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At midday on Saturday, Carlos Moya strolled through the Roland Garros players' restaurant with a ludo board in his hand, a sure sign that Rafael Nadal and two other Spanish players were about to take each other on.
Moya, a former world No. 1 and current coach of the 11-time Roland Garros champion, felt calm as they arrived in Paris. He knows his mission has been accomplished. In just over a month, Nadal has found his top form on clay and enters the tournament on a wave of confidence.
Before Nadal's first-round match against Yannick Hanfmann, Moya spoke with ATPTour.com about coming through the biggest crisis since he joined the Spaniard’s team.
Have these been your most difficult days as Nadal's coach?
Without a doubt.
Let's go right to the start, his knee injury in the Indian Wells quarter-finals.
When we get back from a tournament that he had to withdraw from, the next two or three days are not easy. For someone as competitive as him, seeing that he can’t play because of an injury is really tough. I thought it would be the same this time, but it was much worse. I tried to understand his situation and was going through it with him. The team's job was to support and listen.
Nadal said before his opening round this fortnight that “I've recovered my inner energy.” When and where did he lose it?
It doesn't go away overnight, just like getting it back. A lot of things have happened in recent years and the results have been very good considering how little he has played. It's true that you reach a tipping point, and that came after Indian Wells, when we got back to Mallorca.
The recovery from the knee injury was relatively easy. What was difficult was his mental and physical recovery. That was evident at tournaments. It came as no surprise to those of us that see him daily. I was surprised that he won three matches in Monte-Carlo because we arrived there very underprepared and in a bad state of mind.
There are a lot of people that maybe don't fully appreciate why he played badly in those weeks. Could you explain that?
He wasn't physically fit and his ball speed was slower. He was making more mistakes than normal, running less, arriving late. There was a lot of hesitation about attacking or defending. But above all, the mid-court shot that stops your opponent coming into the court wasn't working.
Recovery is practically synonymous with Nadal. Was it different this time?
Time cures everything. If you don't have that passion and you lose before you should, you get into a deep rut. In that regard, he took the opportunity to keep playing when it would have been easier to stop.
There were critical moments. Rafa was strong-minded in Barcelona, giving his all despite knowing that he was not playing his best. That was what gave him the chance to come back and recover. He had a good tournament in Madrid, although he lost to Tsitsipas, and Rome was where the confirmation came.
You mention Barcelona as a critical moment. Nadal said after winning Rome that "the first match in Barcelona was a disaster, probably the least energetic match I have played in my career.”
I'd never seen Rafa like that, even less so in the clay season. His head was down and he was not motivated. He lost his passion and desire. It's unusual for that to happen at a tournament in Spain and on clay. We encouraged him to keep fighting. He was in a difficult situation, but he had to keep looking forward.
He always says that the day when he loses his excitement, passion and desire will be the day when it is time to do something else.
A withdrawal is far more demanding than two or three bad matches or a bad month. I was worried that this clay season might not go well and about what he might be thinking. Rafa was very professional. He recognised that he was not doing well and took the chance to keep competing. To me, that was the only way of getting out of the rut.
He did what was required. He played with a positive attitude and a brave face. It seems surreal that he is playing so well a few weeks later. That was my hope and the hope of the whole team.
It is surprising to see one of the strongest minds in the history of sport get that low.
It's hard, but they're phases that a professional player goes through. Other players, including myself, have experienced what he’s been through many times. In the end, the team has to adapt to what is happening. When I see that it's all OK, the demands are higher. And when he's like that… he needs more affection, more dialogue, reasons why it's important to keep going. Everyone has been through this, including Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
How did you talk to him about it
With common sense. He was quite receptive. That's life. When you are feeling like Rafa was, you tend to be more receptive, more alert to the signs and more open to talk about what is happening.
How is he feeling coming into Roland Garros?
He’s feeling well. It's a little different to previous years, with fewer matches in his legs and perhaps he's fresher for it. He would normally start the clay season very well, but his intensity would drop later and then pick up again in Paris. This year is the first time since I’ve been with him that he has been constantly progressing, although that doesn't mean much either.
Who are the favourites?
All the players who have won clay tournaments so far. We're still expecting things from Alexander Zverev and Federer is playing very well. It'll be between those players.
Was Nadal in that group before Rome?
Yes, because he was progressing.
What about before Barcelona?
If Roland Garros came before Barcelona, it’s unlikely he would have won it a month ago. My hope is that there’s still time and that what happened over this time is something which can happen to any big player. That's why we encouraged him to fight, to be positive and take a step forward. The only way of getting through the crisis was to play. In Barcelona that worked, but he was less sure of himself in Madrid. It’s a more difficult tournament for him because of the altitude.
I suggested he not play in Madrid. We talked about it, as we have before, and it's always his choice. He was scared he would lose his form again and have to deal with several bad matches and an unexpected defeat. He was fragile and thought he might fall into that vortex again, but he decided to play and it worked out.
But didn't losing to Tsitsipas hurt him?
No, it didn't. It could have, but he recovered well from that defeat. We tried to show him the positive things he had done.
You said that this doesn't happen overnight, but in Australia, he seemed to be in perfect form.
It’s not just about that. You have to look at recent years. He's played fewer tournaments than he wanted because he's been injured. Like it or not, there are very few weeks when we can train fully. All of that wears him down, particularly him because he’s a competitive animal.
Did he suffer from the way he lost in the Melbourne final?
A little, yes. It's a Grand Slam final. He probably realised that he was not on the same level as Djokovic. My job was also to make him consider what he had done before the final, while being clear that the last match was not good. But to make him see that the way he played those first six matches, with the new serve, being more aggressive and pressuring the opponents… is the way to lengthen his career and avoid wear and tear.
He managed to do that in Melbourne after five months without matches. Sometimes it's a case of building his self-belief and other times you have to reduce it, although it is unusual that he thinks he is playing incredibly well. It's a case of finding balance.
You have already convinced him to play less, but it seems like if it were in your hands, he would train for 30 minutes a day at most.
We trained in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona because he needed more court time. We did morning and afternoon sessions in Madrid, then less in Rome because he was playing better. We’re doing just one session here. What I always try to tell him is to train efficiently, that the quality should be as high as possible. Being on court for the sake of it… I don't believe in doing it at his age. It’s a different story at 18, as with everything.
Are you taking extra precautions?
No. Things continue to happen that the press doesn't know about, although they are less severe. He has tried to recover mentally and we have adapted to the situation by seeing how he is. From there, everything changed; training, the time we spent on court, exercises…we had to have an emergency plan. It's different having a very motivated player who is playing very well instead of having one who has lost their passion and desire.
Source: ATP World Tour