When it comes to social media, Rafael Nadal considers himself old-school. He doesn’t find it easy to do an Instagram Live chat, like Novak Djokovic, or tweet a storm about a trending topic, like Roger Federer. But in a wide-ranging conversation on Thursday, the now-34-year-old Spaniard looked as comfortable as he would normally be this week, at Roland Garros, while chatting on Zoom from his uncle’s home in Mallorca.
The only technological gaffe? Not charging his computer long enough.
When Rafa was conversing with Roland Garros television rightsholders for nearly an hour, there was a sense of normalcy in a tumultuous year: long, thoughtful answers from the 19-time Grand Slam champion to seemingly benign questions—it felt like a typical Nadal press conference.
That was a welcome sight, because even if the US Open and French Open are contested later this year, more virtual pressers may be in order, to comply with social distancing and fight the ever-present threat of the coronavirus.
“We need the medicine,” Nadal said, referencing the elusive COVID-19 vaccine. “We need the vaccination. We have full confidence on the investigation, that they will find things. That's going to be the key of the success on the world in general. I really hope that for next year we will have this done and we will be able to play again tennis in a safe and normal situation.
“I miss, of course, playing tennis. But I miss normal life the most.”
Nadal has lamented—but, of course, understands—the reduction of human contact and curtailing of societal norms during the pandemic, and has made such comments before. On April 27, he was asked in an interview with Marca if he yearned for a return to competition. “Yes,” Nadal said, “But to some degree, right now, I think I’ve internalized the issue, and since I don’t see a quick solution, I’m not in that mindset where I want to compete.”
More than a month later, Nadal’s mentality hasn’t appeared to have changed. Unlike many players, he doesn’t appear keen on playing an exhibition event, instead preferring to remain near home, waiting for an official calendar to be released. “That's why it’s not the moment to be 100 percent,” Nadal said of his lack of extensive training or desire to be playing. “That's why it's the moment to just go, practice a little bit, to stay with calm, to enjoy a little bit the comeback on the tennis court, enjoy a little bit the comeback to normal life. That's the main thing.
Though he added, “I didn’t forget how to play tennis.”
When Nadal does return, he could be defending two Grand Slam titles over the course of a month-and-a-half, in New York and Paris. The four-time US Open champion said he would not feel comfortable traveling to New York City today, but hoped that would change in a few months, when the tournament could conceivably be played.
From a pure tennis perspective, playing those two tournaments—in all likelihood without fans, or with limited capacity, to Nadal’s sadness—will feel completely different to him than before.
“I don’t feel myself defending anything,” Nadal said of the 4,000 ATP ranking points he will have to defend at some point. “I feel like starting from zero.”
“I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know exactly the calendar. Of course, every single day we have new situations, we have new information about what's going to happen, what's not going to happen, which tournament is going to be played or not. I don't want to make any predictions.”
Rafael Nadal on the prospect of fan-less tournaments:
While it may sound like Nadal was in a somber mood during the conversation, he was his usual engaging self, comfortable and eager to trade verbal volleys—a phalanx of reporters were on deck, for another Zoom session.
“All the normal people and all the people who want a peaceful and good world, we are against racism, poverty, all the terrible stuff which is happening in this world more often than we would like,” Nadal said later on, about the George Floyd protests in the United States.
“When you see all these disasters on the streets, my feeling is that is not the way to protest,” he added, about violent confrontations and riots. “That’s not a good example. The situation is critical but I really believe strongly in people and I really believe that we will be able to fix the problems.”
Nadal is nothing if not a realist, about life and about his sport. He wants to wait for the right time to return. He is being as cautious as possible about the coronavirus, given its impact on tennis. He wants to use his position on the ATP Player Council in a significant way, during a time when significant action is required.
Part of that is Nadal, the person. It’s also Nadal, the citizen, who quickly booked a flight back to Spain from Indian Wells upon hearing from tournament owner (and housemate during the BNP Paribas Open) Larry Ellison that everything had to shut down. At first thinking the decision was a joke—read: in disbelief—Nadal has seen the devastation of the pandemic firsthand, in his country. One of his doctors “almost left us” while afflicted with COVID-19, according to his public relations manager, Benito Perez-Barbadillo.
For now, the only tennis we’ll see from Nadal are replays of his many conquests. There are plenty to choose from, particularly from the French Open.
“The first two sets against Novak in the  semifinals were great, one of the best matches I've played at Roland Garros,” replied Nadal when asked about his best match in Paris. “In 2017, I didn’t drop a set. I can’t tell you one single match.”
At the 2017 French Open, Nadal wasn’t even pushed beyond 6-4 in a single set. You could probably watch the entire tournament on one full charge.