    Nadal was at pains to declare – as with the current state of his game – there is nothing to unduly panic him for when that day arrives.

    “It is something I have no worries [about],” he said. “I think I will be happy without all of this. I like many things in this world outside of tennis. I enjoy the fact I am here today [in New York] and people have an interest in what I am doing. But at the same time, I am from Majorca. 

    “I like to be in the ocean on a boat, fishing or swimming. I am building a big tennis academy in Majorca, it is a big investment for me. 

    “I have the Rafael Nadal Foundation, too. We are growing, having more and more things to help kids, especially. I have different businesses around the world, which will entertain me after the tennis career.”

    Rafael Nadal will appear as the global brand ambassador for Tommy Hilfiger underwear, Tommy Hilfiger Tailored and the new fragrance TH Bold, beginning in Autumn 2015. The collections are available at Tommy Hilfiger stores globally, through select wholesale partners and online at