Rafa Nadal defied all the odds when he mounted an enormous comeback against against Daniil Medvedev at the O2 on Wednesday (and came back from a set down against Tsitsipas two days later). But perhaps we should not have been surprised because Rafa has a unique ability to be in the moment. How does he do it, and what can the rest of us learn?
There is no mistaking when play gets to match point at the ATP Finals at the O2. The lights flash all the way round the venue, screaming MATCH POINT. So when Rafa Nadal was 1-5 down against Medvedev on Wednesday, his distress was broadcast loud and clear. But Nadal came back from the brink. Not only did he save match point, he turned it around and won the match.
Afterwards, on the Tennis Channel, Paul Annacone, sometime coach to Roger Federer, said, "Nadal is not a normal person. He plays every point like it’s the last point of his life and that’s one thing that’s so incredible.”
In Rafa's autobigoraphy, his physical trainer said tennis is about "resolving emergencies, one after the other". You need extraordinary physical ability to do that but also unique mental skills and according to the ATP no one does it as well as Rafa. He is top of its Under Pressure Rating leaderborard, calculated by adding the percentage of break points converted and saved, percentage of tie-breaks won and percentage of deciding sets won.
How does he do it?
Self control. That, says Rafa, is the lesson to take from the Medvedev match. It’s not about breaking your racket. It’s about staying positive and maintaining control of yourself. "Accept the mistakes, because everybody has mistakes. You need to keep going after the mistakes. That's the only way.”
Being prepared. "You go on court every day and you don't complain when you play bad, when you have problems, when you have pains. You put on the right attitude, the right face, you are not negative about all the issues. You go on court every day with a passion to keep practising. That's the mental work." Below, check out this YouTube video of Rafa training at the Rafa Nadal Academy, describing how he prepares mentally.
By being humble. Rafa does not consider himself arrogant. "Sometimes the frustration comes when you consider yourself too good and you don't accept the mistakes that you are going. That's the only example that I can try to tell the guys. Don't consider [yourselves] too good.”
Having an uncle like Toni. When Rafa celebrated wins as a child, it was always uncle Toni who spoiled the party, telling him what he needed to work on and how much work he still had to go. Toni pushed him to improve. "All that tension in every single coaching session, right from the start, has allowed me today to face up to the difficult moments in a match with more self-control than might otherwise have been the case."
And by loving it. "I love what I am doing. I love this sport. I love playing this amazing stadiums, in front of you, that is the biggest motivation."
Below, Babolat congratulates Rafa on becoming World Number 1 - again!
— Babolat (@babolat) November 14, 2019
Find out how you could be playing tournament tennis at the Rafa Nadal Academy in March 2020 here