The 35-year-old, who has amassed 20 Grand Slams, 13 French Open titles and two Olympic golds over the years, is well-known for his shy demeanour.
In a remarkable interview with former Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg, conducted on board Nadal’s power yacht, the Spaniard provided a rare glimpse into his mindset revealing why, even with a history of dominance, he has never once felt entitled to his success.
Starting with Nadal’s target to return to the court following a foot injury that has caused him to miss several landmark calendar dates including Tokyo 2020, Rosberg probed him on how he feels about the inevitable climb back to the top:
“I had a very tough period of time in terms of my foot injury,” Nadal shared candidly. “Of course, I’m going to have some doubts, but I know the process – I have been there plenty of times.”
The King of Clay’s career has often times been marred by niggles and pains. This year’s injury failed to see him win enough ranking points to qualify for the ATP Finals. It is the first time since 2004 that he has missed the event.
“It’s true that every time that when you get older it gets more difficult, but I am very excited with the process, with the things that I have to do to try to be back."
"So, even with doubts, I am confident that if I am able to play without much pain, I will have my chances.”
Rafael Nadal: driven by self-doubt
On hearing the former world number one's answer Rosberg pointed out that he was painting a conflicting emotional image of himself, of a man stuck between doubt and confidence: “It’s like there's two Rafas,” the ex-Mercedes driver said.
“I think doubts are good,” Nadal replied. “Doubts let you work the proper way, I think.”
Rather than necessarily seeing a lack of belief in your own abilities as a negative, the man from Mallorca believes it can drive you to improve:
“When you have doubts you always work with the goal that you never think it’s enough.”
“It can be better, it can be better… but at the same time, if you have confidence that working the proper way you will be able to be back."
Nadal’s personality matched with his gladiatorial, never-say-die style of play has won him not just legions of global fans, but also the respect of his peers who often point him out as the humblest man ever. That trait became clear when he talked about the consequences of believing you are beyond doubt:
“If you don’t have doubts in this life, it’s because you are too arrogant, I think.”
“Because, in this life, most of the things are not 100% clear. So, you need to have doubts. You need to ask yourself what’s the right thing to do. I have been humble enough during all my career to not consider myself 'too good to not have doubts' - that’s why it’s been hard work during my entire tennis career.”
That’s not to say that confidence is not valuable, the Spanish sporting great thinks it has its place, but only in a limited way:
“I think being, sometimes, arrogant and very self-confident can help you for a while, but if that, in some way, doesn’t give you the chance to work the proper way, with the goal to improve, it can be a negative way in everything in life.”
Novak Djokovic: the "machine"
Rosberg then turned to one of Nadal's greatest on-court rivals.
Where does the tennis superstar think, Novak Djokovic, sits on his scale of doubt and confidence?
“He’s more a machine in terms of mentality,” the 88-time ATP singles winner let slip before then adding, “but I am sure he has his doubts too.”
2021 has been a mixed bag for Djokovic. Though the Serbian eclipsed Roger Federer’s all-time mark of 310 weeks at number one, the 20-time major winner also failed in his target to achieve either the ‘Golden slam’ or the ‘Career Grand Slam.’
Djokovic admitted after this year’s US Open that the pressure to achieve the latter weighed down on him significantly.
Nadal then shared that he believed there was no one route to success and that everyone needs to judge what is best for them: “We have different characters. Both [confidence and doubt] are good, and you need to find your way. That’s my point of view.”
"There's no one way to have success, or accomplish your dreams. There are different ways, and you need to find your personal one."