– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
MONTRÉAL — More than his undeniable talent, incessant determination on the court and a limitless amount perseverance to ascend back to the top of the game of tennis when his peers and/or injuries have knocked him off of that perch, there is one difference maker in Rafael Nadal’s extraordinary career that stands out as much as those aforementioned traits which have made him the world icon he is. Surprisingly enough, it’s not on his person.
It’s other people. The same people. The ones that have had words of praise — as well as constructive criticism and honest assessments — at the ready for Nadal for over 20 years. That familiar and familial feeling may very well be the separator between the still hegemonic “old guard” of tennis that reigns today and the game’s future.
After defeating Daniel Evans to advance to the Round of 16 at the Coupe Rogers ATP Masters 1000 tournament, Nadal opened up a little about the direct relationship between his team — one that includes longstanding coach Toni Nadal, his uncle, and former World No. 1 Carlos Moya, on Nadal’s staff since the start of 2017 — and the success he has had on the court, and wondered aloud if the lack of having consistent voices in a camp plays the integral part in some of the “NextGen” class not breaking through to share the same rarefied air as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and himself.
“Important thing is have a group of people around you that they feel free enough to tell you if you are doing
the things right or not right,” Nadal said. “When you are changing people around you, very often is difficult to find this confidence.”
That crisis in confidence of talented youngsters has been highlighted a great deal on tour in 2019, from mercurial Nick Kyrgios, the Australian talent who took potshots at Nadal, Djokovic and other tennis professionals before this year’s French Open, to the highest-achieving NextGen player so far, Alexander Zverev, who openly admitted that his confidence was “below zero” after his first-round loss at Wimbledon last month while also alluding to being weighed down by issues involving his now ex-agent going into SW19.
Kyrgios, who remains without a coach, followed up his tournament victory in Washington D.C. last week with a first-round loss to Kyle Edmund here in Montréal, a match where he went on a tirade and collected a code violation over not being provided a white towel quickly enough. (Yes, that happened.) Zverev, who won the title in Montréal when the men were here last in 2017, lost in the quarterfinals to Karen Khachanov on Thursday afternoon.
“To build this confidence, the player needs to give [his team] the confidence that they can tell you what is the real thing for them, not what you want to hear all the time,” Nadal said. “In my opinion, is difficult to build that in a short period of time.”
Assembling a team for a top player is already an arduous endeavor even before adding the tricky aspect of being around the delicate psyches that a number of top-level tennis players possess. Too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth, especially when no one is brave enough to question the tactics of the chef de cuisine.
“Tennis has a problem that, normally the player pays the coach and the physio, the team. That sometimes creates an atmosphere that the people who are around the player are little bit more scared about saying the real things to the player,” Nadal said.
Playing without fear is what makes Nadal special, and having his team around him show no fear when evaluating the 18-time Grand Slam champion has manifested itself in all of his successes on and off the court.
“If you have the same team for a long time, of course they know that they work,” Nadal said before having a little laugh at the end. “[They] are not in danger if they say one thing…or another thing.”