An excellent (and long!) article by Cynthia Gorney (with photos by Paolo Pellegrin) was just posted to the NY Times site.
It starts off with the author watching Rafa play Nalbandian in this year’s Indian Wells tournament – yes, that match. Rafa’s down a set and on the change-over between sets:
I said to some people near me, Rafa’s not going to win this match, is he.
The look they gave me was amused, knowing and kind. A woman said, “Watch him.” She was smiling.
Now he started to play. At tournaments, teenage girls scream when they see Nadal walk onto a tennis court, literally shriek and leap to their feet and clutch each other; women older than his mother shiver and elbow their friends; men raise their cameras aloft; there’s flash-popping and Spanish flag-unfurling and a rising swell of noise and applause, and at some point Nadal lifts one arm and smiles at spectators, which sets off momentary pandemonium among the women. (Once, pressed between two middle-aged ladies who had worked their way to the front of a crowd staring through a wire fence at Nadal on a practice court, I asked the one on my left to speak specifically of the appeal. “Um, his tenacity,” she said. “His energy. His. . . .” And the lady on my right snapped, without taking her eyes off Nadal: “His hotness. Just get to it.”)
Talking about the 2008 Wimbledon final and 2009 Australian Open semi:
Each match went on for more than four and a half hours. Each was desperate, operatic, repeatedly to-the-brink-and-back; each ended with Nadal collapsing to the court in triumph and the spectators exhausted and perspiring, and if you are not a tennis person, I suspect this may be somewhat hard to fathom — the idea that watching two men spend that many hours hitting a ball could actually make your heart pound so hard that you have to keep jumping up and yelling and grabbing your own head. But let me just suggest that if there were ever a time to understand why people invoke Shakespearean tragedy and ancient gladiators and so on when they carry on about competitive tennis, now is that time.
For a few days, when I was at the French Open, Nadal’s defeat made for richer drama than anybody else’s victory, and I would not really have understood why that was had I not also been at Indian Wells in the middle of the night in March and watched Nadal’s face during that second set against Nalbandian, especially when Nadal began moving faster and faster, coiling, springing, powering the ball into back corners, missing, driving again. After a time, I realized a new sound was coming from Nadal in between the hitting grunts, an even more guttural sound that was low, feral and drawn out between intakes of breath. He was growling.
I’m not sure if that turns me on or freaks me out…or both.
“You must remember,” Bouin said gently, in his lovely accented English, “that in tennis you have to kill the other.” Not just play better. Sometimes the one who plays better can lose. It’s a sport of splendid cruelty, for all its decorum and finicky trappings; every winning point comes when the other guy, in front of a whole stadium of people staring directly at him, is forced by his opponent into inadequacy. He lunges for the ball but whiffs, he whacks it long, he hits it into the net, he screws up. From the stands, you sometimes see players surrender not because they don’t know how to return the shots coming at them but because the specter of this impending inadequacy has suddenly just taken over their brains. It transpires right in front of your eyes: something sags, and they go sort of limp; you can see their faces and their posture start registering get me out of here.
Best description of caving to a top player I’ve heard in a long time.
Being a three-surface champion at this level of competition is almost impossibly difficult, requiring three kinds of pacing, strategy and ball attack; it’s as if an international track star won gold in the 100 meters, the mile and the steeplechase. There are undisputed great players — Sampras, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, for example — who never in their careers mastered the French Open’s clay.
And, as Wii Grand Slam Tennis delights me by reminding me: Rafa’s the only player in history to hold the Grand Slam title on three surfaces at the same time (after his Australian Open win).
Then Nadal finally beat Federer at Wimbledon too, and then at the Australian, where Federer famously picked up his runner-up trophy and looked at the assembled reporters and burst into tears, causing Nadal to put an arm around him, the young Spaniard at once respectful and consoling, and murmur something private into his ear. That Nadal now has the capacity to outplay Federer on multiple surfaces — that the signature game of the world’s highest-ranked tennis player is not a beautiful ballet unto victory but an imperfect, bruising, savage refusal to yield — this is why Nadal thrills people. This and the biceps. “Every tennis lover would like, someday, to play like Federer,” Philippe Bouin told me. “But every man wants to be Rafael Nadal. Which is different.”
And, why I think, people often reviere Federer more and go all googly-eyed when talking about his game – his style of play seems unattainable and impossible for “mere mortals” to acheive. But Rafa seems to embody the whole, “if you work hard enough and try hard enough, you can do it” attitude. In the long run, I think the latter is better for the game since it will inspire more people to give it a shot.
Nadal has played tennis left-handed since he was 11, but he uses his right hand to sign autographs, wave, play golf, turn on video games and react fast to most things that require a hand. “Watch,” he said to me in Spanish one afternoon this spring, nodding toward his publicity man, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, who was lounging around nearby. “Benito! Throw something at me.” Perez-Barbadillo tossed his cellphone. Nadal’s right arm jerked up and grabbed the phone out of the air, and he smiled and shrugged. “Whatever involves feeling, I do with the right.”
“That’s the only thing with the left,” he said. “Well, I’m ambidextrous when I eat. But playing tennis right-handed — I can’t do it. I’m clueless. Benito could beat me.”
Nadal sometimes has burly guys in sunglasses with him when he walks on the pathways between courts, and although it’s plain why they accompany him — parents shove their autograph-ball-brandishing children through adult crowds toward Nadal, and once I heard a young woman repeat in a low, ominous voice, “You don’t ignore me, you don’t ignore me,” as she was trying to catch his eye — the fans adore him partly because he moves so sweetly in their midst.
Freaky! Keep her away from the Rafa.
These accounts turn out to be exaggerated, but not by much. “No, no, I’ve never delivered ultimatums to him,” Toni said dismissively in Spanish when I met him in Miami in March. “He knows he can’t throw a racket. He just knows. As far as I’m concerned, it’s shameful when he orders a meal and doesn’t finish it. Understand? Same thing with rackets. These rackets cost money.”
Ever so practical.
“It’s about respect,” Toni told me. “It’s really easy for these guys to start thinking the world revolves around them. I never could have tolerated it if Rafael had become a good player and a bad example of a human being. I was at a symposium recently and a trainer said to me, ‘Look, if you ask a young player’s father which he’d rather get at the end of this process — a courteous person or the French Open champion — you know what that father is going to say.’ And I said: ‘No, that’s all wrong. Because if that player is brought up courteous, brought up as a respectful person, he’s got a better chance to reach the championship of the French Open — because it’s going to be easier for him to accomplish the hard work.’ ”
I philosophy I wish more people would share. Cut throat doesn’t really equal success; it just equals…mean.
There was a lot more soccer than tennis during Rafa’s early childhood, in fact. Miguel Ángel was picked up by one of the best teams in the country; he played for the Spanish national team in three World Cups, and some of his own first instincts about Rafael came from watching the boy play against his adult relatives during a keep-away game in which people in a circle try to pass a ball back and forth to one another past someone at the center of the circle. The only way for the middle person to get out and become a passer is to intercept a pass. “He liked being the middle,” Miguel Ángel told me. “We’d all do our tricky maneuvers to try to get the ball past him. Any one of a hundred little kids, you do those kinds of moves on him, he’ll start crying. But Rafa, no. He’d keep fighting to get the ball.”
Always the fighter.
The family apartment hallways and local streets served for ballhandling practice, too, and before long, Rafael was the leading scorer even on teams of boys older than he was. “I was passionate about soccer,” Rafael told me. “I still am. Odd, though — playing soccer always made me much more anxious than playing tennis. On soccer days, I’d be out of bed by 6 in the morning, all nervous. But I was always calm when it was time for a tennis match. I still don’t know why.”
I have a feeling it’s both easier and more difficult when your fate is in your own hands. Perhaps Rafa’s more comfortable with that.
Like Woods, Nadal started what would become his career sport when he was a toddler; Toni remembers his nephew having been no older than 3. “He was at the club one day, and I handed him a racket, we had some little ones, and then tossed a ball at him,” Toni said before practice one morning in Miami. “When he hit it back — two-handed, he wouldn’t have been strong enough otherwise — I said to myself, ‘O.K., this is not normal.’ His feet, especially, the way he’d move himself into good hitting position when I tossed balls at him. This is a rare thing in a child.”
*tries to picture little tot Rafa’s little feet taking fast little tiny steps and dies from cute overload*
Rafael’s parents have a standard policy of declining interview requests; their support for him is by all accounts unwavering but uniformly private, and when I asked Toni how the family managed the destined-to-do-this challenge, how you help a gifted child flourish without oppressing or souring him, he shot me a look that was at once mocking and stern. “I don’t believe anybody’s destined to do anything in this life,” he said. He is firmly antireligioso, his term, and he also seems to take pleasure in placing the game of tennis — “being able to pass a ball back and forth over a net,” as I’ve heard him describe it — into its proper perspective in the universe. (Once when I used the word “drama” in a question about Rafa and Federer, Toni interrupted me midsentence. “This is not drama,” he said. “Drama is people in Africa who don’t have enough to eat. Drama is people no one ever smiles at. There is no drama here.”) The primary athletic goal when Rafa was little was ensuring that he had fun, Toni said, and because the boy was the first grandchild, that wasn’t hard to do.
So level-headed it’s amazing.
“He was the family toy,” Toni said. “We’re all close. Everything was really a form of athletic training. He didn’t come back to the club much when he was 3, he’d get bored; but then when he was 4, he’d come once or twice a week, and I started throwing balls at him a little harder. He still liked soccer more than tennis, and he was very good. Left-footed shooter. I started paying him when he scored — one euro for a left-footed goal, two euros for a right-footed goal.”
Toy? Or joy? I’m hoping that’s a typo or it sounds kind of odd.
The payment offers were partly Uncle Toni humor, he said; as Rafa grew, the two of them developed a series of running jokes in which Toni simultaneously teased, prodded and made himself comically huge. He invented a mythical back story in which he, too, was a famous futbalista, now retired, having played soccer brilliantly for a professional team in Italy. Toni had been known as El Gran Natali, he assured Rafa, and when futbalista friends of Miguel Ángel came to visit one day, Toni persuaded them to use this name in hearty greetings and to come up with tales for Rafa about the Great Natali’s exploits on the field. But there was also a practical motive for the euros-for-goals deal: Toni was assessing Rafael’s reactions, testing to see how instinctively and with what kind of power the boy used one side versus the other. “It’s been said I was very clever for having changed him into a left-hander,” Toni told me. “But it’s not true. Because Rafael was left-footed, I thought he might turn out to be left-handed in tennis. When he started, he was playing with both hands — and he hit harder from the left.” This is Rafael’s recollection as well; whatever else he did every day with his right hand and foot, his physical strength seemed more concentrated on the other side.
This whole left/right thing fascinates me. Yeah, I’m a bit tired of the press going on about it, but the underpinnings of what makes a person left/right-brained/handed are interesting.
Nadal’s arms, both of them, have inspired over the years a fervent subgroup of admirers, especially once he began appearing at international matches in what became his trademark outfit: sleeveless shirt, wide headband knotted around the unruly hair and his celebrated piratas, rakish knee-length shorts that made him look like a surfer who lifted weights in his spare time. When Nike altered the ensemble early this year, in what everybody involved insists was a mutual decision by the company and Nadal’s entourage (the idea was to move him into something more grown-up), there was a brief but spirited insurrection among the fans. The Vamos Brigade, an international Nadal-watching Web site frequented mostly by enamored and effusive women, set up a special discussion devoted to Nadal’s new short-sleeved shirts and more conventional shorts; the title was Official Mourning Thread. “I found that if I just stared at his face long enough, I could make the sleeves disappear and see him sleeveless in my brain,” one correspondent wrote. Lamented another: “I miss the arms!!! The big, muscled, tanned arms.” Perhaps the young man was ready for a change, someone suggested. The response was quick and curt: “Please leave us alone to grieve.”
Brief? From what I understand, it’s still going on…and still makes my eyes roll so far back into my head I fear they’ll get stuck there.
Juega cada punto como si fuera el último. They say at the tournaments that this is what Toni Nadal still hammers at his nephew: Play every point as though it were the last— of the game, of the match, of the day, of your life. “It’s out of respect for the sport,” Toni told me when I asked him about it. “If you’re going to do a thing, do it absolutely the best you can. Did I ever say it to him directly? No. In my family, there were lots of things my father never said to me. You just see them, in the attitude. From the time Rafael was little, he’d win that first point of the match, which nobody ever pays much attention to, and he’d yell, ‘Vamos!’ All pumped up. Let’s go! And you play like you train. As he grew up, he got used to training as though each point were the last one.”
I think I remember an interview where Rafa mentioned he had to cut down on the celebrating because it was tiring him out more than the matches.
Nadal didn’t shoot toward the top of the player rankings once he joined the pro tour at 15, in 2001. His first ranking was at No. 1,002; it was 2003 when he cracked the Top 100. He had a lot to learn. He couldn’t “read” the court the way players like Federer did, intuiting where both ball and opponent would go next. He played hard from the back of the court, where his endurance and insistent groundstrokes gradually wore out his opponents, but he wasn’t yet nimble or tricky at the net. His serve was oddly flabby for a player of such power — it still can be, in fact, though recently it has improved in both speed and precision. Once when I was talking to Toni, I wondered aloud whether in retrospect the two of them had sacrificed a certain sensibilidad when they settled on Nadal as a left-handed player, whether he’s stronger with the left but might have been more exacting and coordinated with the right. I used the word problemas in my question, recalling Rafa’s occasional critiques of his own serve, and then backtracked: wait, the guy’s the best in the world, probably not right to call them problems, exactly. Toni watched me flounder and then started laughing.
“See what getting to be No. 1 does!” he teased. “Here you are, thinking, ‘Whoa, must watch my words carefully here.’ Yes. It’s possible he’d be serving better if he played right-handed. Throwing the ball perfectly is hard for him, and he doesn’t always hit it at the correct height. The whole thing is just not something he does very well. We’re working on it.”
Wouldn’t the toss be better given his natural right-handedness? *confused*
“More speed, bigger problems,” Nadal’s doctor, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, told me when I visited him in Barcelona after Nadal lost at the French Open. “Tennis has changed a great deal in recent years. We used to talk about injuries: the elbow, the shoulder, the wrist. But in recent years, with the change in equipment materials — the rackets, mostly, but also the strings — we have whole new pathologies. Everything’s faster. You’re hitting the ball faster and harder, and in new positions, which creates problems with the spine, the knees, even the hips.”
Having just watched the ’75 Wimbledon final between Ashe and Connors, I’m nodding vigorously. Those guys looked like they were playing in molasses compared to current play.
The tally of Nadal’s ailments over the years is honestly not as impressive as that of many professional athletes: a stress fracture in his left foot, a banged-up elbow from a fall outside a tennis court, random knee and joint pains, the tendinitis. People imagine the whipping forehand must wreak havoc on his shoulders, but so far, at least, it has not. “We’ve been doing prevention stuff for years — some with weights, some with rubber resistance bands, always before starting play and after finishing,” Ruiz-Cotorro said. “But Rafa’s never put huge work into those shoulders, despite what people think. They came with the genes. If you look at his family, you’ll see the same powerful constitution.” (This is true; in their 40s now, Toni and Miguel Ángel are both built like American football players.)
Good to know the shoulders are sound.
His remedies? Ruiz-Cotorro sighed. “Tendinitis is hard to treat,” he said. “The first thing you have to do is decrease the inflammation and rest. He’s resting now. But for an athlete like this, the word ‘rest’ does not exist.”
Ruiz-Cotorro observed that since way back in the early piratas days, a kind of magnifying glass has been applied to everything that happens to Nadal on the tennis court. When I told Nadal about all the people who worried aloud to me about the level at which he is using up his body — this was back in March, it must be remembered, while he was winning everything in sight — he laughed and threw up his hands and looked for an instant less like an international tennis champion than a righteously ripped 22-year-old being told he was going to hurt himself if he kept snowboarding so fast.
“They were saying this three years ago, that I couldn’t last,” Nadal said. “And after four years, I’m better than I ever was. This irritates me, no? I’m tired of people telling me I can’t go on playing like this. In the end this is what makes me win, lose, everything. I can’t control how I play. I want to keep getting better. And the most important part is the head.”
And we know cookies help that, right?
At the press conference, the reporters kept after Nadal, in English and in Spanish, poking about for some revelatory quote. He had moments of looking like himself in the match, but not many. Soderling, who has a reputation for mental surrender under pressure, seemed to have been possessed by some sort of cosmic visitation. (Martina Navratilova, calling the match on television, cried out in admiration, “Soderling is playing out of his mind!”) Nadal appeared heavy-footed and off-kilter from the first set on, and people who know his game grew increasingly perplexed as they awaited the familiar surge that smashed Nalbandian at Indian Wells and dozens of other opponents over the years. “Up until the end, everybody was saying, ‘Something will happen, something will,’ ” Philippe Bouin told me when I found him at the French Open press center. “We’ve seen this movie many times. John Wayne never dies at the end of the movie. But this time, the cavalry was not there.”
Nadal himself kept declining, with mounting frustration, to buy into any sort of Superhero Collapses Mysteriously narrative. “You know, guys, I lost,” he said at one point, sounding uncharacteristically tetchy. “I lost. That’s what I can say. I didn’t play my best tennis today.” People close to him say they could see it right away, both in the stadium and on television; Miguel Ángel Nadal, who was watching in Manacor, told me he watched the beginning of play and simply knew, one athlete to another, that this time the champion was going to struggle. It happens, Miguel Ángel said, and shrugged. “Same as when you go out in the street and you look up at the clouds and you know,” he told me. “It’s not going to be a good day.”
One of Nadal’s most endearing traits, since he assumed a starring role in international tennis, has been his public admiration for Federer. Nadal makes a practice of complimenting his opponents’ abilities, even when he has just come from stomping all over them, but when he talks about Federer, he still sounds like the adulatory apprentice. “You are a great champion,” Nadal said in English to Federer, in front of the whole tennis-watching world, at the Australian Open awards ceremony. “You are one of the best of history.” Nadal had beaten him, of course, and some months earlier pushed Federer from the world No. 1 spot, and even after one has heard him deny it a dozen times, it’s hard not to think it must be unsettling for the very good No. 2 to adjust to the burden of finally having made it — of having achieved what he wanted, so that now the fight is no longer to get there but to stave off the hungry competitors behind him, one of whom is the master himself.
“Inside him, I don’t think anything has changed — he still thinks Federer is the best,” his manager, Carlos Costa, told me when I was in Barcelona the day before the French Open final. Like the rest of Nadal’s support team, Costa was philosophical and undefensive about the loss to Soderling; the champion played a lousy match, they said, and it happened to be against a very good player playing the match of his life. “I haven’t talked to Rafa about this,” Costa said. “But I think there may have been some tension. ‘I never lose here, so many years, I’ve never lost at center court, record record record.’ This is just my thought. I’m not going to touch it now. Maybe later.”
I don’t see how there couldn’t be pressure at the French. I’m just hoping that perhaps some of that has dissipated and he can go into the tournament next year swinging freer.
The most important part is the head, Nadal had told me. Tennis improvement manuals are full of this instruction, as are all manner of other guides for trying to live the life you want, and as Federer sank to his knees in joy when the last point was over, I wondered whether Nadal was in front of his television in Manacor, or whether he spent the finals afternoon the way Costa guessed he would, on a family friend’s fishing boat in the Mediterranean. Nadal loves fishing. He competes when he’s on fishing boats too — he can’t help himself, he likes to see who will get the biggest catch. I asked him once how he envisioned his adult life when professional tennis was over, and the first thing he said was, “A boat.”
He’ll still live in Majorca, he said. He and his mother have started a foundation, aimed at improving the lives of children in developing countries; he’ll have some role in the foundation, and in sports. “If my career lasts for three more years, it lasts three more years,” he said. “I still want to improve at tennis. If it’s two years, then it’s two. If it’s five more years, perfect.” Then he’ll buy the boat, he said, but not a huge one. “A normal-sized boat,” Nadal said. “To go fishing in the sea.”
A normal-sized boat for a normal guy living a normal life.