Fonseca, Mensik talk sharing locker room with Spanish great

For many ATP Tour players, Rafael Nadal’s return to action this month has simply been a return to a long-held status quo. Such has been the longevity of the Spaniard’s career that several generations of stars have become accustomed to being around Nadal as he racks up wins, trophies and plaudits.

Yet sharing a locker room with the 92-time tour-level titlist at this year’s Mutua Madrid Open has been a novel experience for the current batch of #NextGenATP talent. When Nadal was forced to begin a near year-long break from competition in January 2023, many were either not playing at tour-level… or even out of school.

“It’s crazy,” 17-year-old Joao Fonseca told “First day here I was talking to my coach, and [Nadal] appeared in the gym. Then you can see that everybody looks at him like, ‘Oh man, this guy is like a god’, something like that.”

Fonseca has enjoyed some standout moments so far in 2024, the latest of which came on Thursday when he claimed his maiden ATP Masters 1000 victory. When he was born in 2006, Nadal had already won two of his 22 Grand Slam titles. Fonseca may not remember many of the Spaniard’s greatest triumphs, but the Brazilian can feel the scale of his career just by stepping onto the tournament site at the Caja Magica.

“You can see in the face of everybody that they respect Nadal,” he said. “He’s just an idol for everyone and it’s super special to be in the same environment as him.”

#NextGenATP alumnus Hamad Medjedovic shares that sentiment. The 20-year-old Serbian notched his first win at Masters 1000 level on Thursday by beating Aleksandar Kovacevic, shortly after Nadal had raced past 16-year-old Darwin Blanch in his own first-round match.

“Two days ago, when the schedule came out for today, I saw him in the same schedule as me and I was pretty shocked,” said Medjedovic, the 2023 Next Gen ATP Finals presented by PIF champion. “It’s Rafa, he’s a legend of our sport, one of the greatest players that ever held a racquet. Seeing him walking past me in the locker room, it’s a pretty special feeling.”

A generation that grew up watching many of Nadal’s later battles with his great ‘Big 3’ rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic was always going to be inspired by the return to action of the 37-year-old, even if this does prove to be his last season on Tour.

“Rafa is one of the biggest icons in tennis and in sport in general,” said 18-year-old Czech Jakub Mensik. “When I was young, I watched him on television, and he had already won like 15 Grand Slams. After that, because of these guys like Rafa, and Nole, and Roger, I started to play tennis.

“Right now, when I see him still competing and still in good form, when I see these guys around, it’s super exciting. To see these guys around and to have the opportunity to do things with them on the Tour.”

Meanwhile, Blanch’s up-close-and-personal experience with Nadal in Madrid reached a different level. Although the American felt he had not produced his best level as the home favourite rolled to a 6-1, 6-0 victory inside a packed Manolo Santana Stadium, the teen was quickly able to put things in perspective.

“Obviously it was a really, really good experience,” said Blanch. “I was really happy to be able to play Nadal in a stadium like this, so, I'm going to try to take the most of it.

“Honestly, a lot of kids my age don't really get to experience that, with all those people around. So it definitely felt really nice being able to experience that.”