Wooffie sends in this 2006 interview with Rafa by Alison Kervin.
But the real action is taking place on the court opposite us, where the stand shakes with the delight of hundreds of eager supporters. Only this court is bursting with fans as they jostle for seats. The cheers ring out into the chilly mid-afternoon sky: “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa.”
The stand is overflowing, so I am ushered courtside to watch Rafael Nadal conduct his training session. His coach Toni, who is also his paternal uncle, approaches the court at the same time, his shoulder heavy with the weight of half-a-dozen rackets. He smiles and shakes my hand. “Welcome,” he says. I’m told it is the only English word he knows.
Sounds like Rafa’s not the only one who’s worked on his English over the years.
“Rafa, Rafa, Rafa,” they shout as he continues his practice, apparently oblivious to the furore he is causing all around. They coo when he fiddles with his hair, and as he dances around the court, leaping, prancing and twirling through his warm-up, their eyes never leave him.
Prancing? Prancing? Rafa? I’m not sure I’m convinced.
“It’s crazier than this in Spain,” says Benito Perez-Barbadillo, an ATP Tour representative as well as being Nadal’s confidant and sometime translator. “There, he’s treated like Ronaldo.” He says pictures of Nadal sell out as soon as they go on sale in Spain. And it is not just in Europe. Perez-Barbadillo remembers walking through New York City with Nadal. “We were on 90th Street or something, miles away from the centre.” They went to step through the doors of a building when a large, rough-looking man stopped them in their tracks. “Hey,” he cried out, aggressively. “You Rafael Nadal? Nice to meet you, man.”
So, was this before Benito was an official part of the Nadal team? Guess so. I can just picture them not being quite sure what to do with the “aggressive” and “rough-looking” man stopping them in a strange city.
IT IS 8PM NOW, and Nadal has returned to the hotel. He was on the practice court for 10 hours, but feels that he didn’t do quite enough.
That’s fucking insane.
“It was too dark to play any more,” says Nadal, still musing on his lost court time as he lounges across a sofa, eating crisps as fast as he can move his hand to his mouth. He requests a bottle of Coca-Cola “with a straw” and sucks thirstily until it is quickly gone. He requests another.
Caffeine and sugar that late in the day? Good thing he had the 10 hours of tennis to tire him out so he could get to sleep that night.
Today the simple boy from a simple place, with simple likes, will take on a simply monstrous task. Nadal plays Federer in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters, to defend his title. With a victory over the Swiss player in Dubai under his belt, Nadal has some psychological advantage for which to reach as he approaches the match, but he knows how far ahead of the pack Federer is: “Look at his points. He is the No 1. That is all there is to say. He is there to be beaten.” The Spaniard admits to watching the video of his victory over Federer before leaving for Monaco, to give him the “lift” of knowing that he could beat the world’s best player.
“That win was very important for me,” he says. “It came in the second tournament after I came back from injury. I enjoyed the match. I went to the court with a great calm that day and winning was a very special sensation.”
He was very choked up after that win.
Nadal says he usually knows fairly soon in a match whether he will win. He gets what he calls “a very special feeling in me” when he has the measure of his opponent, and it drives him on to victory.
“Last year when I went to Barcelona, I had it,” he says. “A special feeling from the start and I won.”
Does that mean he also knows when he’s going to lose? That must be a bitch of a feeling to overcome.
In the space of a glorious 27 days he won 17 matches and three singles titles on clay: the Masters Series championships in Monte Carlo and Rome on either side of the Barcelona tournament. But it all went wrong at the end of the year (2005) when he suffered a stress fracture to his left foot that kept him out of competition for four months. “Now I haven’t got that rhythm that comes with match practice. I’ve only played four tournaments, and last year I had played double that,” he says. “But every day, every match I improve a little. I feel stronger all the time. Injury makes you appreciate everything so much more.”
So let’s hope he gets the opportunity to appreciate things a lot during the end of 2009.
“I carried on playing football as well as tennis, but slowly played more and more tennis with my uncle,” says Nadal. “But I still preferred football. That was my real love when I was a young boy.”
By the time he was 13, he was playing tennis every day. He went to school from 9am until noon, played tennis from 12 until 2, had lunch, school in the afternoon, then played a further two hours in the evening.
He continued to train with his uncle, but took it all much more seriously. He would play at least twice a day as well as compete regularly; by 2003 Nadal was, at 16, ranked in the world’s top 50.
I guess it takes insanity to get results. ;)
“I think that having my uncle and coach with me has been the best for me. He is uncle first and coach second. It is a nicer life to travel round with your uncle there. My family can’t come to all matches, but I always have my family there in my uncle.”
I’ve often wondered if his parents would have been okay with him turning pro at such a young age if his coach wasn’t trusted family.
And what makes a 19-year-old millionaire tennis prodigy happy? “My family make me happy. It is my No 1 wish for them to be all healthy. For my friends to be happy. For me to be able to play tennis.”
Simple wishes from a simple boy. “What more could anyone want?” he asks. To beat Federer and become the world’s No 1 player? “That would be good. That could help me to be happy,” he says with a laugh.
And…so he did it.
Football still fascinates him. He watches it whenever he can, and says he will be “hyperactive with excitement” when the World Cup comes round.
Why do I get the feeling that “hyperactive with excitement” is an intense understatement?
Nadal says the things he dislikes the most are losing and pain — in that order. “My uncle keeps saying that losing is important in this game. If you play tennis, you lose, that’s how it is. Only one person can win every game in a tournament. No one man can win every tournament. The best players lose; everybody loses some time. I am learning that lesson, but I do feel much more nervous when I come out to play after having lost. Every week is a different place, a different tournament. You learn that losing is part of this game. But winning — ah, winning is so much nicer.”
Yeah, he’s a confidence player – he does so much better when he’s on a roll. Then again, who doesn’t?
Nadal is a particularly powerful clay- court player, but says the grass of SW19 appeals to him most of all. “My tennis dream is to win Wimbledon. The Spanish do not do well at that tournament and it is a special event. I think every tennis player dreams of winning it one day, don’t they? It would be a beautiful moment to have success there. It’s so special.”
ONCE the interview has finished, Nadal stands up politely to shake my hand, then reaches for his mobile phone, which has been flashing and jumping on the table throughout the interview. “Goodbye. Thank you for come,” he says. “Sorry my English not so good. I only speak quarter of English. Maybe quarter of a quarter. Not good.” I tell him that his English is really not so bad, but he promises to work on it all the same. “Next time you come, I be better,” he says.
He says he always calls Moya before booking his flights, because he loves to travel with lots of people. “It’s more fun always to have friends and family around, isn’t it? I like to have lots of people around — for eating, for flying. Always.”
Never one to like being alone.
I battle on. “He was very good,” I say, speaking in the sort of slow, clear English that one might use when talking to a toddler or a helpless drunk. Still more smiles and nods, then we arrive at his floor. Toni stands in the lift door and takes a deep breath. “He good boy,” he says. “He work hard and he look after people. He nice boy. Goodbye.”
Then, with that succinct summary of his nephew in a language he can neither speak nor understand, he is gone.
With a swing of his cape and a puff of smoke, he is gone. (Sorry, the way that was worded just made me think of super-hero Toni.)
The time may arrive when Nadal’s desire and enthusiasm fade, when his eagerness to throw himself after every shot and head straight home with his uncle after every match becomes subsumed by the effects of money, fame or injuries, but for now Nadal is a treasure.
His self-effacement, lack of self-indulgence and sheer joy at the life he is leading make him a refreshing antidote. Here’s hoping that success doesn’t change things.
Rafa – the pause that refreshes.