There are not many coaches who can read the game quite like Francisco Roig. The former player makes up one half of Rafael Nadal’s coaching team alongside Carlos Moya, and has worked with the former World No. 1 since 2005.
ATPTour.com discusses with Roig the Spaniard’s form going into Roland Garros. Nadal lifted his 12th title in Barcelona and claimed victory at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Rome, but fell short in the quarter-finals of Monte-Carlo (l. Rublev) and Madrid (l. Zverev).
According to Roig, his pupil stands out in three important areas: listening, working hard and never giving up. But there is still room to improve in two key areas as they look ahead to Paris, where Nadal is vying for a record-extending 14th Coupe des Mousquetaires.
There was just one week between defeat to Alexander Zverev in Madrid and the win over him in Rome. What changed?
A lot. Rafa likes – and I would say needs – to have the feeling of being in control of the match, knowing what he has to do and executing it. This is more difficult in Madrid, even though he’s won there many times. Also, he lost to Zverev, who has a tremendous serve, so it was very dependent on his own serve, knowing that one bad game can cost you the set. Everything is much more complicated.
When he arrived in Rome, this disappeared. He was hitting the ball well and we had a few days to train. I think he felt pretty good and competed well. That’s what changed.
That day, it seemed like he rediscovered his spark. Was it a turning point?
I agree, to an extent. That spark was partly due to how nervy he was. Having won two difficult matches against [Jannik] Sinner, which is a very tough first round, and against [Denis] Shapovalov [who had two match points] gives you peace of mind on court. In the final, it was very noticeable. When Rafa finds that peace of mind, he is calm and can execute without rushing, and I think everything goes much better. Finding that confidence is essential for him and for every other player.
How did he progress in Rome compared to Barcelona?
It’s like night and day. We had to overcome what happened in Monte-Carlo, where he was feeling very good in practice, but he didn’t on the day against [Andrey] Rublev – which was strange for him, but this is sport and it can happen. It’s not mathematical.
How was that week in Barcelona?
The demands of always having to win meant that he would arrive in Barcelona with a few tough days. The first match against [Ilya] Ivashka was fine, but he had his ups and downs, and didn’t find his game. Mentally he coped well, and in terms of his game, in particular, I think that his forehand wasn’t working as well as it should. He didn’t hit many winners, hit a lot of mid-court balls…
In the end, the most positive thing was winning the tournament against [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, who was in first position in the Race [FedEx ATP Race to Turin] and had just won in Monte-Carlo.
How was Rafa’s game different in Rome?
In Madrid, he felt good in training, but the handicap of the altitude meant he couldn’t find that feeling of control in the match. In Rome he still trained pretty well, with a few faults, but he was hitting the ball well. I liked how he was training; regardless of any mistakes he was hitting well. And that’s what was happening, the ball was doing what it should. Then, in competition he was hitting winners because he grew into it, he was brave and decisive. If you’re not playing well, you have no opportunities to attack.
From what he says, we can see that the way he feels the ball is the most important thing.
If you look at the stats, you’ll see that Rafa is a player who isn’t too suited to long points. If that happens, it means that the quality of the ball is not so good because he hasn’t been able to finish it off. It’s strange to think that, but the stats show it is true.
It’s true that in the Rome final, for example, Novak Djokovic dominated the longest points.
That’s right, 20-5 on points longer than nine shots. Those long points happen when Rafa isn’t hitting the ball as well as he needs to, but he is able to play another shot. But when he hits it well, in three or four shots he can finish it with a good deep return, going into the net…
Somehow, it is more rewarding to hit the ball well and then the tactical side comes in. I think that although a long match suits him – because mentally he’s a player who wears you down a lot as he fights for every ball – he also understands that he has to try and put everything into his shots so that he doesn’t have to play points that are too long.
What are the positives for him so far on this clay swing?
What I’ve liked most is that he is always ready to give his all, to listen, to work on it and give it a try. He has maintained his passion for many years now and coped with the utmost demands of having to defend many points during this swing, because it’s the part of the year he gets the most from. He hasn’t dipped in 16 or 17 years, with a few exceptions. I’m happy with this, the good form in Rome and coming into Roland Garros.
What would you say he needs to fine tune for the last clay event in Paris?
For Roland Garros, I think it’s important to have more mobility. In terms of his stamina, he’s been very good, coping in matches, but I think we have room for improvement in movement. He could still be a little more dynamic in both forward and lateral movement. And he can also work on his serve, although it has been increasingly better. In fact, against Djokovic it was pretty good.
Which player demands the most respect on clay?
Djokovic is probably the opponent that can cause the most problems, along with Tsitsipas, Zverev and Thiem. However, if Thiem recovers the tempo and confidence he normally shows on clay, I would say I can’t see any difference between him and Djokovic. Since winning the US Open, he has dropped a little, but I’m sure he’ll be playing well enough at Roland Garros and he’ll be a very tough opponent. He’s a very complete player, who demands a lot on every shot. If you leave a ball slightly short, the point is over. Physically, he’s very demanding.
Despite the passing of the years and the demands of the clay swing, as you have said, the player that demands the most respect is still Djokovic and the one that continues to dominate is still Nadal.
In the [ATP] Masters 1000s it has spread out a little more and it’s clear that they’re getting closer. But in the five-set Grand Slam matches, I still see those two as favourites.