Moya: Rafa's Recovery Is Right On Track
Rafael Nadal has looked impressive at the Australian Open, winning his first three matches without dropping a set. Watching carefully from his players' box has been former World No. 1 Carlos Moya, who is one of Nadal's coaches. Coach Moya is not only eager to track Nadal's performance, but to ensure Nadal avoids aggravating any of the injuries he suffered in 2018, including one that required arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle.
Moya spoke with ATPTour.com before the season to describe the hurdles Nadal encountered in 2018, divulge the steps being taken to dodge those obstacles (preventable ones and otherwise) in the upcoming season, and why Nadal will be more aggressive than ever.
Rafa is coming off a very difficult past six months.
It's not the most glamourous part of my job, but it is a requirement and a responsibility I have, to be in his corner through times like these. We're always in preparation mode, whether it's for a match or during recovery time. Matters don't stand still just because Rafa is on the sidelines; we had to plot out his rehab and eventual return.
Obviously times were difficult for us when Rafa was out of action and things were uncertain. The hardest part of it was having to watch Rafa retire from that Grand Slam semi-final match in New York. We knew then that it was unlikely Rafa would compete in Asia. However, the goal was to play Paris (the Rolex Paris Masters) and London (the Nitto ATP Finals).
Things didn't work out as planned; Rafa sustained a small abdominal injury, and his ankle wasn't where we wanted it to be. Once we decided to skip Paris, we decided it was best to change directions and, seeing that he wouldn't be at full strength in time for London, we choose to undergo the foot operation at that time.
All things considered, how would you rate 2018?
When he was on court and competing, Rafa was spectacular. Of the nine tournaments he played, he won five. He lost a total of four matches, and two were matches in which he was forced to retire (Australian Open, US Open). That forces us to look for solutions. What could we have done better? Is there an answer, a solution, to things we didn't get right in 2018?
What type of answer or solution are you talking about?
Mixing things up, changing things. Training systems, for example. The frequency of workouts, the methods, the intensity. We have to find a balance to guarantee results without putting Rafa in the situation he was in during the second half of 2018.
How is that applied on a day-to-day basis?
As a team, we're all thinking the same thing. At this point in Rafa's career, there isn't much overhauling we can do in an hour or a day. That would be more harmful than beneficial. That's something we can all agree on.
Does that mean training won't be as brutal or as punishing?
Well, since I joined Rafa's team, training sessions haven't lasted longer than two hours. That's more than enough time in practice, considering the level of intensity Rafa puts into training. We give his well-being the highest priority and take all precautions necessary to avoid injury. Going three-and-a-half hours would be overkill and wouldn't make for more quality training.
I'm in favour of the shorter workout sessions. As an example, we've reduced the double workout sessions in a day; we reserve that for tournaments and that's because the goal then is to work around the scheduled morning/evening sessions and get work in when it's available.
Nadal turns 33 years old this season. Is the wear and tear on his body a reason for concern among your team, considering his age?
We understand that injuries play a factor in a player's longevity. In fact, 99 per cent of players retire because of injuries and also what that entails, like losing confidence and a drop in desire. Spending more time at the doctor's office than on the tennis court and falling in the ATP Rankings, those things take all sorts of tolls on a player.
I've been through that and I know what it does to a player's spirit. You have to try to avoid it, or at least prolong things as long as possible. That's where we are concentrating our energy. We ensure Rafa spends just the right amount of time in training and [performing] in events has a high priority. We are focused to ensure Rafa doesn't over-exert himself.
Do you plan on reducing his playing schedule?
There's always talk about that and it's always something we take into consideration. He played nine tournaments in 2018. I wonder if any other player has finished the year as World No. 2 after participating in just nine tournaments? Of course, we wish he could have competed in more, but due to the circumstances, that's the most we could handle. If he's at full strength, Rafa can endure 14, maybe 15 tournaments in a calendar year, but no more. Fitting more into his schedule doesn't seem realistic.
The preseason is just about over. You're going into the new season with some unknowns and a lot of time on the sidelines.
The goal has been to take things one step at a time, especially following the foot surgery. In principle it was simple surgery, but we still don't want to rush into anything. So far, we're exactly where we want to be. Recovery is right on track. Nothing has been over the top, and I'm optimistic as Rafa heads to Australia.
You said before that things were spectacular when Rafa was on court and competing in 2018. What have you sought to improve before the start of 2019?
We're working on his shape, his conditioning and on specific on-court tactics. Joan Forcades (Nadal's physical trainer), Francisco Roig and I are preparing Rafa to be a more aggressive player -- even moreso than he has been throughout his career. Matches are settled within four strokes and 70 per cent of that is the serve and how one returns, then what follows, plus the next shot.
It's not the style of play Rafa prefers, but we're working to find a way to make that sort of matchplay fit into his comfort zone. Rafa likes to find the rhythm, although he has shown that he can play just as well when there is no such rhythm to be found. I am very much instrumental when it comes to moulding Rafa in being more aggressive. Sometimes he gets it, other times he doesn't.
I know we'll never turn Rafa into a (Roger) Federer, (Milos) Raonic or (Tomas) Berdych, who all excel as two-shot players, but we have to try and push Rafa to come close to that, without losing the essence of his game. That's why, in practice, we try new things and to instill confidence so that he can implement those techniques during matches.
Aggression seems to be the ultimate goal.
He accomplished (being more aggressive) in 2017 and was also very aggressive in 2018. The last three matches Rafa played at the US Open — his last three of the season — didn't show the type of attacking game we were trying to achieve. When he was 20 years old, perhaps he could get away with being less assertive. But at this point, Rafa has to force the issue a little more and be the one dictating matters.
Being a former player myself, I understand where he's coming from at times, and I get why sometimes he feels more comfortable pulling back rather than pushing forward. When you lack confidence, it’s difficult to be aggressive. Sometimes Rafa feels that isn't the best form of attack, but one thing we're trying to get him to understand is that he needs to impose his will whenever possible.
Nadal has played a part in three of the best Grand Slam matches contended in 2018. What are your thoughts on that?
Nadal is the undisputed king of epic matches, you can't argue that. His matches tend to be long, drawn-out and suspenseful. But as his coach, I prefer less drama. The more the theatrics, the longer Rafa is on the court and that makes me uneasy. Ten years ago, I'd support Rafa in dragging things out, but that's no longer beneficial to his success. The fans love it, though, when Nadal manages to win when seemingly all hope is lost.
How does Nadal manage to do that — to win, when all hope seems lost? He has a knack for doing that.
I'm his coach and even I don't know how he pulls those wins off. I can't begin to explain it. All I know is that the fans love it, and when the fans are loving it, he's inspired to play his best and no further explanation is necessary. That's the essence of Rafa.
Nadal collided with Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon this year and wound up on the wrong end of their dramatic encounter. Do you look back and question what you could, as a team, have done better?
Things like that always go through your mind. What if Rafa had defeated Novak? [Kevin] Anderson was coming off a brutal semi-final encounter against John Isner and Rafa would have been favoured to win over Anderson. What would it have all meant? Who knows. Djokovic wouldn't have won his first Grand Slam since 2016 (Roland Garros). But still, who knows how things would have played out in the long run?
At this point, do you consider yourself a more influential figure on or off the court?
It's hard to say. It's not easy to analyze myself as his coach... Rafa is better suited to answer that question. All I can say is that I'm doing everything I can. As a coach, you always strive to do the best job possible.
In the past two years, how many times have you been annoyed with Nadal?
Practically none. Of course, there are times we agree and other times we don't see eye to eye. But we always resolve those matters.
Is it hard to get on the same page as Nadal at times?
No, because it's a relationship in which we are always honest and open. If I wasn't always sincere, my credibility wouldn't be worth much. I don't want him to be a robot. I want Rafa to be receptive and understand where I'm coming from when I lend advice but I also want him to provide feedback.
Alexander Zverev was victorious at the Nitto ATP Finals in London. Do you believe this signifies a changing of the guard in 2019?
Djokovic, Nadal and Federer still rule the Grand Slams, but you're seeing new faces capture titles at ATP Tour Masters 1000 events and at the Nitto ATP Finals. There are a lot of strong players on the cusp of making moves.
Were you surprised that Zverev defeated both Federer and Djokovic consecutively in London?
I can't say it surprised me. Defeating both Federer and Djokovic in back-to-back matches is no easy task and I believe [Zverev] is the only player who can do something like that at the moment. We're talking about a player who hasn't been competing at the highest level for very long and, for whatever reason, hasn't been able to find a lot of success at the Grand Slam level just yet. But he’s one who is clearly ready to press forward and contend for titles against the best players in the world.
What are your thoughts on the ATP Cup?
The idea makes sense. We should always support new competitions that are meant to modernize and advance our sport. Sometimes we're reluctant to adapt new formats. The ATP is making this important effort to push forward and I see it as very positive.
With 2018 in the books, what do you want to achieve most in 2019?
All I want is for Rafa to be healthy. If he's at full health, he'll soar to new heights. Being healthy is the No. 1 priority for our team.