London 2012 is just two days away from officially commencing, but Rafael Nadal will unfortunately not be present to defend his Olympic Games title.
The Spaniard's knee injury has dashed any hopes of him participating, but hope remains the French Open winner will compete at the US Open in Flushing Meadows in August.
An avid poker player, Nadal recently sat down with HuffPost UK blogger Victoria Coren for a lengthy discussion about his injury, the Olympics, football, tennis and poker.
Rafa and the Olympics
Victoria Coren: Why have you pulled out of the Olympic squad?
Rafael Nadal: It’s sadly down to my knee. It’s a problem I was suffering from at Wimbledon and I simply haven’t recovered fully enough to play. It’s such a huge shame because the Olympic Games only come around every 4 years but this is life and I hope to be back soon.
VC: Who is your favourite to win Olympic gold in London?
RN: Tennis at the Olympic Games is such a special competition. Also because it’s on grass and it’s the best of 3 sets everybody can win…However I’m really patriotic so I wish David Ferrer or any Spanish player wins the Olympic Gold.
Rafa’s Sporting Heroes
VC: Which sportsman or woman do you admire the most?
RN: I admire a lot of people, but in terms of sport I’ve always loved the mentality of Tiger Woods on a golf course. I always love his eyes when he’s setting himself and focusing on his decision, he has a really strong, focused face and believes that he can make the shot.
So it’s not so much the physical skill, it’s the mental strength you admire and determination?
RN: For sure, with golf it’s not a physically demanding sport like tennis. That’s what makes tennis great, you combine both things. It’s a very mental sport and at the same time can be dramatically physical. But I do admire the mentality of sport more than the physicality because physical performance is much easier to practice than mental performance.
Football, Tennis or Poker?
VC: You could have been a professional footballer but you chose tennis. Why?
RN: I was much better playing tennis than football! I love football but I love tennis too and I think I made the right choice. I do love team sports though and in tennis you don’t get much of a chance to play in a team, it’s only really when we are representing our country, and that’s something I miss.
VC: That’s interesting because poker is also a solo game. You can take advice, you can have a coach, you can have friends, but when the poker tournament starts you’re alone, it’s one man against the world, like tennis. I thought you might enjoy that, just you alone?
RN: That’s true. You’re alone and no one can help you, you need to overcome bad situations yourself and I think this is great because it’s a big challenge, you know? For example, in football if you’re not playing well it’s not the end because there are other players on the pitch, but with tennis if you’re playing badly you’re out. That’s why tennis is a very mental sport and you need to give one hundred per cent every day, and mentally you need to be one hundred per cent.
VC: So like poker, almost more important than skill is having the character to deal with winning and losing and staying calm and playing again?
RN: Yeah, it’s something I think I’ve shown in my career – you have to accept both losing and winning well. I’ve stayed calm when I’m winning and I’ve stayed calm when I’ve lost. Tennis is a sport where we have a lot of tournaments every week, so you can’t celebrate a lot when you have big victories, and you cannot get too down when you’re losing as in a few days you’ll be in the next tournament and you’ll have to be ready with that.
Rafa & Poker
VC: Everyone knows you’re one of the greatest tennis players in the world, but poker is something new for you. As such a competitive guy, does the world of poker make you nervous?
RN: No, not at all! I don’t mind being number 200 in the world, or being the worst poker player in the world – what I always do is try my best at everything I do. Even if I’m just playing golf with my friends I want to try my best and work really hard, and so with poker I’m looking to keep improving day by day. PokerStars has given me my own coach and I’m getting advice from their players around the world so I should progress!
VC: What mental skills does it take to win at tennis that you can bring to a game like poker?
RN: Well, you definitely have to be passionate and very, very focused because this isn’t a sport of perseverance or luck, it’s one of skill – you need to know what to do in every moment, just as you do in tennis. You also need very good self-control like in tennis. There are a few similarities.
Luck of the Draw
VC: How much can a bit of luck help in a decisive moment of the match?
RN: Well, in tennis, because of the way it’s scored, I don’t think that scoring one point out of luck is ever decisive in winning. But, of course, it depends on the moment. It could make things easier for you at certain times, but winning and losing a match depends on a great deal of points. I don’t think that luck or a fortunate moment is decisive in tennis in any circumstances.
Rafa on Roland-Garros
VC: How did you feel when you won at Roland-Garros against Novak Djokovic?
RN: Obviously I was happy – I’d been losing some important matches for a while, although in Monte-Carlo and Rome I had managed to change the dynamic a little. But in the end Paris was very important for me because I felt prepared for it, for the match after losing against him previously, and luckily everything turned out well. It was a very emotional moment and I was pleased.
VC: Every year that you come back to Roland-Garros do you think that you have every chance of winning the tournament again?
RN: Not at all. Every year that I’ve won Roland-Garros, I’ve never stated feeling I have a chance of winning. I feel like it’s a difficult journey and I have to take it one step at a time. And then you have to try and see how you’re feeling on a day-to-day basis, as the tournament goes on you realise more how you’re feeling – whether you’re performing as you wanted or a bit worse. You try to find a positive attitude and feel the best you possibly can every day.
VC: Can a tennis player start by winning a freeroll and then manage to win a main event like Wimbledon?
RN: Yes, um, obviously there would be a period of learning, a period of time in which he would have to go through various phases. For example, when I was 14 or 15, I competed in smaller events I think that thanks to the work and daily improvement I managed to go up each year, gradually, until I reached the top level, professional level and obviously in 2005 I won at Roland-Garros – a big tournament.
Rafa Nadal, one of the world’s greatest sportsmen, has joined the PokerStars team and he is currently being taught to play by the brand. Follow Rafa’s progress as he learns a new sport.