To Infinity and Beyond
He has been crowned with his 7th Roland Garros and, being at the very top, he has just announced that an injury will keep him out of the tour for this season. It is not the first time that Rafa Nadal faces himself and triumphs. LOURDES GARZÓN interviews our “Vanity Fair” Personality of the Year in Mallorca and discovers the Nadal factor: a combination of talent, intelligence and perseverance. And they talk about success, money, family and how to maintain a relationship outside foreign curiosity.
When we interview Nadal, two hours have gone by since he has announced that his left knee continues to cause him problems, and he will not be able to play the Davis Cup this year. He estimates, according to the presser, two more months off will be needed to recover. The appointment is in Mallorca, in a golf club at 15:30, while the sport media comment and speculate about the partially torn patella tendon, and without further indications, hence I guess he must have played for a while in the morning and the plan is to talk after lunch while having a coffee. But it appears there has been a misunderstanding and Rafa has been waiting since 14:30. I guess this is not the best way to start with someone who does not like interviews, and I look around searching for a member of his team in charge of protecting him from uncomfortable questions or from an answer that could be misinterpreted on a complicated day. But Rafa is waiting for me accompanied only by his friend Joan, and when he says friend he means it, as they have known each other since they were kids, and the question is settled with a “it is OK”, which both repeat politely till the recorder is turned on. Almost at the end of the interview, Rafa will tell me that he is a very simple person. Always the same, when he wins and when he loses. I believe him. The simplicity, the capacity of making things look easy, simple, requires a lot of effort, a lot of discipline and a permanently under control ego. It is a virtue that is difficult to cultivate when you are twenty-something. It is, in itself, a talent.
In most interviews with Rafa, apart from those short ones on court, it is unavoidable to discuss two ideas. The first one, his irreducible ambition, the obsession for the fight, for the effort, for battling each minute in a match. The second one, his capacity to focus on every shot, on every second. And then, without fail, his resistance to uncover something else about himself. Rafa shows very little, almost always the same side. This morning he is generous and we chat quietly, without dodging questions, without returning balls.
Do you have the feeling that this year has been one of the best and one of the worst?
Until the knee started to cause me problems again, by the end of Roland Garros, it had been one of the best seasons in my life. I felt I was able to win any competition. Afterwards, obviously, complicated times have come, but injuries are part of the sport and you have to accept them with calm. Perhaps stopping now will help to prolong my career a little bit more. You have to accept the situation as best as you can and try to enjoy other things for which I have had very little time in the past years, such as being with my family or with my friends. And that is what I am doing, working to recover as soon as possible, devoting more time to organize myself with the sponsors, trying to enjoy…
Are you afraid?
No. If my career ended today, which is not the case because I hope to go on playing for a long time, I would feel very fortunate with all that I have achieved. I think I am a lucky person.
How do you see yourself in ten years’ time? Will you be able to find a passion as intense as tennis?
I see myself working in something related with the sport. I am a very active person and so I do not think that stopping playing tennis will be a problem. What gives meaning to things is to improve oneself and to try to do it as best as possible. I will have finished a very important period of my life, but I will be happy.
And in five years’ time?
I do not know. I do not know for how long I will keep playing tennis. In five years I will be 31 and, taking into account that I started being 16… But anyway, who knows?
We talk about the book written about his life with the help of John Carlin, journalist and author of the novel on Nelson Mandela that the movie directed by Clint Eastwood, “Invictus”, is based on. “Rafa, mi story” is a biography written in first person and with a curious structure. The base is the 2008 Wimbledon Final, 4 hours and 49 minutes of match, the victory over Roger Federer after two consecutive defeats, very few weeks before becoming number one of the world after winning the gold medal in Beijing. And after each shot, each ball, memories, feelings. The half an hour he spent in the locker room crying in the previous year. Or the day, when at the age of seven, he told his father that he had lost a match for not having trained enough during the holidays and that he did not want to feel that way ever again.
Which was your most recurrent thought during the two years that you lost to Roger in Wimbledon?
In 2006 I was happy for having reached the Final, I did not even face it with the feeling that I could win it. Losing in 2007 was really hard. I had played very well during the whole match and in the 4th set, when I was winning 4-0, 4-1, I felt a sharp pain in the knee and lost focus. And in the 5th set I played very bad. When you lose, you do not know if that will be your last opportunity to win Wimbledon, so it is true, I was very affected.
The following year, in 2008, you won and became number one of the world, what changed with that victory?
Winning helps mentally in the following months. You feel that you have passed a barrier and that you will be able to do it again. You go to your bedroom, see the trophy and feel proud for having achieved it. But this feeling is not permanent at all. 2009, 2010 came later…. Nowadays it hardly affects me.
What has been the most important victory in your life? And I am not only speaking about tennis. When have you felt the greatest feeling of success?
Success is not the victory, but all you have fought to win. The certainty that you have done all that was in your power to get what you wanted. And that feeling makes me very happy. This year I lost the Final in Australia and I did not like it, of course, but somehow I was happy, it was a success to have lost in the way I did.
Tell me about your rivals. I suppose that for anyone who is not an elite athlete is very difficult to imagine how the relationships are really between you. I think above all of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
I have no problem picking up the phone and calling them. We worked a lot together on issues of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) to launch initiatives that we believe could improve our sport, so the relationship is very fluid.
I suppose you know each other well. They spend many hours searching for each other’s weaknesses.
We do not analyze one to another so much! They have been concerned about me, to see how I was, if I would be ready for the US Open. The relationship is very cordial. They are very good colleagues, but the concept of friendship is something else. My friends are the ones I know all my life, since school, since I was four years old.
You repeat many times that should not waste opportunities. Do you have the feeling you have taken advantage of all them in tennis and in life?
I mean that it is impossible to predict the future. You can try to that your life go on one way and, suddenly, everything changes direction. In sports the opportunities are finite, so when one comes along you have to do everything possible. You don’t know if you will get another one; sometimes it’s the only one
You have an apparently very traditional but also very particular family around you. Your uncle has trained you since you were a child and still does. Your father handles your financial affairs. You lived for many years in the same building with your grandparents, cousins …
I suppose being from a village makes family relations are closer. Now I live with my parents and my sister in a different house, but I’m visiting my uncles almost daily. I can only say I’ve been happy with this way of understanding the family.
Seen from outside, the Nadals are a family much more than a well-matched one. More even than a clan. They give the impression of having raised an iron and watertight structure that surrounds and protects him, but also supports him and is capable of affecting him, and a lot, if it cracks. Such as when his parents decided to separate in 2009. Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon and gave up the title that had cost him so much to win the previous year. And he admits that, in addition to pain in the knees, what had in reality paralyzed him was the fact that his family had ceased to be the contention wall he had always known.
If there is something the Nadals show off about, it is a strength of will, an almost legendary stubbornness. The grandfather, Rafael Nadal, was a musician and, according to Rafa, quite a character. He was able to get a chorus of enthusiastic fans, but without the slightest idea of to read music, to interpret in the postwar period (The civil war of Spain), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is clear that his concept of unity exceeds, by far, the average. Nadal has trained since childhood with his father’s brother, Toni Nadal, who is also a partner in the family business. Is not common, and it doesn’t seem easy, to keep the same coach from four years old, to 26. Nor that your coach accompanies you from a small club in Mallorca to the world number one. Much has been said of the character of Toni Nadal, his exigency, his sense of discipline, his obsession with humility while, at the same time, feeding ambition. The Toni Nadal method appears to have two commandments. The first, work. The second, work. And between doing one and another, do not think you are anything special, do not give a minute to self complacency, do not to celebrate a victory. But be able, for example, in the middle of a injury, to arrive each morning to the court and hit balls for hours seated in a chair. What for? To keep the head busy, the body under tension, the willpower trained.
When does Toni Nadal his job best? In the good or bad times?
I think in the bad times.
It doesn’t seem easy for a child and his coach to be able to grow so much professionally together. How has your uncle become one of the best coaches in the world?
Sport is something quite logical and simple. If you have common sense, you live it with passion and you care about doing things well, you achieve it. And he has done that.
Your team it is also very stable, you have surrounded your entire career, practically, with the same people, so I imagine that loyalty is very important to you. What do you consider a betrayal?
I’m an easy going person. I have not fired anyone in my life. I value the work and the implication. Things can turn out better or worse, but when everything possible is done, there is nothing to object.
He does not say it but I imagine that for Rafa Nadal disloyalty may have much to do with an indiscretion, a leak about his private life, which he has managed to protect all these years. Of his younger sister, Maribel, we have hardly seen pictures, and we just know that she has studied Physical Education in Barcelona. About his girlfriend, Xisca Perello, that she works in London for an insurance company after graduating in Business Administration and Management. It’s not easy to have been in a relationship with Rafa Nadal for five years without anyone even having heard your tone of voice.
You are especially hermetic with your private life. May I ask why you find it so hard to talk, for example, about your girlfriend?
I think that discretion is best for me and for her. Otherwise, in the end, it turns everything into a show which seems to me totally unnecessary and very uncomfortable. I try to live in peace and quite. I am conscious that all this is temporary and afterwards you return to a relatively normal life.
In fact, you’ve never had a normal life. I suppose that being so famous and so rich at a young age makes everything very exceptional..
Yes, I have lived in anonymity and I remember it.
Do you know how much money you have?
No, the truth is that I am far from knowing it. It’s not something I’m directly concerned with. My father takes care of it. I do not have too many whims. I have only bought a car in my life, after winning the Wimbledon final.I have not even bought a house, I live with my parents and I’m happy like that. There will be time for other things. I do not need more, I do not lack anything and I have much more than I could have dreamed.
It’s almost five o’clock in the afternoon, Rafa smiles and Joan smiles and the two smiles seem to be a polite way of saying, well that is. I say goodbye and Rafa apologizes. “Excuse me, II have to run, my mother is expecting me to eat and she is going to kill me ….”
Here’s a low quality scan of the magazine article. But please, go out and buy your own copy – let Vanity Fair that Rafa sells issues so that we can see more of him in the future.