Waiting for Rafa
(I can’t find this article on the vogue site to link to, so I’m putting the whole thing here. Just remember, if you want to see Rafa in more magazines, go buy the issue! This is from the June USA Vogue with Cameron Diaz on the cover. – miri)
By Gaby Wood
Photographed by Bruce Weber
After fighting his way to tennis’s number-one spot, Rafael Nadal is discovering in his own time that it can be lonely at the top.
“Vamos Rafa!” The crowd roars as a dashing floodlit figure serves an ace. It is round one of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, a tournament sometimes referred to as the fifth Grand Slam. After the player beats his opponent, he stops by the camera that has been broadcasting his actions in real time and signs the lens with a Sharpie. All that is left is his autograph, a grand flourish blown up on vast screens across the stadium.
The Spanish tennis sensation Rafael Nadal has been described as “swashbuckling” more often than Errol Flynn. You might think this is a mere national stereotype, but the 23-year-old Majorcan’s dynamic, unorthodox style, his combination of brutal efficiency and unearthly stamina, and the dastardly aim of his forehand have all led his matches to be described, even in Spain, as “duels.”
He is also, as might befit an old-world swordsman, gracious in victory. When he won the Australian Open final against Roger Federer in February, cementing his prowess on all three Grand Slam surfaces (not to mention his status as the number-one player in the world), he stood by uncomfortably as Federer wept at the microphone. After Nadal put his arm around the Swiss champion’s shoulder and Federer returned to the mike, emboldened, to congratulate him, Nadal apologized for winning and called Federer one of the best players in history.
So it is with great curiosity that I go down to Miami to meet Rafa, as he is affectionately known. I am intrigued to see who is behind the animal on the court and the young gentleman on the podium.
My first close-up glimpse of him comes at a press conference after that first match, in which he neatly dispatches Teimuraz Gabashvili, 6-2, 6-2. As expected, Nadal is sweet and rather awkward, answering questions modestly in English and Spanish. He enjoys the support of Latinos here, he says. The only thing that’s tough about having so many fans, he explains, is that he can’t sign autographs for everyone, and he’d like to.
Then he’s asked if he prefers to play in the day or at night. This is met with a pure, straight-faced statement of the obvious: “I prefer to play well.”
Afterward, his ever-present publicist, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, introduces me to him in preparation for our interview. Nadal shakes my hand, pats me on the shoulder, and says, “Encantado.” He is relaxed, charming, and, at six foot one, taller than I expected. Little do I know that this is the last time I will speak to him for the next five days.
One of the reasons it’s hard to get close to Nadal, I soon discover, is that he is fiercely protected by his team, mostly made up of family members. His uncle and coach, the former profession tennis player Toni Nadal, rarely leaves his side; the same goes for his father, Sebastian; and then there is his uncle Miquel Angel Nadal, a famously aggressive soccer player who is still known as “the Best of Barcelona.” When they are together, they speak Mallorquin, a brash, fast, guttural language that is an obscure dialect of Catalan.
If the Williams sisters grew up playing on the gang-ridden tarmac of L.A., Nadal was groomed to be great on the earth of Majorca. (Although, there was a time when the Spanish newspaper El Mundo wondered rhetorically whether there might be a “Planet Nadal,” a place where “babies don’t play with dolls but rackets, muscle grows before bone, courage before speech.”)
When he was a little boy, his uncle Toni told his now-agent Carlos Costa, “I have a six-year-old nephew who’s going to be a very good player.” It was six years before Costa finally saw Nadal play. “He was twelve, and the qualities you saw in him then were strength of character, tenacity; he was a winner and a fighter. And in his head, there was a real desire to be number one.” Cost took him on when Nadal turned fifteen.
Since then Nadal has racked up so many records, it’s almost hard to keep count. Long acknowledged as the “kind of Clay,” he posses the longest single-surface winning streak in the Open era. (His lock on the French Open recently prompted Roger Federer to say, “I don’t think the clay has been my problem. My problem has been Rafa con clay.”) Since winning their history-making five-set Wimbledon match last year, Nadal has seem nearly untouchable. And in February, he became the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open, prompting speculation that he will win four Grand Slams in a single year, a feat not accomplished since Rod Laver did it in 1969. As Costa says, “Every year he wants more. Every year he trains more. He doesn’t impose limits on himself. If you look at the Rafa of three years ago and Rafa as he is now, there’s been a huge evolution in his tennis.”
Part of Nadal’s resolve seems to stem from the rigor of his training. Even though he is naturally right-handed, he was taught early on to play with his left hand, a technique that has tormented many of his opponents. Toni Nadal denies that there was anything tactical in this: “He always played with both hands. The only thing I encouraged was to play with one hand, and he had more strength in his left.”
Nadal can play so strongly at times that one is tempted to think of him as a force of nature – in Australian, when other players were dropping out because of the heat; in Indian Well, California, when the wind made the final almost unsustainable. Recently, a tennis researcher in San Francisco used video-capture technology to measure Nadal’s topspin: It was found to rotate at an average of 3,200 times a minute (Federer’s rotates 2,700 times, and Agassi’s 1,900) – a feat that seems superhuman. “When he was young, I always made him play with bad balls,” Toni Nadal explains. “The court wasn’t always in great condition – all of that, even playing badly, helps you develop. Rafael called me before the final in Indian Wells. I said, ‘How’s it going?’ He said, ‘Terrible.’ Because of the wind. I said, ‘Well, all the better for you, no?’ Because Rafa is used to playing when things aren’t going well.” (Sometimes it seems like Nadal pushes himself – or is pushed – too hard. Fans have expressed concern that he is risking injury, although he and his team deny this.)
Along with the tough training came tough love. “In terms of shots, he’s not a phenomenon, but he’s not completely useless, either,” Toni Nadal says. “If he had Federer’s gifts, I might have chosen a different style, but I like this intense strong style he has.”
Toni points out that his nephew was raised to put up with things. “If when you’re young, you’re permitted to do anything, then when you’re older you can cause all kinds of damage. If, on the other hand, when you’re small you’re never allowed so much as throw a racquet on the ground, then it’s much easier to tolerate things. Rafael has always been a very disciplined player. Sometimes, if he feels like doing one thing but knows that another is the right thing to do, he can take it.”
Before I can think about what’s coming out of my mouth, I say, “God. Poor him.” Toni seems amused. “Not at all,” he replies. “He’s won a few times, you know.”
The next morning, I’m supposed to meet Nadal for our interview, but Benito puts me off. At lunchtime, I go to watch Nadal play Frederico Gil, who at number 70, is the highest ranked Portuguese player in history. (“It’s a very small country,” is Gil’s routine response to this statistic.)
Rafa starts slow; he makes a surprising number of unforced errors; during breaks, his left knee jobs uncontrollably. There is a beautiful rally, at the end of which Gil puts a ball straight past him. The next time Rafa gets ready to serve, he’s given a time violation. He’s taking too long, thinking too much – it’s excruciating.
You would think that an early-round match for the world’s number-one tennis player would be plain sailing, but watching Nadal, you feel the risk in every point. He plays as if he is fighting for his life. “He gives 100 percent in every match, from the first round right up to the last,” Costa says. “Others are relaxed at first, and tension kicks in later, whereas Rafa plays tensely from day one.”
Nadal pulls out a victory, but it doesn’t come easily, 7-5, 6-3. In the press box, old-hand tennis reporters are muttering, “Oh, yeah, he’s burned.”
Afterward I watch Rafa hanging around outside the locker room in a black T-shirt and khaki-colored tennis shorts, his just showered hair falling in his face, his full frame a little hunched, like a teenager’s. A very small blonde person in a Panama hat and shades comes through the corridor to great him, accompanied by a film crew. She turns out to be Shakira, a friend and fan. They pose for photos, but as soon as the rock star leaves, Rafa returns to his sulky posture. It is as if he can already envision the lead story from The Miami Herald: “Sometimes the best player in the world doesn’t look like the best player in the world.”
The following day, Benito calls. He’s embarrassed. Rafa played badly and is not feeling up to meeting today. He promises it will happen first thing the next morning.
Instead I make my way over to the practice court. Rafa is shirtless, sweat streaming down his front, the deep thwacking sound of his inhuman forehand filling everyone’s ears. When he leaves the court, I’m behind him, which means that for once I get his view of the crowd. They gather wildly in his face; he dips his chin and plows through like a gentle bull, signing and walking, signing and walking, passing the results of his ambulatory autographs over his shoulder – a hat, a ball, a picture – without a backward glance. Behind him, the recipients fall into chaos, screaming. It occurs to me that whether shielded by his entourage or lost in the crowd, Nadal is always in his own world, just out of reach.
That night, Rafa has a late, long match against Stanislas Wawrinka (“the other Swiss”), and again the buzz is about how off his game is. He wins, of course, but that appears to be beside the point. By now I realize that he’s not just putting me off on a whim. He literally can’t take his eye off the ball. In a way, his refusal to meet says far more about how he feels than he will probably ever reveal in words.
It’s my fifth day in Miami, am I am supposed to finally meet Nadal at midday. Just before lunchtime, Benito calls to reschedule. Rafa will meet me at four. I am skeptical. Benito, who is missing four fingers on his right hand, says the interview will definitely happen at four, or he will cut off the fingers on the other hand. How sweet, I think. Then I wonder how he lost his fingers in the first place.
But sure enough, just after 4:00 P.M., Benito and Carlos bring Rafa to me outside the players’ lounge. This time he makes no eye contact and offers no greeting. We walk upstairs, Nadal silent, eyes downcast. Benito and Carlos direct us to a couple of white leather sofas and leave. Nadal shoots me a small, shy smile, then gets distracted by the live match playing on a TV screen in front of us: Djokovic vs. Tsonga. He winces a little with the corners of his mouth (at what, I don’t know: I’ve missed the shot), then looks back at me – open, perhaps, to a question.
We talk about what he likes to do when he’s not on court. I learn that in his time off, Nadal goes home to Manacor, the town of 35,000 inhabitants where he still lives with his parents and younger sister – or to his family’s summerhouse, ten kilometers away in Porto Cristo. His friends are still the people he’s known since he was four of five. He goes fishing, he plays golf, he goes to the movies; he has a girlfriend, a student in Majorca whose privacy he guards diligently. (Though she sometimes comes to his matches, he explains, “Just because I’m known for tennis doesn’t mean I have to be known for anything else.”) While other players have their own jets, he flies commercial. He does not know how much money he has, and doesn’t appear to spend it. At home, he’s not known as the world number one; he’s known as “Rafalet.”
I ask him about his tics – arranging the water bottles in a particular order, not stepping on the lines when he walks out onto the court. They are not really superstitions, he says. They’re just part of his larger pre-match ritual. He’ll sleep between seven and nine hours, then have a plate of pasta for breakfast. If he’s eating three hours or more before a match, he’ll add some chicken or fish. Just beforehand, he always has a cold shower; then his physio, Rafael Maymo, helps him put on all his tape (at the moment his fingers are taped as well as his knees). After Nadal prepares the handles of his rackets, he listens to music on his iPod – everything from Julio Iglesias to Bon Jovi – and keeps to himself.
He won’t say what he’s trying to improve just now – during a tournament, you don’t really train to change things, he explains – although he confesses that he’d “like to serve like Karlovic, have Federer’s forehand at times, or Nalbandian’s backhand.”
I ask him if he is driven more by a desire to win or the fear of losing. “The desire to win,” he says. He always knows he can lose, even in the first round. “For example, tomorrow, I’m going out into a difficult match against del Potro, and I know that if I don’t play at my highest level I’m going to have practically no chance of winning.” (This turns out to be prescient: He ends up losing to Juan Martin del Potro the next day in a tense quarterfinal.)
Perhaps paradoxically, Nadal says that being number one has helped to relieve the pressure. “I think I’m enjoying the game much more now than I was two years ago. Not because I’m winning more but because I think I’ve taken on board the tension more.” Anyway, he adds, “I’m lucky enough to do what I like for work – not everyone’s that fortunate.”
Tennis players, of course, have a remarkably short professional shelf life. As invested as he is in the game, Nadal is already branching out, as the face of Lanvin’s new cologne L’Homme Sport and as a collaborator with Nike on a new line of clothes. He is also in the early stages of establishing a philanthropic foundation, whose stated purpose is to educate underprivileged children all over the world. “I’d like to help people who don’t have enough to live on,” he says, then adds, “I’d like to help everyone I can.”
At thirteen, Nadal had to choose between tennis and soccer (he was good at both). He says he doesn’t prefer one to the other, but there is something forlorn in his assertion that soccer is more enjoyable because you practice with friends. “In tennis, you’re always alone, which is more complicated. I far prefer to train with friends than alone,” he says. “Doesn’t everyone?”
In the time I speak to Nadal (in Spanish), he is as uncommunicative as his good upbringing will allow; he looks up when he thinks perhaps looking down or away is rude. Questions are met with expressions of very mild alarm – shrugs or a knitted brow. I have the impression that conversation is akin to confrontation for him, and that despite his zeal on the court, he doesn’t enjoy it.
I wonder aloud if he enjoys competing in others areas of his life.
“No!” he says, balking at the very thought. “Not at all! I’d rather lose an argument than get into a long discussion in order to win it.”
“Why?” I ask.
He laughs. “It tires me out.”
“But not in tennis?”
Which leads me to ask about his most formidable, most formative rival. If Roger Federer were to stop playing, would Nada’s game suffer?
“No,” he replies. “The only thing that affects me is to have played important matches against him… He’s one of the greatest tennis players in history, if not the greatest. But the thing that makes you improve isn’t any individual – it’s the demands of the sport itself.”
I ask how he felt when he saw Federer crying in Australia. “Well, a bit odd, no? I didn’t really know what to do. I felt sad for him. Those are difficult moments when you’re living through them, but over the years they become moments that both he and I will be able to look back on fondly – they’re emotional moments.”
As for his own vulnerabilities, he admits, with an embarrassed chuckle, “Being home alone at night makes me a bit nervous. If I’m at home alone I have to sleep on the sofa – I can’t face going to bed. I’m there with the TV on and all the lights on. I’m not very brave about anything in life.” He smiles, looks down at the floor. “In tennis, yes. In everything else, not very.”
Watch exclusive video on the Bruce Weber photo shoot with Rafael Nadal at vogue.com. (Can anyone find this video on their site? I can’t find it there… maybe it’s not posted yet – miri)