Rafael Nadal, boy and man. I have observed every step of his extraordinary transformation from the fresh-faced junior tennis talent, to the leaping powerhouse electrifying crowds sporting his unique pirate garb, to respected 'veteran'. The oldest French Open Champion, joint record holder of 20 Grand Slam Titles with over 1000 ATP victories. Indeed, the youth I first interviewed in 2002 has become the finest ambassador, not only his sport, but his much-loved home of Mallorca. In fact, the pride of Spain.
Throughout Rafa has displayed the well-adjuster, courteous manners that has made him admired by press and adored by fans. The perfect role model of his solid Mallorcan family upbringing. I have watched him during his post-match interviews. Hair still wet from the shower, studying his match statistics. Always humble in victory and gracious in even in the bitterest of defeats. Never have I heard him cite injury after a loss. Even if it later transpires, he was indeed in pain. He will always credit his opponent to playing better on the day. "That's sport" he'll say with a shrug. His battle back from serious injury nothing short of miraculous, and highlights not only his love of tennis, but his ambition, passion and focus on being the best.
While over top sportsman have made homes in tax havens, Rafa has been content to give back to the island he loves, remaining happiest at home with his roots. To complete the picture, last year he married his girlfriend of 13 years, the beautiful Mery Perello who runs his Rafael Nadal Foundation. I was privileged to have been afforded an exclusive interview. His answers illustrating his wisdom, compassion and well-adjusted humility.
When I fist interviewed you as a 16-year-old boy after your junior Wibledon semi-finals, did you imagine you would still be playing the highest standard of tennis, making and breaking records aged 34?
- It would be very arrogant of me to say I am achieving what I expected when I was 16. At that age, I only wanted to be a professional tennis player and to win one tournament someday. My dream was to win Wimbledon, and I managed to do that for the first in 2008. A lot has happened, good results wise, since that first interview when I was 16, and I have to say I am very thankful to life. I never expected to achieve even half of what I achieving.
Your Excellency Don Rafael Nadal, what were your emotions when you first heard you had been awarded the highest honour of The Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Sporting Merit?
- I haven't really thought much about it to be honest. I am very happy with my day to day life, with my family, my team тв my friends. Very thankful also to this latest honour I have received from the Spanish government and the King.
Winning your 20th Grand Slam Title with such focus and so few unforced errors, even winning the championship with an ace, was such a huge achievement. Especially after our Spanish lockdown prevented you from playing tennis for so long. Do you think that the complete break from tennis was able to heal your body ans enable you to return to top form?
- Thanks for your kind words. I believe that the lockdown has not benefited anyone except for the purpose of trying to stop the spread of the virus. I don't think that it has benefited anyone in the tennis world, and it was difficult, together with preparing for the unknown. But in the end with a clear goal, we managed to work properly, avoiding injuries and adapting to the needs.
In my case when the body stops for a long time in definitely doesn't help, and I had to do a great deal of pre-tournament work in order to regain, not only my physical condition, but also my tennis. I am sure if you ask all players they would give you different opinions, especially based on age.
How did you keep fit during lockdown? How did you pass your time?
- I suppose like everyone else. In my case it was difficult since I am a very active person, and to be in an apartment without being able to exercise much, and do the things I am used to doing, was not easy.
So, I dedicated time to di things to help people in need. The campaign we did with Pau Gasol and the Spanish Red Cross was significant and took some time that normally I wouldn't have. We were very happy with its success, and the money we managed to collect for the people in need.
I also had some time to do things at home, such as cooking and baking. I believe what we all did!
Would you consider in the future taking Federer's route of not playing all events to maintain points, and choosing only certain championships to take part, in order to rest your body more?
- I am already playing tournaments I need to play. Not that we can choose that much since there are mandatory events. Obviously, this year was been an exception. I believe that we have been very lucky, since we can play and do what we enjoy, which is to complete. Some others are not as lucky as we are. But to your point, I am already playing those events we consider are the ones I should be playing in order to allow my career to continue.
I know your return to top form after injury has been an inspiration to Andy Murray who is battling to find his form. Have you been able to speak to him to offer advice?
- I haven't spoke much to him lately, and I know he is fighting hard to come back to the top of his level. It is never easy after such serious surgery. But the fact that he is fighting and coming back shows his love for the game and his passion for our sport.
I have seen your new yacht. Your catamaran is magnificent. The boating industry is so important to Mallorca. Why do you think people enjoy sailing so much in Mallorca?
- I believe we have the perfect conditions for boating. a beautiful sea, an astounding coastline plus fantastic weather. We are definitely very lucky with what nature has given us.
Where your favourite places to sail your boat?
- I like to sail everywhere around the Balearics. i have been lucky to travel to Sardinia that I also found beautiful. One day I would love to see all the places in the Mediterranean Sea.
Do you have any favourite restaurants to stop?
- Yes, I love to go to Sa Punta in Mallorca. I find the stop magnificent and the food is also excellent. I love fish and shellfish and there I can always find the best of the best.
How would you describe your perfect day in Mallorca?
- It all depends on what I have to do. Meaning if I have to work, practice or not. But it is not a secret that i love the sea. So, going out on a boat is one of my favourites. But it is also not a secret I love golf, and we are very lucky to have very good golf courses in the island. A combination of that, together with being with my wife, family and friends makes a perfect day for my.
I have been following 12-year-old Mallorcan Junior player Selena Romero ranked 3 worldwide. Do you feel Mallorca will be well represented in tennis in the future?
- I am sure that Spanish tennis and Balearic tennis will always find good players. we have a good tradition, as well as amazing facilities. I must talk about the Rafa Nadal Academy that I believe has everything to help players, and particularly young players, to become better people as well as better players.
When you look back on 2020, when you have spent so much more time on our beautiful island with your family, how will you personally remember the positives of this year?
- The positives are that closest to me are safe and okay, and none suffered badly from the pandemic. First for me is the health of my people, always. Then we all know it's been a year not to be happy with. A year where a lot of people have died, and a year that will bring negative consequences for the future. So, no, not that many good memories of 2020.