A bizarre and tension-filled interview in The Times (subscription only) sent in by Emma (thanks). I think when it starts with the interviewer upset that she can see Rafa’s undies (guess she doesn’t cover sports much if men in their undies is upsetting to her) and then asking about him tugging his undies, it’s not going to be a good interview…
Anyone for tension?
He’s the tennis superstar who has netted a fortune, has hordes of admirers and is happy with his girlfriend. Yet something’s bugging Rafael Nadal
Lynn Barber Published: 5 June 2011
If anyone else tells me what a lovely lad Rafael Nadal is, I shall scream. He is not a lad, he has just turned 25, which is admittedly young, but he is in his ninth year on the professional tennis circuit, has won nine Grand Slam titles and is worth at least £68m. And I didn’t find him lovely at all. When I finally met him in his hotel suite in Rome (he was playing the Rome Masters), he was lying on a massage table with his flies undone affording me a good view of his Armani underpants — Armani being one of his many sponsors, natch.
No doubt at this point all his millions of fans will start screaming with jealousy and resolving to kill me, but honestly, kiddos, it was a bit rude. He just lay there glowering at me while I perched awkwardly on a nearby table until eventually his PR, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, fetched me a chair. Benito remained in the background and whenever Nadal didn’t like a question (which was pretty much every time I asked one) he asked Benito to “translate”, which meant they conferred in Spanish till the PR delivered some smooth PR-y answer. Nadal’s command of English seemed highly variable but never great.
Everyone kept telling me that Rafa was so tired and had had a bad day. But then I was so tired and had had a bad day too, traipsing round the boiling Foro Italico stadium, surviving on bottled water, watching his boring match, waiting for his press conference, then hanging about with mobs of screaming fans waiting for him to emerge from the players’ entrance.
He eventually came out with a posse of security men, signed a few autographs, and was whisked off in his car. I was told to follow and meet him at his hotel, which turned out to be some characterless sports/conference complex miles outside Rome — it could have been in Croydon. His bad day only consisted of playing one short tennis match and signing a few autographs, which I thought was what tennis players were paid to do.
He admitted at the press conference that he had played badly, dropping a set to a completely unknown Italian, but he offered no excuses. However, other people were quick to offer them for him: it was the day of Seve Ballesteros’s funeral and Rafa adored Ballesteros.
When he went to sign his name on the TV lens (apparently one of those rituals they do at tennis tournaments), he signed Seve instead of Rafa. And, according to David Law, media director for the Aegon Championships at the Queen’s Club, who very kindly served as my guide to the tennis world, Rafa was definitely below par the day we met, and two days later was diagnosed with a virus. He then went on to lose the Rome finals to Novak Djokovic, having lost the Madrid Masters to him the Sunday before, so his position as world No 1 was looking shaky.
What do we know about Rafa Nadal? Only what his minders want you to. He was born in 1986 in Manacor, Majorca. His father is a businessman but the whole family is sporty — one uncle was a professional footballer known as the Beast of Barcelona. Another uncle, Toni, a former tennis semi-pro, taught Rafa to play tennis from the age of three, and encouraged him to hold the racket in his left hand, even though he is naturally right-handed. Rafa played in the Spanish juniors and was urged to go to tennis school in Barcelona, but he chose to stay in Majorca with his family; Uncle Toni has been his only coach throughout his career.
He started playing professionally when he was just 15 and won his first Grand Slam at 19. He lost his first two Wimbledons, but finally won against Roger Federer in 2008. For a while he seemed unstoppable, but then a string of knee injuries (tendinitis) meant he didn’t win a title for almost a year, and commentators started saying he might have to retire. He missed Wimbledon in 2009, partly because of injury but also because his parents split up and he was very upset — “For one month I was outside the world.” But he bounced back in 2010 and there has been no talk of tendinitis recently. However, he is now under threat from Djokovic.
Despite his vast wealth — £24m in winnings, probably twice that in sponsorship — everyone agrees that he is unspoilt, unchanged. His best friends are still the friends he made at school; his hobbies are football, golf and fishing. He goes back to his home town, Manacor, whenever he has time, and shares a big apartment block with his mother, sister, grandparents and Uncle Toni’s family. He also has a beach house at Porto Cristo, Majorca (not Ibiza, as the press sometimes says), where he likes to go fishing. Two years ago he bought a £2m beachfront house with its own golf course in the Dominican Republic, but has never stayed there. I asked if there was some tax reason for choosing the Dominican Republic, but he said no, he pays all his taxes in Spain, but he has some property investments in Mexico and thought it would be good to have a base near there for when he retires. He also has a charity foundation, run by his mother, which collaborated in opening a school with three tennis courts in India.
Anyway, back to the interview. Since I had such an unfettered view of his underpants, I decided to ask about them. Frankly, I’m amazed any underwear company should want to sponsor Nadal, given that his on-court behaviour always screams “My pants are killing me!” He can’t go five minutes without fiddling with them; they seem to get sucked into his buttocks and then he has to pull them out. I remember the first time I saw him at Wimbledon thinking: “Gosh, he’s supposed to earn millions… you’d think he could afford some decent underwear by now.”
I asked whether his contract stipulated that he should wear Armani underwear on court and he said: “I don’t have to but I am very happy to wear Armani because their underwear is fantastic.”
Then why is he always fiddling with it? “That is something I am doing all my career, something that I cannot control.” Has he ever tried to stop? “It is difficult for me because it bothers me all the time, and I play with different underwears — long, short — but it is impossible to stop.”
Perhaps it’s just another of those Rafa rituals that all his fans adore. Every time he comes on court, he waves at the crowd, sits down, gets his water bottles out of his bag, takes a sip from each, then carefully lines them up so that their labels all face precisely the same way.
It takes a long time and his opponent is meanwhile standing by the net, waiting for the coin toss, getting quite irritated, I imagine. Eventually, when Rafa has faffed and fiddled enough, he leaps to his feet and does a sort of Superman swoop across the court and starts jumping up and down in his opponent’s face while the umpire tosses his coin. Then he races to the baseline as if he’s dying to start the match and his opponent has been unfairly delaying things. The fans love it. What can I say?
I asked if he suffered from OCD, but of course this required translation and much conferring with his PR and produced the eventual answer: “It is something you start to do that is like a routine. When I do these things it means I am focused, I am competing — it’s something I don’t need to do but when I do it, it means I’m focused.” Does he have other rituals, perhaps in the locker room, before the match? “I always have a cold shower.” Any particular rituals before he goes to sleep? “No. I have to have the TV or computer on, but I turn it off if I wake up. What I normally do is have dinner, do some work with Rafael, my physio, then sleep.” Gripping stuff.
As far as I can see, Nadal has made only one (mildly) controversial remark in his life, and that was in 2009, when he criticised Andre Agassi for saying in his autobiography, Open, that he had taken crystal meth while he was still on the tour. Nadal said that tennis was a clean sport, and it was very bad of Agassi to suggest otherwise.
Was it really news to him that anyone in tennis took drugs? This required heavy conferring with his PR, but he eventually came back with: “Well, that’s something that’s all in the past. But I was shocked. I know Agassi did a lot of good things for tennis but that book wasn’t one of those things. You [Agassi] didn’t feel bad when you were playing and then you feel bad five years after you retire — it’s not a moral thing. Anyway, that is something that is impossible today. We have 25 drugs tests a year.”
Agassi also said in his book that he grew to hate tennis, having played it so relentlessly for so long. Nadal says that could never happen to him — he loves tennis — but he wishes the tour could be shorter. All the ATP players have to commit to playing 16 obligatory tournaments, but Nadal in addition always plays Barcelona, for the sake of his family and Majorcan friends; he also plays Qatar as preparation for the Australian Open, and Queen’s as preparation for Wimbledon, which means he plays 11 months a year. And of course, because he is rarely knocked out in the early rounds, he never gets time off.
“For sure,” he sighs, “the tour is not perfect. In my opinion, three months is the minimum time you should be off. If not, we have a shorter career. Everyone has a shorter career and it’s not good for the sport, not good for the players, not good for the fans.”
I asked if his history of knee injuries meant he would be more crippled when he is 50 than someone who had never played tennis. He said: “For sure. When you play 11 months of the year, mostly on hard courts, that’s what happens, yes.” So, it’s a hard life, and a very, very unnatural one. The players live inside a bubble surrounded by these great phalanxes of middle-aged minders, big-bellied habitués of the hospitality tent who don’t seem to have anything much to do except talk on their mobiles. If required to do so by a journalist like me, they will effuse about their “boy” and what a lovely lad he is, and how he loves his football and his fishing and is so close to his family, etc, etc, wheeling out their tired old stereotype of what a lovely lad consists of, and you think, hang on, your “boy” could eat 10 of you for breakfast — why do you talk so patronisingly about him?
And why do you find it so remarkable that he is still close to his family and still sees his old friends? Presumably because you’re the sort of sleazeball who dropped your old friends and family the minute you moved up in the world.
One journalist found it incredible that Rafa still had the same mobile phone a year after winning Wimbledon that he had the year before. Rafa (good man) said it was a perfectly good phone, it worked, why change it? But the journalist seemed to take this as evidence of an almost saintly degree of unworldliness, right up there with the Dalai Lama.
The degree of publicity control in sport is comparable to the heyday of Hollywood, when they had these great studio PR machines that took young actors as soon as they were signed and proceeded to invent their life stories for them. Merle Oberon was told she grew up in Tasmania, when she actually grew up in Bombay, which made life difficult when she had to give interviews in Australia. The game was exposed in Oscar Levant’s remark, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” ie, before the studio got their mitts on her. And poor old Rock Hudson had to die of Aids before anyone could admit he was gay.
Anyway, it means that sports stars, like Hollywood stars of old, are forced to live within the boring and meagre straitjackets their publicity machines have crafted for them. But once in a while the machine breaks down, most memorably in the case of Tiger Woods. Here was a brilliant golfer whose minders and sponsors dictated that he was also Mr Wholesome, a clean-living family man and role model for “lads” around the world. And lo! He turns out to have a long, sleazy history with hookers. And the world — or at any rate his sponsors — throw up their hands and shout This is appalling! We are amazed, we are shocked to the core, we wash our hands of him. Whereas, in fact, if they were doing their jobs and knew anything at all about him, they would have known it was all a charade.
I wanted to ask Rafa about Tiger Woods and spent a long time before the interview plotting how I could best raise his name without looking too obvious, but then Rafa saved me the trouble by raising it himself. Almost out of the blue, having talked about Seve Ballesteros (usual paeans), he said: “But if I have an idol, I love Tiger Woods.”
Crikey. I almost fainted with excitement. Er, and did his opinion of him change when he found out? “No, it didn’t change my opinion of him because I don’t care about his personal life. Nobody must care about his personal life — Tiger Woods is a very important person in the world because he plays golf.” But when he’s been marketed as this great clean-living role model for the young and then it turns out…?
“Well, I don’t want to discuss about these things, but in my opinion” — which unfortunately required a great deal of translation and discussion with his PR, who eventually came back with: “He says Tiger never hurt anybody in the outside world, he only hurt himself. He is a role model for him on the golf course and also in public because he always behaved properly. But what he does in private is his personal life, nobody else’s, and Rafa says his problems with his wife are his problems with his wife, not anybody else’s.” Yes, but there’s a certain hypocrisy in allowing himself to be marketed as Mr Clean. This remark doesn’t seem to need translation because Rafa responds sharply: “Well. Anyway. Next question.”
Right. Which brings me to the subject of The Girlfriend. Her existence was unveiled to the world by Uncle Toni in 2008 (though unveiled is perhaps not the word) when he said Rafa had a childhood sweetheart back home in Majorca called Maria Francisca Perello, or Xisca for short. Nadal was quoted as saying: “She is perfect for me, because she is very relaxed and easy-going and I’ve known her for a long, long time. Our families have been friends for many years.”
Hardly the language of passion, you’ll agree, but at least from then on he had an official girlfriend, which made up for the fact that his sleeveless tops and bulging biceps reminded one inexorably of Freddie Mercury. But The Girlfriend remains a distant presence, never actually around.
She sometimes makes an appearance at his finals, among his family, but even long-time tennis insiders have never met her. Nadal says he sees her whenever he goes back to Majorca, but for a young man in peak physical condition, it doesn’t suggest the height of sexual fulfilment.
Anyway, I asked if he was going to marry The Girlfriend and he said flatly, No.
Rafa: “Not now, no. I don’t have any plans in that way.”
Me: “Do you mean you’ve split up?”
Rafa: “No. I don’t talk about the girlfriend in public, but I have the same girlfriend since many years.”
Me: “When do you meet?”
Rafa: “Her house is very close to my house, so when I am in Majorca I see her, and when she has holidays sometimes she comes to the tournaments, but she cannot follow the tour around because she has to do her work. [She works for a big insurance company.] She has her life and I have my life.”
Me: “Do you think she’ll wait for you? To get married when you finish tennis?”
Rafa: “I didn’t ask her to.”
Me: “But if you only see her — what? — 30 days a year, it can’t be a very fulfilling relationship?”
Nadal, for the first time in our interview, turns his full attention on me, a laser stare, and for a second I can imagine what it must be like to stand on the baseline waiting to receive his serve.
“But do you care about my relationship?”
Well, no, I have to admit, as the ace whizzes past me, of course I don’t give a toss about his relationship, I’m just trying to interview him. Somehow this breaks the tension, and we both laugh.
Rafa: “I understand your point, but I never talk about my girlfriend. I have a fantastic relationship with her, we understand each other. It is not a problem for her if I travel every week, and for me not a problem if, when I am in Majorca, she has to work all day.”
Me: “Do you talk on the phone though?”
Rafa: “No. When I am in a tournament I have to concentrate. Sure, I talk every day with her.”
Me: “I’m confused now.”
Rafa: “Forget about my girlfriend.”
Me: “Do you call your mother every day?”
Rafa: “Yes. My mother, my sister, my father, everybody.”
I am confused.
I can only record that there was a big difference in the enthusiasm with which he said he phoned his mother and sister every day, and whatever he was saying, or not saying, about his girlfriend. I’ll be pretty amazed if he ever marries her, though.
According to the Majorcan press, they split up last year, then got together again. Before that there were rumours that he was “close” to the Danish player Caroline Wozniacki. There was also a curious episode a year and a half ago when he made a “steamy” video with the Colombian singer Shakira for her single Gypsy and was photographed having what looked like a romantic dinner with her. It seemed like an attempt to rebrand Nadal as a stud. But then the rebranding was cancelled when Benito revealed that he was present, along with Nadal’s manager, Shakira’s manager and half a dozen others, so it was hardly a tête-à-tête. And someone who had seen the outtakes of the Gypsy video told me they showed Shakira having to tickle Nadal to get him to smile.
Listen: I dare say Nadal really is a lovely man (though I refuse to say lad). But the point I’m trying to make is, whether he is or isn’t I wouldn’t know, and you wouldn’t either. He lives within this tight stockade of team Rafa, and sticks to the script his minders have written for him. It must require great discipline to be so controlled, but then it must require great discipline to be a world champion anyway.
Oh, for a McEnroe, a Connors, an Agassi! There was a time, o best beloved, when tennis players had temperaments, when they threw rackets, shouted at umpires and had sex in broom cupboards and quite often behaved very badly.
Nadal has never thrown a racket in his life — his Uncle Toni trained him not to.
And the tennis player he most admires is Björn Borg, whom he admires precisely because he had “ice in his veins”, which was what always made him so deadly dull to watch. But Borg, we might note, retired at 26, not from injury but because he was burnt out. All that discipline must take its toll on a young man.
Even more than the injuries, the psychological attrition of having to be on your best behaviour each day, to play match after match, to give press conference after press conference, to meet and greet sponsors, the sheer boredom of living on this treadmill without even the consolation of a regular sex life must wear anyone down.
And for Nadal, already the best may be over. He was No 1 when I started this article, but could be No 2 by the time you read it. I asked if he might retire at 26, as Borg did. “If I have injury I could. I really don’t know. Nobody knows the future. But it’s something I prefer to believe is not going to happen.”
Rafael Nadal will take on Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick at the Aegon Championships, at the Queen’s Club, June 6-12; www.aegonchampionships.com