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BR Exclusive: Rafael Nadal Talks French Open, 'Choose Your Way to Live' and More

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2021

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates with the trophy after winning the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Sunday, May 16, 2021. Nadal defeated Serbia's Novak Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

If Rafael Nadal was ever going to let the pressure get to him, it might be at the 2021 French Open.  

Good thing he thrives in it.

"The day when [you don't feel pressure] is the day to say goodbye," he told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Without those emotions, the pressure, it's difficult to play at your best level. I think you need to feel these feelings. It's always a personal pressure, I want to play well, I know the things that I need to do and I know if I am able to play at my highest level I hope to have my chances to play well and to be very competitive there."

Nadal will be looking to make history when this year's French Open starts Monday.

He and Roger Federer are tied with the men's singles record of 20 Grand Slam titles, and it would be a surprise at this point if the King of Clay didn't move into first place on the all-time list with a 21st during the next few weeks.

After all, 13 of Nadal's major championships have come at Roland Garros, and he sports a sparkling 100-2 overall record at the French Open.

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His most recent French Open title came in October when he cruised past Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the final of the tournament that was postponed four months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The victory made him the first player in men's or women's tennis to win 13 championships at any one tour-level event.

Nadal, who turns 35 in June, may not get a better opportunity to move past Federer than a second shot at his best major in an eight-month span, but he is focused more on the tournament itself than the overall big picture.

"I am not approaching the event like it's an amazing opportunity to achieve the 21st Grand Slam," he said. "I'm approaching Roland Garros like I am playing probably the most important event of my tennis career. ... Of course, I would love to have [the 21st], but for me, it's about Roland Garros."

Such razor-sharp focus on the immediate task at hand has helped Nadal become a legend on the court, but he also values his time off it with his family and friends.

That is why he partnered with Amstel ULTRA for its "Choose Your Way to Live" campaign that focuses on finding an active and balanced lifestyle that also includes the important moments away from tennis.

"Amstel thinking about me as a global ambassador is something that I'm very proud of," Nadal said after filming commercials at his home island of Mallorca. "... I am quite happy, I think we're going to have fun and we're going to make some beautiful moments together. ... I am quite comfortable with the company, so I am very excited."

On the court, he is fresh off a record-extending 10th Italian Open title after defeating Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3, in the final.

Djokovic told reporters "there is no tougher challenge" than facing Nadal in a clay-court final, which is quite the statement coming from the world's No. 1 player.

"With Roger and Novak, we have been fighting together for such a very, very long time," Nadal said when asked about the comment. "We have a lot of respect for each other, we know how difficult it is to win events when we're playing against each other. It's always beautiful to receive a compliment like Novak said."

No two men have played against each other more in the Open Era than Nadal and Djokovic's 57 matches, and the latter holds a narrow 29-28 lead in the all-time series. Yet Nadal now enjoys a 6-3 advantage in Rome and a 4-2 mark in the event's final.

Few tournaments mean more to him than the one where he won his first title in 2005 as an 18-year-old, and the latest victory only bolstered his confidence heading into the French Open.

"It's a very important event, one of the most historic events in the world of tennis," he said. "For me personally, it's a very special one because I've won this event nine times before the 10th this year, it's a very special place for me. My evolution during the last month has been positive, and the last event was my best event ... that gives me confidence, in some way I think I needed a week like this."

The Italian Open win on clay only underscored Nadal's position as the commanding favorite at Roland Garros, even if he is older at this stage of his career.

"It's similar, but the age is different so the approach is a little bit different," he said of preparation for the tournament. "I have a little bit more passion now than years ago, but that's all about experience."

It's easy to be passionate about dominance, especially when it could result in the most men's Grand Slam titles in history.

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