Photo by Cesar Rangel
The real deal
Rafa Nadal is carrying on a long tradition of great Spanish tennis players
As he enters the private dining room adjacent to the tennis centre, the other diners can’t help but look up and stare at him. They try to play it cool, disguising their awe between mouthfuls of curry and rice, but there is just something surreal about seeing 20-year-old Rafael Nadal, up close, in the flesh.
Nadal goes about his business unassumingly, checking out the buffet spread, bobbing his head to the music on his iPod, all the while patiently waiting to fill up his dinner plate. When he’s finally seated and ready to eat, a horde of autograph seekers descend upon him. Nadal is happy to oblige, and offers up a smile and a “Thank you” to each and every one of them. His English is improving, he told Metropolitan: “It’s a bit better all the time, it’s very important to learn English. I don’t take any lessons, but I am really working on it.”
Only two hours ago, Rafael Nadal was busy crushing his opponent, on the stadium court, to a packed house. This Rafa Nadal, the one casually sitting in the dining room, is soft-spoken, shy and even prone to staring at the ground as he answers questions. The wardrobe isn’t even right. He’s wearing khaki shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. But, if you look a little closer and a little deeper, you can spot it—it’s all in the eyes. They’re a dead giveaway for the other Nadal—the tremendously powerful tennis player who destroys his opponents with a combination of aggressive shot-making, fist-pumps and on-court acrobatics.
So what’s with the on-court and off-court personalities? “It’s the way I am,” said Nadal, smiling. “I love to play tennis and compete 100 percent, and I want to be the best. But, my ambition is also to be a very normal guy, a regular guy.”
Since he officially turned pro and joined the Associated Tour of Professionals (ATP) in 2001, Rafa Nadal has already achieved what most other tennis players could never aspire to in the course of an entire career: back-to-back Roland Garros Grand Slam titles, a Davis Cup Trophy for Spain and 20 ATP titles (17 singles, three doubles). To top that off, factor in year-to-date prize earnings of over eight million dollars and a number of lucrative sponsorship contracts, including Nike and Kia.
Preceding Rafael Nadal’s arrival on the sporting scene, his uncle, Miguel Angel, was the athletic superstar in the family. A top footballer first with FC Barcelona and then Real Madrid, he was nicknamed ‘the beast of Barcelona’. Miguel Angel Nadal played on the Spanish National squad and in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. “My uncle played in Barcelona for eight years,” said a beaming Nadal. “I was lucky enough to watch some of the games in Camp Nou. It’s one of the best stadiums in the world—beautiful, open and with a special feeling to it. I am a Real Madrid fan, though, and every time I am in Madrid they treat me very well.”
Born in Manacor, Mallorca in 1986, Nadal has spent his entire life on the Balearic island, and even to this day, when’s he not competing on the tennis tour he lives at home with his parents, Sebastian and Ana María, and his younger sister, Isabel. Nadal started playing tennis not because of parental influence, but rather because of another uncle, Toni Nadal. A former tennis player, Toni was the one to give Rafa Nadal his first racket as a child. Soon enough, the youngster was beating fellow juniors—in his age group and above. While some of his peers decided to move to bigger cities or academies to pursue their tennis dreams, the thought never crossed Nadal’s mind. He continued to live and train in Mallorca, and as fate would have it, he crossed paths with another Spanish champion and island resident, Carlos Moyá.
Moya, a former Roland Garros champion and world number one, is no stranger to the spotlight or carrying the responsibility of being tennis’s ‘next big thing’. Although Moyá is 10 years older than Nadal, the two often practise together and played together on the winning Davis Cup team for Spain in 2004. “A few years ago I asked him [Nadal] if he would like to have a career like mine,” a smiling Moyá told Metropolitan. “He looked at me with the sincerity that you usually find in small children and said, quite seriously, that he aspired to more. And, I knew that he would be a better player than me.”
While the task might seem daunting, Rafael Nadal seems to be right on track. Since capturing the Roland Garros title in 2005 (at 19), Nadal has compiled an impressive winning record of 62 matches on clay. In doing so, he surpassed the previous record of 53 matches set by Guillermo Villas in 1977. While he is clearly dominant on clay, Nadal is determined to prove that he can play on all surfaces. He fought his way to the 2006 Wimbledon final, and became the first Spaniard since Manuel Orantes to pull off this feat. Even more startling, Nadal is the only ATP player to hold a winning record over current world number one, Roger Federer. Leading their head-to-head meetings at 6-3, he has been able to score victories over Federer on both clay and hard courts. “As far as this year goes, I hope that I can become the top player in the world,” said Nadal. “I don’t want to set any goals or make any predictions about winning another Roland Garros or any other tournament. I just like to take my results week by week and tournament by tournament.”
When he is not travelling on the tour, Nadal likes to be at home in Manacor. Among his off-court passions are watching football, playing video games and a bit of reading. “The last book I read…,” he thought for a moment, “…was in 1990—just kidding! No, the last book I read was called La Ciudad de Las Bestias by Isabel Allende. I really enjoyed it. I’d like to read more, but I just don’t always have the time.”
Nadal has also found that Barcelona has become sort of a home-away-from-home for him. “I come to Barcelona a lot,” he said. “Whether it’s for medical reasons, something to do for a sponsor or seeing friends, I am often there. Barcelona is really a pretty city, it’s so easy to be there, live there, it doesn’t have the traffic or chaos of Madrid. I usually stay at Carlos Moya’s apartment, but I am seriously thinking about buying a place there.”