Moya: 'Rafa’s Willpower Has Been Extraordinary’
Rafael Nadal returned to the ATP Tour on Thursday after a five-month absence. The World No. 6 overcame Lithuanian qualifier Ricardas Berankis 6-2, 7-5 in the second round of the Melbourne Summer Set in his first singles match since 6 August 2021, when he bowed out in the third round of the Citi Open in Washington against Lloyd Harris.
A return to court means Nadal has left in his wake the misery caused by Mueller-Weiss syndrome, a dysplasia of the tarsal scaphoid, the deformity of one of the bones in the midfoot, which play an essential role in the foot’s mobility.
Ahead of his opening win in Melbourne, Carlos Moya, one of the 20-time major champion’s coaches, sat down with ATPTour.com to reflect on the Spanish star’s recovery.
What were the past few months like?
We’ve been through a lot of moments of uncertainty because Rafa’s foot wasn’t getting better. Saying goodbye to last season wasn’t easy, even less so for someone like him, who loves competing so much. Then there were a lot of trips to doctors, treatments... in the past month he’s progressed. We weren’t sure how he’d respond. There were some pretty tough moments, but his willpower is extraordinary. We’re here, happy to see him play in Melbourne. He is more than ready enough for things to go well.
Was it your toughest spell since you joined his team?
Probably, yes. They were the most difficult moments since I’ve been one of Rafa’s coaches. In the beginning, when I joined his team, we went through a very difficult time with his knee. That cleared up and his foot was more bothersome. It’s an injury he’s had for a number of years, but until now it hadn’t held him back in matches. In 2021 it really started to get worse.
What was your role during this time?
You’re more of a friend. You listen and try to provide solutions, having a lot of empathy for the situation. Giving him space and time. Supporting him at all times. Having been a player gives you an idea of how the head works: it’s one thing to be 20 and another to be 35, where problems can seem bigger than they really are. At 20, you know there’ll be a solution, at 35... you’re not so sure.
What were the implications when Rafa tested positive for Covid-19 a few days before travelling to Australia?
It was really tough. When we arrived in Mallorca, we tested positive and everything collapsed after all the sacrifices he’d made in the previous months. So close to the season, so close to the goal, that setback put us in a situation where we didn’t know what would happen. We knew the Australian Open would come, but to us it was key to play in Melbourne first after so many months without competing. I’m not really a fan of playing for the sake of it, but now we’re in a different situation because he hasn’t played for five months. Rafa’s willpower has been extraordinary. When we saw that it would be a few bad days, but he would recover later, he was the first to decide to stick to the initial plan.
What were your symptoms?
I had a day and a half when I was pretty ill. It was like the flu, but mentally it’s not easy because you know it’s a different disease, with a very complicated history over the past year and a half. That affects you a little more. Also, I passed it on to my family. The children didn’t suffer, but Carolina [his wife] did have a hard time. Mentally it’s not easy. We had the omicron variant, which is supposed to be a little milder, for want of a better term. The symptoms were strong, but for a short time. That allowed us to be in Melbourne.
So, is Nadal ready to compete?
Yes. Without a doubt, despite the fact that he hasn’t played for some time. I’m sure he will do well here.
Are you worried that his foot will become a problem again?
The work has been done. I’m positive and optimistic, I prefer not to think about bad things that could happen. I’m happy that we’re in Australia. Melbourne will be very good for him to compete and test himself before the first Grand Slam of the season.
You normally use the preseason to improve aspects of the game, like his serve or backhand. Is it different when he’s recovering?
There were many training sessions when we could barely do anything, knock the ball around and that’s it. After he finished in Washington, Rafa went almost two months without playing. It’s a long break. Starting up again isn’t a question of two days. Even after the treatment he still had pain and problems. That’s why many sessions were one hour or 40 minutes, playing without being able to move. Even days off, days when, after arriving in Mallorca, we couldn’t train. We tried to get back to what he was doing well. It’s difficult to try and improve things in such a short space of time and with so few sessions.
Marc Lopez joined the coaching team this year. What was the idea behind that change?
It’s always good to change the team, to find people that can add something. Marc is someone who knows Rafa well and knows a lot about tennis. It’s a new and different voice, he can contribute his knowledge. Relationships between a team and a player take their toll and it’s good to have new people to say something different. I really believe in that, and I’m convinced that Marc can do it. He’s a very good addition and he’ll be with us in Melbourne. Francis [Roig] will also be there, as he has been until now.
How do you see this season on the ATP Tour?
Practically the same. Five months have gone by, but nothing has happened that we didn’t know might happen. [Daniil] Medvedev won the US Open and [Alexander] Zverev the Nitto ATP Finals, but it was something we were expecting. Nobody burst through and won a Grand Slam, for example. More or less, it is as we left it. In summary; if Rafa returns to his best, he’s a candidate to win any tournament he plays in.
And how far is he from that?
You need matches. Nobody reaches their maximum potential just by training. As much as you train well, you have to take it to the matches. We’re confident that those competing in Melbourne will help him find his rhythm for the Australian Open.
Nadal has come flying out of the blocks after all of the injuries he’s had in his career. You would expect anyone else to lose quickly when they come back...
It can happen, but we’re working so that it doesn’t. If you’re well prepared and playing well, it’s unlikely to happen. Although you can always get a bad draw, a bad match... we know how good Rafa is, and that historically he has always come back playing very well after an injury. We’re confident he’ll do that again.
How would you summarise Nadal’s resilience?
There are moments of doubt, but he is an incredible competitor. As soon as he is slightly better, there’s nothing he wants more than to keep being competitive and aspiring to win big tournaments. These kinds of players can think about retiring when they see that that doesn’t happen, but that’s not the case with Rafa. I don’t see that in him.