Rafael Nadal’s latest comments have been perceived to be a swipe at Novak Djokovic, yet that may never have been his intention.
Translated interviews often throw up mixed messaging and Nadal’s compelling chat with Movistar+ in Spain has resulted in some conflicted reporting on what he said about Djokovic.
Yet the quotes offer a less inflammatory view when they are viewed in their entirety.
When Nadal was asked about Djokovic seemingly winning the battle to secure the most Grand Slam after he collected three more major titles in 2023, he offered a response that has been seen by some as evidence that he is bitter to have lost out in the statistical battle that will probably decide who will go down in history as the greatest player of all time.
“I’m not frustrated for a simple reason,” said Nadal about Djokovic moving ahead of him in the Grand Slam title race.
“I believe that within my possibilities I have done everything in my power to have things go as well as possible for me.”
He was then asked whether he lives with frustration despite a career that saw him win a remarkable 22 Grand Slam titles and he replied: “It is possible. Of course it is possible.”
Nadal then moved the focus of the conversation to Djokovic as he added: I think Novak, in that sense, lives things more intensely than the way I have lived them.
“For him, I think it would have been a bigger frustration if he had not achieved it… and maybe that’s the reason he achieved it.”
While it was hardly a glowing endorsement of Djokovic’s achievements, it was hardly a slap down for a rival he has duelled with over the last 15 years.
Essentially, this was an injured sportsman suggesting there was nothing he could do about Djokovic’s continued dominance of the game and suggesting the Serbian’s hunger for more and more success was the driving factor behind his success.
Djokovic’s fans on social media tend to be easily offended and predictably, they have described Nadal’s comments as ‘salty’.
Yet the truth must be that the 14-time French Open winner was merely complimenting Djokovic’s drive and commitment at a time when he is missing out on the chance to play in the biggest events in tennis.
Nadal and Djokovic have had something of a chequered personal relationship, but that may be inevitable between two players who have been challenging for the same prizes for so long.
Add in Nadal’s friendship with Roger Federer – the third member of the ‘Big Three’ in this golden era of the men’s game – and Djokovic has always looked like the outsider in the narrative.
Yet that facet of this tale is secondary to the fact that the Nadal we saw being interviewed on Spanish TV was speaking from a place few elite sportsmen have enjoyed.
As British tennis great Andy Murray has highlighted in recent years, sporting heroes find it hard to accept their time is up at the top of the sport and that is the position Nadal finds himself in now.
READ MORE: Rafael Nadal makes pointed comment over Novak Djokovic’s Grand Slam record
Like Murray, the Spanish icon wants to believe there is more glory in his shattered body, yet reality is a bitter pill to swallow.
So it is inevitable that he is agitated by the sight of a player who has been his leading rival sweeping all before him in his absence.
If he is being honest, Nadal was also frustrated by the sight of compatriot Carlos Alcaraz stepping into his shoes and becoming the new hero of Spanish tennis of the last year and more.
This is the new world for a giant of the game who is struggling with foot and hip problems that may well end his career and he will take time to adjust to it.
A moment will come when Nadal has to accept he can no longer compete with Djokovic and the new contenders knocking on his door and all of us who love tennis hope that decision is still some way in the distance.
Yet after so long away from the court and at the age of 37, Nadal will know his hopes of making it back to the top and fighting out one last battle with Djokovic in a Grand Slam final may be gone.
That will be more frustrating than anything his rivals are doing on court right now.