No man is an island … except for Nadal

Photo by Victor Fraile/Corbis

Photo by Victor Fraile/Corbis

The June 1, 2009 issue of ESPN The Magazine will feature a an article about Rafa that includes an interview done during the Indian Wells tournament. A few excerpts from the full article written by Tim Keown:

Could it be the language barrier? Is that the reason Americans have a limited understanding of his genius? Maybe we’re the lucky ones, then, since the silences might contain the best insight into Rafael Nadal. There is something undeniably magnetic about him, yet he appears ignorant of his charisma. Watch him as he speaks at a press conference or at center court after a match. He is awkward, almost bashful, looking up from under his long, dark hair to wonder why people are laughing at something he didn’t intend to be humorous. His facial expression says: I will just keep smiling while I try to figure it out. He doesn’t seem to comprehend the defining tenet of his popularity: He exudes pure, unadulterated joy in a way few tennis players ever have.

That’s a good start to an article, don’t you think? Thanks to his improved English we don’t quite get the bashful “wtf is everyone giggling at” look as much as we used to, though.

The notion that he doesn’t fully grasp his own celebrity is one of many fascinating paradoxes about Nadal. On the court he is intense, fierce, nearly feral. He doesn’t so much play the game as stalk his prey. But on a languid March evening in the California desert, Nadal is the picture of calm. Dressed in a salmon-color polo and shorts, he is slumped on a couch in the players’ lounge at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on the eve of his win over Andy Murray in the final of the BNP Paribas Open. When it is suggested that his relentlessness intimidates opponents, crushing their will, the 22-year-old Spaniard seems almost hurt. “No,” he says. “I never try to intimidate. Everything I do is for me, not [to affect] the other player.” And when the match is over, when he has merely beaten or completely broken an opponent, he is almost apologetic.

Salmon-colored polo and shorts? Sounds like he was out golfing that day. I’m still not entirely sure I buy that “100% for me” thing, but I’m a cynical bitch. ;)

In regards to his response to Roger’s tears after the Australian Open final:

“It’s important to understand this is only a game,” he says, his English clear though heavily accented. “I am lucky: My job is one of my hobbies. We are just hitting a ball, and every week we are in the locker room together. You try your best on the court, but off the court we are not rivals.”

I think for me, this is one of the most difficult things to understand about how complicated it is to be a player on the tour and it’s something the “Strokes of Genius” book also tried to delve into. The players are stuck in the same locker room with each other constantly. During later rounds, they are often in there with just each other and their teams – within sight of each other. They also depend on each other for practice/hitting during the week and depend on each other to make sure their final warm-up is good and leaves them fully prepared for a match. How many other sports put the adversaries nose-to-nose so often when not actually competing? In how many other sports are adversaries interdependent like this? It’s a very weird situation and it’s why I can understand why their relationships end up being impossible to explain to outsiders.

Nadal by the numbers

* 373–80 — Overall record since turning pro in 2001
* 173–14 — Record on clay since turning pro in 2001
* 1 — Number of sets (out of 37, through May 13) he dropped on clay in 2009
* 9–1 — Career clay record vs. Roger Federer (only loss: 2007 Hamburg Masters final)
* 70.9% — First serves won at past four French Opens
* 61% — First serves won by opponents at past four French Opens
* 2,500 — Average rotations of a typical pro player’s ground stroke
* 4,000–5,000 — Average rotations of a Nadal ground stroke
* 2.13 — Miles Nadal ran during five-hour-14-minute 2009 Aussie Open semifinal vs. Fernando Verdasco
* 1,473 — Shots Nadal hit during five-hour-14-minute 2009 Aussie Open semifinal vs. Fernando Verdasco

In other words: He’s crazy good.

And still Nadal is something of a mystery. He is an international heartthrob in clam diggers. He does everything righthanded — except play tennis. Asked to describe the moment of winning Wimbledon, Nadal says, “I only remember this.” And here he does something unexpected: He closes his eyes and opens his mouth wide in a silent scream of exhilaration, then tosses his head and arms back against the cushions of the couch, re-creating the moment in which he lay on the court, victorious and exhausted.

Amazing. I would have loved to seen that. And what a perfect way to “describe” something that must be impossible to put into words – in any language.

The reenactment was surprising, but not the economy of the description. He has a savant’s ability to distill a problem into its purest elements. Along with warlike intensity and supreme athletic ability, clarity of purpose is one of his defining attributes.

Indeed.

A rain delay before the fifth set sent the players to the locker room. There, Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, was met with a burst of his nephew’s clarity. “I won the first two sets, so why can’t I win another?” Rafa asked. In his mind, he faced the same situation he had faced from the third set on. “What has changed from two sets ago? Every time I am one set away from winning. This is the same: One more set, and I win.”

So armed with inarguable logic, he took the court with one goal: make Federer beat him. “My feeling was, Roger can beat me, but I’m not going to have a mistake,” Nadal says. “If he beats me, it’s because he is playing well, not because I made a mistake.” (True to his word, Nadal committed seven unforced errors to Federer’s 16 in the fifth set.) He shrugs and adds, “And so I won,” as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

The most amazing thing isn’t that he thought that, but that he managed to actually do it. It’s one thing to know something is true in your head, but to not let the heart/nerves/everything-else get in the way of that is what makes him special.

Could it be the walls built around him? Does the notoriously insular world of tennis prohibit a fuller picture? Tennis is protective, but Team Nadal builds barriers meant to be impenetrable. Benito Pérez-Barbadillo, Nadal’s publicity man, is the razor wire surrounding Fortress Nadal. He says, “My job is to be the loudspeaker, telling the world about Rafa. But I do not speak for him. He doesn’t like that.”

Which is probably good because he’s an odd fellow.

“Rafa’s a sweet kid,” an ATP official says. “There’s just nothing compelling there. There’s been almost nothing revealing written about him.”

But isn’t that, in its own way, somewhat compelling?

Nadal is self-conscious about his routines — fussing with chairs on the sideline, lining up water bottles by label, then drinking from each — but those can be excused as the natural extension of a game that relies on endless repetition and routine. Nadal seems as normal as an internationally famous 22-year-old can be. He understands the obligation to the press — “It is my job,” he says — and is open and unhurried during The Mag’s interview. Afterward, he plays table tennis with a female writer who is clearly infatuated. He graciously plays at her level for a few points before taking on doubles partner Marc Lopez in a wild, lengthy battle. Nadal seems even bigger in person; nowhere is his 6’1″, 188-pound frame more impressive than at this tiny table. Lopez wins the match, prompting Nadal to toss his paddle and storm off in mock fury, yelling in Spanish, “I am superior!”

Heee!

On the evening of his first day in Indian Wells, after 26 hours of travel, three hours of sleep and five hours of golf, Nadal practices for 90 minutes. Witnessed only by the cleanup crew and a few stragglers, he rages across center court in all directions before announcing the session’s conclusion by sprawling on his back near the service line.

So, he must have won that one, no? :)

“In Majorca, I can be myself,” Nadal says. “I go to the supermarket and the cinema, and I am just Rafa. Everyone knows me, and it is no big deal. I can go all day — no photographs.” Hard to believe, considering that he and his girlfriend, Xisca Perello, are favorites of the European paparazzi.

He laughs and insists it is true.

“This is why I don’t change,” he says. “In my humble opinion, change is stupid. Now people want to know me. But in five or six years, I’ll be a regular person. That’s the business. If you can’t accept that, you’re going to have a problem.”

Sure, but what about a new house or his own island? He shakes his head and dismisses the idea with a wave of his hypertrophic left arm.

“Why change if you have perfect?”

Change is stupid? Except when it comes to one’s own tennis game. That’s because it’s not quite perfect yet, right?

His brilliance has also been obscured by his persona. Is it possible to be overshadowed by your own sex appeal? The voyeurism that follows Nadal — at least in the retirement world of Indian Wells — is mostly benign. Two women in their 50s are among the hundreds crowded around a practice court. They are fixated on the way Nadal’s shirt rises to expose his stomach when he serves.

“That’s not normal,” one says. “He must have his shirts made that way.”

“Fine with me,” her friend replies. They laugh.

Okay – which two of you was that?

If you ask the people closest to Nadal for a story that explains him, they don’t tell a Wimbledon story or a French Open story or even a story about women ogling him. They talk about a semifinal match in Hamburg in 2007 against Lleyton Hewitt. Nadal had lost to the Aussie previously, and after he lost the first set, Roig sent a text message to a worried group of Nadal’s people. The message, in part because it preceded another Nadal comeback, has become their motto.

It read: Don’t worry. He is Nadal.

Ah. That’s the tennis. That’s the Nadal.

12 Responses

  1. kid says:

    Wow…that was beautiful!

  2. kefuoe says:

    I think that Tim Keown (the author of the piece) has hit upon something kind of important about how Nadal is portrayed in the press. He writes about protective “walls” around him, essentially creating an information vacuum. In the place of real information and insight, I think journalists create a story or persona, usually based on the simplest ideas. Keown does it himself, choosing words like “feral”, “savant”, and “warlike intensity”.

    (Also, I’m not sure why Keown would refer to “backspin” on his forehand– it’s topspin that causes the ball to bounce high and away. Backspin has the opposite effect and causes the ball to stop short.)

    Anyway, here’s my fav part, “Rafa is the same person he has always been,” Roig says. “That is a greater achievement than being No. 1 in the world.”

  3. Debbie says:

    I just ended my subscription to ESPN because of their lack of tennis coverage! *curses self*. Guess I will be adding this to my list of magazines I must pick up at the book store! Thanks Miri!

  4. faecoleman says:

    Amazing article! really enjoyed reading this. Thanx I like that bit ‘don’t worry he is Nadal, awsome stuff…!

  5. johanne says:

    That was so great to read, thank you!! Love these sentences from the opening paragraph:

    “There is something undeniably magnetic about him, yet he appears ignorant of his charisma.”

    “He exudes pure, unadulterated joy in a way few tennis players ever have.”

    Now it may be the Rafa-bias talking (lol) but I really feel like he is one of the most charismatic athletes out there. Rafa has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about him. And it’s driving all of us crazy!! :)

    • CC says:

      I totally agree with you on that, Johanne! It’s the fact that he is so charismatic, yet doesn’t have a clue about it, that makes him so fantastic.
      Oh, to play tabletennis with Rafa…

      Great article!

  6. nereis says:

    Great article, thanks for posting!

  7. patzin says:

    Miri, thank you for your wonderful efforts in bringing all this to us. This is another great article about Rafa, which makes me feel good because it echoes some of my own thoughts about who Rafa is and how extraordinary he is. We are so fortunate, IMO, to have someone like him in a sport where he is featured, because of talent of course, but also because of the kind of person he is.

  8. tiemyshoe says:

    Another lovely article. Gracias, miri.

    The part about playing ping-pong with Marc! is so cool – I wish there was video. It’s also cute that he takes it easy on girls. Although, I have to say, this undercuts the already-slim possibility of my one true secret Rafa-related fantasy ever coming to fruition … which is to stand on the other side of the court and have Rafa all-out hit a forehand at me, just to see what it’s like. (See, I have tried very hard to write that sentence in a way that wasn’t dirty…). Um, is that weird? Ahem.

    Anyway, sounds like he did a crapload of press at Indian Wells, eh?

  9. skyejaden says:

    I’m loving all of these articles, thank you!

    The vision of that reenactment is absolutely precious.

  10. Nada H. T says:

    Great article ! Amazing way to describe sweet gracious Rafa

  11. nic says:

    Wow, I succumbed and read this one here instead of waiting to get me a copy of the mag. Too much good stuff in print this month on Rafa! It’s amazing! He must have done soooo much press at Indian Wells it’s not funny. But I’m truly impressed with how each one of them have tried to give readers an idea of the Rafa that we know. Seems like they are all really loving our Rafa. I so chuckled when he described Rafa storming off from his table tennis match with Marc! It was so cute. He’s too adorable. And the story of Rafa recounting the only thing he remembers about Wimbledon, beyond awesome. How spontaneous and authentic was that?! The writer was truly surprised by Rafa. I love that. He keeps surprising people. There’s always so much more to Rafa, always. I’m just really amazed how the magazines have gone to town with Rafa now – all in time for RG. And finally putting him on the cover of quite a few mags that are not just tennis publications. Awesome. I can’t wait to get my hands on all of these. Thanks so much for letting us in on all this Miri.