By Bill Simons
Early on at the US Open, as I wandered through the players lounge—amidst the usual blur of coaches, girlfriends, and hangers-on—an over-the-top player was playing foosball with two young American kids. It was loud, intense, and fun. An adolescent glee-fest, it arose from the din—such joy.
No one knew who those two kids were. Everyone knew who the player was: Rafa Nadal.
Elated and captivated by the intensity of the game, here was an unbridled delight. One of the world’s most celebrated sportsmen seemed to be but a boy: simple, uncomplicated, and captivated by the pleasure of play.
Such is Rafa Nadal, a man with few of the nuances of the comic and occasionally philosophical Novak Djokovic. A happy lad, free of Andy Murray’s sullen moods, and Roger Federer’s occasional flashes of metro self-absorption.
I wondered, what makes this man seem so content? So I asked Rafa about the relationship between his game and his life. “I always had the theory,” he said, “that [the] most important thing is to be happy, enjoy what you are doing, and be fresh mentally … Everything very normal. Nothing strange in my life. I practice. I practice physical performance, practice tennis. I go fishing. I play golf. I go party when I have the chance to go party. That’s all. Really normal guy, normal life.”
So, unlike Djokovic, Rafa doesn’t go to Buddhist temples. He’ll eat pizza and other “non-gluten” forbidden pleasures.
In a vain, “look-at-moi” age of ego and excess, Rafa is the most humble champion tennis has ever sported. To him, every tournament is “one of the best” in the sport. To him, Federer is amazing. Rafa is never the favorite in any match anywhere, and God forbid if you dare suggest the master of all matters clay is the best clay-court player of all time. When we asked him why he is beloved around the world, he replied, “I am not the right one to answer … The only thing I can say is I try to be fair. I try to be correct with everybody. I try to be friendly with everybody. That’s all, no? … I am a positive player … I try my best in every moment. Even [when] things are not going well, I am never very sad or doing a negative attitude. Outside of the court I try to sign [autographs for] everybody. I try to make the photos. I act like a normal person … But what really makes me happy is what I did to have this trophy with me. So that’s what really produced these emotional moments [when he cried on court after winning the US Open]—working hard in tough moments, trying to be positive.”
Yes, you could say that Rafa’s appeal is basic, even animalistic. Federer’s Nike symbol is that fancy medieval “RF.” Rafa’s symbol is a bull. US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka told IT that she would be rooting for Nadal in the final “because he [practiced] with his shirt off.” Need we say more?
But don’t be fooled, there is little that is really normal about Rafa.
He obsesses over the smallest of details: Have you ever seen a player place his courtside bottles with more surgical care? He tugs at his pants and twitches as if he’s being attacked by an unhappy mosquito. His left bicep rivals that of Atlas. He was born on an island in the Mediterranean—hardly a tennis factory—and he’s long been coached by his unsparing uncle, Toni Nadal. He briefly played right-handed, but now is a southpaw—an inconvenient, often overlooked, reality which drives many of his foes nuts. And that high-bouncing corkscrew forehand of his is a wonder of the modern game. Nerds tell us it has about a billion RPMs. Were it not for that dandy shot, Mr. Federer may well have won well over 20 Slams.
Beyond this, Rafa has always been able to change his game: faster serve, slower serve, standing in, more aggressive, great backhand slice, improved volleys. Plus, he’s arguably—along with Jimmy Connors and Pancho Gonzalez—the toughest fighter in tennis history.
Rafa was outplayed during the critical third set of the US Open men’s final against Djokovic. But at 4-all , he managed to come back from a 0-40 deficit. Then, when Djokovic suffered a slight lapse—the loss of a scramble-point, and a flubbed forehand—Rafa pounced, blasting a forehand winner to steal the set, and really the match, which he won 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 over his drained foe.
One senses that Rafa invests in every game, every point, every stroke. It matters, the urgency clear. But why? He told IT, “I’ve always had it [that fighting spirit]. I did because I worked so hard since since I was a little kid. It’s true that my uncle made me play under a lot of pressure in every practice when I was a kid. Playing under that pressure in every practice I was able to play with as high an intensity as possible. I’m sure that [because] he did that for me all those years, that is precisely why today I’m able to exist in this tournament.”
“Exist in this tournament,” he says. Alas, what a typical Nadalian understatement!
Of course, Rafa more than existed in the US Open. He convincingly won his 13th Slam. And, in this stunning year, in which Federer and Murray have had mixed results and in which Rafa is coming off seven months of recovery from a bum knee, he has shown once and for all that he is no mere clay specialist. Yes, his dominance on dirt oddly obscures that he has reached five Wimbledon finals. But this year, incredibly, he has a 21-0 record on hard courts. Indeed, commentator Mary Carillo said that the best matches she has seen on grass, clay, and hard courts have all featured the Spaniard: Nadal’s 2008 Wimbledon final, his classic marathon 2012 Aussie Open loss to Djokovic, and his triumphant victory over Djokovic in the semis at this year’s French Open.
But ultimately what makes Rafa so wondrous is his disarming simplicity. His joy for the game. His willingness to embrace the battle. His heartfelt recognition of his foes and his love.
His love of the moment. His love of the arena. His love of tennis.
Having said that, the 27-year old now has 13 Slams, 26 Masters titles, and an Olympic Gold. He’s led Spain to Davis Cup glory again and again, and has a whopping 21-10 winning record against Federer. So let the Greatest of All-Time debates roar loud. After all, it’s only normal.