Feliciano López (Toledo, Spain; 1981) is the only player who has played in the tournament in each of its 15 years, an incredible achievement. In an interview with The Magazine, the man from Toledo, a lover of Madrid, looks back at his first steps in the world of tennis, talks about the evolution of the event and reveals his favourite memories before the balls start flying again in the Spanish capital.
You are the only one to have played in all 15 Mutua Madrid Opens.
I’m a bit old, but I feel lucky. 15 years now playing in the Mutua Madrid Open and it’s a very special tournament. From the first season it was held I had the chance to play thanks to an invitation they gave me. Although I was born in Toledo, and I’ve lived in Barcelona, I consider myself a native of Madrid. It was hugely exciting for a tournament of this stature to come to my city and they gave me the chance to play in it. It’s been 15 years and I have been lucky enough to play in all of them.
Why is it so special?
I would say a lot of things. The tournament in Madrid has been a success since the first year, when it was played in the Rockódromo. The people really wanted to see the best players, the organisers did a great job and the tournament became a very social event. The fans are waiting all year for tennis week to come around. The tournament is very settled in Madrid, let’s hope it stays that way for many years. In that regard, the organisers did a great job in choosing Madrid to organise an event of this magnitude. Then, it has grown, increasing the number of days and becoming a combined tournament. Like I said, the organisers have managed to create a perfect event for Madrid, with the support of all the organisations and sponsors.
How important is the tournament for the players?
Apart from the Grand Slams, Madrid is the next most important tournament, the one everyone wants to win. Despite not having as much history as events like Monte Carlo and Rome, for example, Madrid has always been special and attracted the best, which is not easy to do. We players are aware of the importance of the Madrid tournament. It’s a unique event for many reasons. When we go around the world playing tournaments we realise: in Madrid there are things that are important for us and they make the difference. We have the best food in the world, for example. We have a lot of things here that we do not in other places. It is the result of the organisers’ hard work to keep us players happy.
How has the tournament evolved?
There has been a very big change, above all when it moved from the Rockódromo to the Caja Mágica. It’s obvious that the tournament has improved, although for me personally I play better in other conditions, on a fast, indoor court. My game suits that tournament better. In terms of its international reach, the growth is outstanding with the move to the Caja Mágica. Of course, the memories of when the tournament started are unforgettable. I remember that in my first year I won a couple of matches and played against Andre Agassi, who was one of the top three in the world at the time. I was on the verge of beating him and that match kind of made me realise I can compete with the best. I was 19 or 20 years old, just a kid. People started to get to know me, until then they didn’t know much about me. That match was a turning point.
Because I will never forget it. They are one-off moments in your career that stay with you. I hadn’t had the chance to play against a player like him in front of so many people shouting my name before. People got excited about me and it was something new. It was unforgettable, even though the match got away from me. It’s funny, there are other great matches I have won here, but I have two or three very good memories of matches that I ended up losing. The fans have been exceptional with me and also with everyone.
Manolo Santana is essential to the growth you mention.
Yes, Manolo has been present from the start and has been the face of the tournament on an international level. He is a very well-loved and respected person in the world of tennis, not just in Spain. It has been perfect that he is always there lending his support, let’s hope he continues to do so for many years to come.
We spoke about the evolution of the tournament, how much has tennis changed during those years?
Tennis has progressed a lot in several ways. The courts have changed, as have the balls, the racquets and all the other materials. Before, you played with a wooden racquet that weighed a tonne and it was impossible to hit a winner from the baseline. People used their heads to play because you had to think a lot more. With current physiques and racquets, you can hit the ball very hard from anywhere without having to think about how to win the point. I miss that, playing with your head and using tactics. It is something that is dying out in individual sports like this. I miss a more varied and beautiful tennis that is not all about power. Tennis is going in a direction that is not ideal in terms of the spectacle, but these are different times.
Do you consider yourself a romantic? People do not play like you anymore.
You try to do what you know best. During my whole career, I have tried to find the way to hurt my opponents the most, playing tactically correct tennis. I have been more aggressive recently, but that is the way I have to play. If you compare me today to another player, I am a bit unusual. I have to adapt to the circumstances, I do that and we will see how tennis evolves in the future. Everyone has to adapt their game to the circumstances. I’ve played very good matches in the Caja Mágica, hopefully I’ll be able to have many more. But if you gave me the choice, I would play on grass all year round.
You are currently playing the best tennis of your career.
It has been a good season so far. I have just had two or three good years and hopefully I can match them. The only thing I want is to compete healthily, give my all in all the tournaments and see where I end up. Tennis is hard and a lot of things can happen to you. I have been lucky enough to have practically no injuries throughout my career.
And in your thirties too, like David Ferrer, for example.
Every case is different. Ferrer, for example, has been very lucky with his fitness, as have I. I knew that if I stayed strong and healthy, I’d be able to compete at the top level. Federer is 35 this season and the same is true of him, he has barely had any significant injuries. That is essential in tennis nowadays.
How did you get into the game?
When I was five my father gave me a tennis racquet for Christmas. When I was young I swam and played football. My father tried to get me and my brother into the world of sport from a young age. I started with swimming, then football and later tennis. I’m so grateful to him for putting a racquet in my hands. It has been a life of hard work and sacrifice, but it’s been well worth it. At the time I liked Stefan Edberg. I watched him a lot. Then I loved Carlos Moyá when he burst onto the scene, he was my idol. After that the player I’ve most enjoyed watching is Federer.
Is there such a thing as the perfect match?
The perfect match doesn’t exist. Tennis is a sport about precision with several factors at play. It is very difficult for everything to go perfectly. For example, I have played great matches and after so much time playing I would struggle to find just one in which everything went perfectly.
Who is the best opponent you have played?
The best I have taken on is Federer, without a doubt. Djokovic too. And maybe then Nadal. I came very close to beating him in the Caja Mágica in 2011, reaching 5-2 in the final tiebreak. It was incredible. People were singing my name in the tiebreak against the Swiss, with the respect they have for him in Madrid. When I lost I was mentally broken. It was the closest I have come to beating him. It was a real shame, but that’s tennis.
Is Djokovic on his way to becoming the best ever?
Without a doubt. If things carry on like they are now, and above all if he keeps his drive, I think it will be hard for him not to be the best in history at the moment. Apart from his quality as a player, his dedication off the court is tremendous. That is helping him be successful. He has so much desire to be the best in history.
That makes it hard for Nadal to get back to number one…
Who can challenge Djokovic for the number one spot at the moment? It is not about Nadal. Currently nobody can stand up to him. If Djokovic’s standard drops and a new young player suddenly appears and starts beating him, then maybe things would change. So far that has not happened and it does not look like it will happen soon. You never know. The difference between him and the number two is huge.
Andre Agassi talks in his autobiography about the loneliness of being a tennis player, how important is the mental side of the game?
As he says, a lot of things happened in his life. In a sport like tennis, where you are alone in the face of danger, your head is very important. Tennis is very physical and becoming increasingly mental. Your head is essential because nobody can help you. You have to have a solid mind to cope with it. Tennis is one of the sports that requires the most dedication, because it is individual and because it is so demanding, you have to grow every year. Right now, it is impossible to play tennis at the top level without being a true professional. There are people who have been touched with a magic wand. As hard as you try, there will always be people better than you. Although that is also what gives you the drive to train, improve and to be able to beat those people someday.
For how much longer will we be able to enjoy Feliciano?
I will carry on as long as things are going well. After turning 30 my goal was to stay competitive. What really keeps me driven is playing against the best in the world and seeing that I can win. The last three or four years have been fantastic, but I have taken it one season at a time. It is very difficult to think how much longer I will play for because a lot of things can happen. You can’t look at tennis in the medium term when you are 35.
Do you have plans for when you retire?
There are a lot of things I want to do. I have commentated on some matches and I liked it, for example. In the world of tennis there are a lot of things that I could maybe do. I haven’t thought about any of them because I don’t see the day of my retirement being that close, but I would love to be linked to this sport in some way because it has given me everything in life.
Do you have a wish?
To play in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open against Federer and win it, if possible.