We are in the locker room at the Hurlingham club in west London, where Rafael Nadal has just played his only warm-up match before Wimbledon. The world No 1 is there with his uncle and coach, Toni, but all does not seem well within the Nadal camp. Rafael and Toni are having a heated discussion – in Spanish, of course – with voices raised and fingers jabbing. Could this be the time when one of the strongest player-coach relationships in tennis falls apart?
For a moment it seems that this might not be the best time to sit down with the 2008 and 2010 Wimbledon champion to discuss his forthcoming prospects at the All England Club, but everything quickly becomes clear. Nadal mentions “Xabi Alonso”, “Xavi” and “Busquets”. It is not only England football fans who have been debating World Cup failure. If you support Spain, the world and European champions, the early exit from Brazil is an especially bitter pill to swallow.
His point about the football made, Nadal calms down. “We played disaster,” he says of Spain’s performances. “England didn’t play bad, by the way. I wanted England to go through. England is a big traditional football team and in the end we are Europe. For me England played well. I watched all of England-Italy. It was a great match. Italy played well, too.”
For the last two years, Nadal’s results at Wimbledon have not been much better than the Spanish football team’s over the last fortnight. Two years ago, he was blown off the court in the second round by the world No 100, Lukas Rosol, who was making his Wimbledon debut after losing in the first round of qualifying five times in a row. Last year Nadal went out in the first round to Steve Darcis, the world No 135.
While Spain had few excuses, however, there were plenty of reasons why Nadal was below his best, even if he did not express them in the immediate aftermath, preferring not to detract from his conquerors’ achievements.
On both occasions Nadal was trying to climb the mountain again after scaling the peaks at the French Open just a fortnight earlier. More crucially, he was suffering with his perennial knee trouble. After his 2012 defeat to Rosol he did not play for another seven months, while his 2013 loss to Darcis followed an extraordinary return in which he had reached the final of his first nine comeback tournaments.
“Last year I was not 100 per cent ready for the grass,” Nadal said. “After Roland Garros, I took a few days off, to try to be ready for Wimbledon because I knew my knee was not perfect yet. Grass is very aggressive for my knee because I need to play very low.
“Last year was a special year emotionally, because I came back after an injury of seven months, with the feeling that I had not recovered. That’s the truth. In the first two tournaments I had so much pain. I had to play the whole year with anti-inflammatories in every single match. It was emotionally hard. There was a lot of success before Wimbledon, it’s true, but at the same time there was a lot of suffering.
“Every week was tough mentally because I had to resist, then I was playing with pain, then with anti-inflammatories, with injections, with anti-inflammatory injections. It was improving so I was able to play well, to play with no limitations, but [to go through] the same every day is tough emotionally. Winning Roland Garros last year was very important for me, being back after a tough injury. Physically and emotionally, I probably went down a little bit after that.”
This year, however, the Spaniard goes into Wimbledon in a significantly better frame of mind and feeling good physically. Ironically enough, his struggles in the early part of the clay-court season meant that he had fewer miles on the clock when he went to Roland Garros last month.
“My knee feels a little more comfortable when I run, which is very important,” he said. “I can lose in the first round [at Wimbledon], for sure. That’s part of sport. But I practised for three hours yesterday, today I practised for two hours at Wimbledon and I played a match this afternoon. I am trying hard because I really want to play well.”
The emphatic nature of Nadal’s record-breaking ninth victory at the French Open has put him in better heart. “When you get tougher years it gets a little bit harder, but I really felt well this year at Roland Garros,” he said. “A lot of years I won, but in the first week I played so bad. That wasn’t the case this year. I played with less pressure this year, I played better from the beginning, and I was able to be more confident. Mentally I’m ready to compete [at Wimbledon] – better than previous years. But we will see.”
Although he has stepped up his practice schedule, Nadal will still go into his first-round meeting with Slovakia’s Martin Klizan tomorrow with precious little grass-court matchplay under his belt. In his only tournament appearance since the French Open he was beaten in straight sets in Germany by Dustin Brown, the world No 78.
Nadal recalled that even when he won his second Wimbledon title in 2010 he had to come from two sets to one down in the second and third rounds against Robin Haase and Philip Petzschner respectively.
“In the end, it’s grass,” Nadal said. “It’s always very dangerous for me. I always say the same. When you arrive at Roland Garros you know how you’re playing on that surface. When you arrive in New York and Melbourne you know more or less how you are playing on those surfaces. But here the matches are so quick and are decided by just a few balls.”
Nadal has quickly settled into his usual Wimbledon routines. He stays in a house – a different one each year – not far from the All England Club and knows his way around the local supermarkets. “I cook almost every single day – because nobody wants to cook for me,” he said with a smile.
“Wimbledon is a magic place. For me it’s a very special place: the tradition, the silence of the Centre Court, all the things that make Wimbledon so special. It was always very special for me. It was the only junior Grand Slam tournament that I played. I felt then that I really wanted so badly to play well here.
“All my life it was a real goal for me to play well on grass. When I started my career a lot of people said: ‘With his style, he won’t be able to play well on grass.’ That really motivates me even more. I always felt that I would be able to play well here if I am able to make the right preparation. I really tried hard throughout my career and I’m really proud of the way that I improved playing on all surfaces.”
Given his experiences here in the last two years, did Nadal feel he had unfinished business to complete? “No, the business is finished,” he said. “When I won the first time, for me it was a dream come true. That was everything.”
Nadal's Wimbledon record
2003 Lost in 3rd round to Paradorn Srichaphan
2004 Did not play (injured)
2005 Lost in 2nd round to Gilles Muller
2006 Lost in final to Roger Federer
2007 Lost in final to Roger Federer
2008 Beat Roger Federer in final
2009 Did not play (injured)
2010 Beat Tomas Berdych in final
2011 Lost in final to Novak Djokovic
2012 Lost in second round to Lukas Rosol
2013 Lost in first round to Steve Darcis