It’s business as usual at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, the week before Christmas.
Rafael Nadal, the “King of Clay” with 17 grand slam titles to his name, is in a good mood as he drains a can of Coke while talking about his comeback from injury and surgery following an intense two-and-a-half practice session in the morning.
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But when asked about the flash floods that struck Mallorca in October, killing 13 people, the former world No. 1 goes quiet.
“It was terrible,” Nadal told CNN Sport in an exclusive interview at his academy. “Scary, and very sad.”
Most of the deaths occured in the town of Sant Llorenç des Cardassar, near Manacor, after 20 centimeters (8 inches) of rain fell in just four hours.
“It happened in the village just next to us, just five or six kilometers away from here,” reflected the Spaniard. “It was a tough day.”
Most of his mother’s family are from Sant Llorenç. Although they were all fine, the cousin of one of his best friends and her young son were among those who died in the deluge, he said.
“I really lived that tragedy, from very close,” Nadal said. “Was very sad for all the people that lost the materials, but especially, the lives that can’t come back.”
The next day, Nadal helped out with the clean-up effort underway in Sant Llorenç, which was later declared a disaster zone after the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, visited the island.
Soon, pictures of one of the world’s greatest tennis players, covered in mud and sweeping the streets with a broom, went around the world.
“The next day, we went on court and after 10 minutes, I said ‘Guys, I can’t practice.’” he recalled about that day. “I came back, and I was here with the friends and after that, we decided to go there. That’s all.”
Nadal also opened up his academy to victims of the flash floods who were in need of shelter and this week he donated one million euros ($1.1 million) to the victims of the disaster.
READ: Nadal helps out after flash floods devastate Mallorca
Comeback on track
As for his tennis, Nadal said he simply cannot wait to come back after a long break.
Although the Spaniard enjoyed a very successful season, injury woes forced him to pull out of nine events. He last played an official match on 8 September, when his US Open title defense ended with a knee injury in the semifinals against Juan Martin Del Potro.
Then in early November – while recovering from an abdominal injury – he had surgery on his ankle.
Nadal said his recovery has been progressing better than expected.
“I am making a lot of steps forward since the surgery on the foot,” Nadal said.
“I started practising tennis one week earlier, and in higher intensity than we had thought,” continued Nadal. “It was a little bit of risk that we don’t make it into the beginning of the season, but here we are, practicing more or less hard and we are excited to start the new season.”
Earlier in the day, Nadal had been striking the ball at full force, the sound of his heavy top-spin laden shots and deep grunts reverberating through an indoor hall as he was put through his paces on his serve, return and groundstrokes by two coaches, Carlos Moya and Francisco Roig.
After one particularly grueling baseline rally against Moya and 17-year-old Pedro Vives, a student at his academy, Nadal lay flat on his back at the baseline to catch his breath.
It’s the kind of dedication that has turned him into one of the greatest tennis players in the world, winning 80 tournaments and two Olympic gold medals.
“Being honest, we are having a better off-season than last year,” Nadal said.
“Last year, I finished the year very bad with my knees,” he said, adding the 2017 off-season “had been tough, and I didn’t arrive very well prepared to the beginning.”
This isn’t the first time in his long career Nadal has come back from injury.
“I enjoy the fact that for me, it’s a challenge, always, to be back again after a tough period of time because of injuries,” said the 32-year-old. “For me, it’s a challenge to start a new season.”
The time away has also given him and his coaching team time to analyze his game and see if they can come up with improvements.
“We try things and we work on new things,” he said. “And at the end of the day, you need to go on court every day with the passion to improve something, and with the motivation to keep on going.”
Despite his injury problems in 2018, Nadal is proud of what he achieved when he did play, winning five titles, including a record-extending eleventh Roland-Garros championship.
“In a year that you finish as the world No. 2, you win a grand slam, you win Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Rome and Toronto – so three Masters 1,000s – you can’t say it’s not a good year,” he said. “Obviously, it is a good year.”
Nadal, who was also forced to retire from the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, finished just seven tournaments in the entire year.
“With all these issues … to be able to manage to keep winning important things, it has been, not a miracle, but an amazing year in terms of quality of tennis,” he said.
READ: Rafa Nadal’s secret weapon? The sea
When he is not at an event, Nadal can be found almost daily at his academy, which opened in 2016 and now has 130 students.
He has even been known to occasionally show up to a regular spinning class in the gym that’s attached to the academy, and which is open to Manacor residents.
Content with his health and fitness, Nadal said he enjoyed being away from the Tour but is ready to begin the new year at full strength.
“I am happy when I am on Tour, but I am happy without the Tour. I am happy being at home, being with the friends, being with the family, playing some golf, being out with the boat,” said Nadal.
“I enjoy life outside of the Tour, but I really know that this kind of life can wait. So I am happy outside of tennis, but of course I am not happy when I am not on the Tour because I am injured.”
He will kick off his season at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi from 27-29 December, before heading to Australia for an ATP event in Brisbane followed by the Australian Open.
“I am still excited about starting another season,” said Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came back in 2009. “At the age of 32-and-a-half, I never expected when I was 23, 22 to still do what I am. That’s something that I appreciate a lot, and I enjoy that fact.”