Moya Exclusive: Rafa’s Rome Win Over Shapo Was Turning Point
As Rafael Nadal’s opener at Roland Garros approaches, he is fully prepared to launch a new assault on the La Coupe des Mousquetaires. That is how former World No. 1 Carlos Moya put it in an interview with ATPTour.com in the build-up to Nadal’s first-round match against Alexei Popyrin.
Moya is well aware of the route they have taken to get here, as Nadal has endured a spring European clay swing that has proved tough from the outset.
How is Rafa?
He’s doing very well coming in. We’ve combined matches with more specific training sessions, as we almost always do. His preparation has been good, but [the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in] Rome was a turning point, above all the match with Denis Shapovalov.
Because until then he’d had doubts, good days and bad days, insecurities... When he won, he took a step forward and found the consistency he was looking for. I’m sure that we will still see more from Rafa, which he is showing in training. Now it’s a question of playing that level in competition.
Did things click when he beat Shapovalov?
He had prepared very well for the clay swing and the match against Andrey Rublev [at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters] caught us a little off guard. Not because of the defeat, but the way he played. That match affected him quite a lot, even though later he managed to keep winning. We didn’t see the same Nadal as before that day, in competition or training. However, the opportunity to keep winning and for things to click came up, although you never know why. He came through adversity against Shapovalov [in Rome] and immediately afterwards had a very tough match against [Alexander] Zverev, who had just beaten him in Madrid [at the Mutua Madrid Open], and he was able to play very well. From there he picked up confidence and made the most of it. He played very good tennis in the final with [Novak] Djokovic, but he is capable of playing better.
How do you explain the defeat to Rublev in Monte Carlo if he was so well prepared for the clay swing?
He hadn’t competed for a while, since Australia. In training he had played good players and he got through his two matches in the tournament without any issues. But then came the first time he faced adversity and... I think it’s similar to what happened to him in Rome last year against Schwartzman.
Can you elaborate?
He hadn’t played for many months. He was playing well coming into the tournament and he failed at the first opportunity in which he had to compete, because things weren’t going as he expected. In Monte-Carlo, it was kind of the same thing, although less explicable. He started the match [against Rublev] with five double faults in the first two games, something I’d never seen him do. Above all because of the way he did it. He’s human and that generates doubt. We’ve tried to treat it as an accident and not a habit. Two years ago, when he lost to [Fabio] Fognini in Monte-Carlo and [Dominic] Thiem in Barcelona [at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell] it was a very different situation to this. But it was longer than we expected. I’m not talking about winning or losing, I’m talking about feeling comfortable and dominating.
Is there much difference in form between the wins in Barcelona and Rome?
He won in Barcelona without playing brilliantly, far from his best. Also, those of us that are used to seeing Rafa play every day know that he can play better. The demands are always very high with him. There are times that he wins matches whatever happens, for example against [Stefanos] Tsitsipas in Barcelona or against Shapovalov in Rome. But other times that doesn’t happen, like the day against Rublev in Monte-Carlo or against Zverev in Madrid. We think he has progressed mentally and has the stability to play well every day. Until now we weren’t confident that he could do that.
The French Open are allowing players to go out for one hour a day this year, what will he do with that time?
We still haven’t left the hotel, neither of us. We’ll go for a few walks, but we’ll be very careful. We try to minimise any kind of risk as far as possible. We read, watch [box] series, eat dinner together in the room... We pass the time and enjoy ourselves. We get on well, honestly.
What have you been working on before his opener?
We’re fine-tuning things that haven’t been working. In recent weeks, we’ve been trying to hit the ball deep, so the opponent isn’t able to get too far up the court. So if they hit a winner it has to be a risky one. Also, [we are] making more changes with the forehand down the line, changing the backhand more towards cross-court and continuing to focus on the serve, which has improved since Monte-Carlo. There’s no such thing as perfection in tennis, even the greats fail and make mistakes. So there’s always room for improvement.
How many times have you talked about the 21 Grand Slam titles?
Nadal is a player who is used to dealing with pressure, but is there even more in this situation?
Undoubtedly, yes, but there’s always a lot of pressure at the French Open. It’s true that now it’s on a lot of people’s minds, the public and journalists. He is in a position where he could become the player with the most Grand Slam titles, but we try to normalise it, to play it down. And we do that by not talking about it, even though he knows it’s there. Indeed, Rafa is very good at handling pressure.
In the debate over who is the greatest player in history, are Grand Slam titles a definitive argument?
It’s a number of things, but I’m not interested in this debate right now. We have to wait for the three players involved to finish their careers, and then we can analyse it. It’s clear that having more majors than the other player is significant, but we’re a little bored by the subject. We’re the ones that talk about it the least.
What is his biggest danger in Roland Garros?
There’s always danger. We try not to look beyond the next match. It may be a cliché, but it’s true. At the end of the day, you don’t have to be better than 127 players, you have to be better than seven. He’s arrived as we wanted, having won in Rome, healthy and confident. The extra week before the French Open has been positive for himm because he’s been able to rest and right now he is more prepared for all the battles he may face.
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How important was beating Djokovic in the final in Rome?
It helped, that much is clear. He’s not the same mentally. These two players come out of each victory between them stronger. It’s also true that Rafa hasn’t lost to Djokovic on clay for six years, since 2015 I believe. Anyway, it doesn’t change much.
Tell me three players you’ll have your eyes on this fortnight.
Djokovic and Tsitsipas, and Casper Ruud could come into the equation. We’ll have to see how he manages the possibility of going far, and I’m talking really far. With his draw and his game, he could do that. Then there’s Zverev, Rublev... I can’t just pick three. Karatsev, for example, he surprised me a lot the other day. I’d seen him on TV, but we trained with him on the centre court, and I was very impressed.
You also trained with Musetti.
He’s a talent. He’ll have to be taken into account in the future, no doubt. He’s still young, but he has a very good future. He’s very different to [Jannik] Sinner, nothing like him. He’s more of an artist, the other a machine, with a very fast rhythm. Sinner is very cold, very calculated, in a good way. That’s the impression I get. Musetti is more temperamental, more inventive. They’re very different players, but I’m sure they’ll play in Grand Slam finals in the future.