On the steps of the Gallerie d’Italia in the majestic Piazza San Carlo, Rafael Nadal explains that his son, who was born in October, is with him in Turin. The 36-year-old is set for his debut in the Italian city, where he will be competing in his 11th Nitto ATP Finals starting on Sunday.
The Spaniard, who has a chance to finish the year as No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings for the sixth time in his career, is bidding to claim the only big title that is yet to adorn his trophy cabinet, and to put the icing on the cake of his unforgettable season.
“I arrive here without match time, but in Paris I was playing well, a set and break up against Tommy Paul, a good player,” the World No. 2 told ATPTour.com, having fallen at the first hurdle in the Rolex Paris Masters. “I’m happy because I’ve been able to train and I’m excited to play well. If I didn’t think I had a chance to fight for what I came for, I wouldn’t be here. I think I have a chance.”
After several weeks without playing, Nadal returned to competition at the ATP Masters 1000 in Paris-Bercy, where he bowed out in his opener against the American Paul in three sets. He was evidently fatigued.
“There was no big problem,” admitted the Spaniard. “A long time without competing. I had a small problem with my stomach. I was nauseous at the end of the third set, I felt awful, but I didn’t say anything because it wouldn’t have been right,” he added. “I’m fine. A bad day. Later I was able to get back to training normally without any problems.
“It’s clear that in the past five months, I’ve played very little,” continued the 22-time Grand Slam champion. “Unfortunately, what happened at Wimbledon happened, and from there I’ve played very little. It was an accumulation of negative situations in terms of fitness,” he explained.
“To me, it’s important to end the year competing, which I wasn’t able to do in 2021. You never know. Things often change dramatically in sport. I’m playing well, but it’s better to arrive with confidence and wins because there’s no margin for error here, playing against the best.”
Thursday’s draw placed Nadal’s name in the Green Group, where he will face Casper Ruud, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Taylor Fritz. With a 5-1 combined record against the trio, the draw would seem to favour Nadal’s progress into the semi-finals.
“Here, you’re playing against the best,” said the Mallorcan. “Things can go your way, but if you don’t play at a very high level, you’re not going to have real chances. I don’t like coming back from an injury in Cincinnati or Paris, when you’re going to play someone who’s very good from the start. It’s almost preferable to return at a Grand Slam if you’re physically fit,” he reasoned. “You grow with your wins, and at majors there is more margin in the draws, unless you’re very unlucky, but I’m feeling fine and excited about it.”
Nadal’s physical struggles have included his recurring abdominal issues, which have plagued him all too often throughout the second half of the season.
“I’ve been serving normally for some time,” explained the Spaniard. “Unfortunately, I tore my abs twice this year: at Wimbledon and the week before the US Open, even though I didn’t say anything. That forced me to serve differently to how I normally do,” he noted.
“It is what it is. You have to deal with what you have. It’s important to me to play a few tournaments consecutively. I need continuity, which I had up to Indian Wells,” he continued. “Let’s see if next year I can get that. That’s why I’m down to play the United Cup the first week of the season. I want to spend more time on Tour, competing and training. At this point of my career, I’m driven by passion, by feeling competitive when training with the best. That’s what I’ve been missing in the past five months. I’ve spent very few days on Tour, for fitness and personal reasons. We’re going to try and get back into that rhythm again.”
At the moment, Nadal is only thinking about Turin, where he will be looking for the one big trophy missing from his CV.
“As I was saying, I haven’t been good enough,” repeated the Spaniard. “That’s the reality of sport… I’ve qualified [for the Nitto ATP Finals] 17 times, but I haven’t been competitive those 17 times,” he said, with injuries keeping him from playing on six occasions “I don’t know how many times I’ve been able to play in the event with a real chance. I haven’t been the best player on indoor [hard courts], which is where I’ve always played this event, in fast conditions. Historically, that’s been the worst surface for me. It’s not about nerves. I’ve won things in my career that have made me feel like that. It’s simply that I haven’t been good enough at this time of year and in those circumstances to win this tournament.”
Returning to the Nitto ATP Finals for the first time since 2020, when he lost to Daniil Medvedev in a three-set semi-final, the Spaniard has a score to settle.
“It’s true that in recent years I’ve made positive improvements on this surface,” said Nadal. “In 2020, when I was knocked out by Medvedev, I missed the best opportunity of my career. It was one of the most painful defeats that season.”
The defeat stopped Nadal short of a third title match at the ATP Tour’s season finale, after he reached that stage in 2010 and 2013. He has another golden opportunity to rectify that this year.