|COVER STORY: JUNE 2008|
Rafael Nadal is so immensely famous in Spain that at the Barcelona tournament he needed an extra security detail just to be able to walk to his matches. “It’s like I’m a rock star here,” he said, without a hint of bravado.
To say that three-time Roland Garros champion Nadal is a humble guy is an understatement. Just ask his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, what it is like to practice with him on the public courts at home in Manacor, Mallorca.
“Last year when we were at home training, we often had many tourists passing by to watch us practice,” he said. “Many times they came and asked for an autograph or a photo, but sometimes they asked if they could hit a few balls with Rafa. So we had to stop practice because Rafa obliged them, even though they are not very good. I have told him that maybe we cannot do this all the time.”
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For a second, just try and imagine John McEnroe stopping his practice sessions to bat the ball around with foreign tourists. You cannot be serious!
Perhaps this might all sound too good to be true, but for those who have spent some time with the Nadal family, this is just their way of life.
“Because Rafa’s uncle, Miguel Angel, was a very successful athlete, the family had already been exposed to having a star in the family,” said Carlos Costa, Nadal’s agent. “So this wasn’t the first time they have dealt with it, and they know how to handle the attention and the people...but this is also why you never really see Rafa’s parents with him at each tournament. They understand and want to give him space to focus on tennis, but they also are busy at home because they have their own life, working and taking care of their daughter.”
Then again, the Nadal family is not your typical tennis family. Made up of four brothers, Sebastian, Rafael, Miguel Angel, Toni, and one sister, Maria Elena, the entire family lives in Manacor, a town of about 35,000 on the island of Mallorca. Proving just how close-knit a group they are, the entire extended family lives in the same apartment complex. (Their father, Rafael senior, purchased this land to keep his family close by).
Rafa shares an apartment with his parents, Sebastian and Ana Maria, and his younger sister. He still dates a local girl, Xisca Perello. With prize money close to $16 million and off-court endorsements beyond that, it might seem a bit unusual for a 21-year-old superstar to be living with his parents, but for Rafa it is totally natural.
“I could not imagine living somewhere else,” he says. “For me, it is normal to live at home and be with my family, they are very important to me.”
The Nadal clan also bestowed more than just a sense of strong family values on young Rafa. Early on, he was influenced by and exhibited a strong passion for sports, thanks in large part to his uncles. Uncle Miguel Angel, nicknamed the “Beast of Barcelona” was a former soccer star for Futbol Club Barcelona. Uncle Rafael, also a decent soccer player, played professionally in the second league. Uncle Toni decided to go a different route and pursue pro tennis.
Says Toni, “Rafa was a very enthusiastic young kid that loved sport. I have always said I like the passion in things. I do not like to see people who don’t have a passion for what they do — this is what Rafa has, ever since he was small, and the intention was to realize that potential.”
Rafa was given his first racket by Toni at the age of three, but then really started to play more consistently when he was five at the Manacor Tennis Club where Tony taught.
“Little by little, we began to train, play a bit more and then it sort of became a routine,” Nadal said. “In the end, it became something professional.”
It was not long before Toni realized that his young nephew had both the passion and talent to be a serious player.
“I remember I was in Mallorca for an event in maybe ‘91 or ‘92,” Costa said. “I was still playing pro tennis and Toni told me about his nephew being really good...and I thought for him to be telling me about a five-year-old kid was crazy! I mean, to know that a kid that young is special is very, very difficult, but he knew what he was talking about.”
Unlike some of his junior compatriots, Rafa chose to stay on Mallorca and pursue his dreams full-time under Toni’s guidance.
“This demonstrates that if it’s in you, if you want to work, you can work in any place,” Toni said. “I don’t want to believe that you have to go to America, or other places to be a good athlete. You can do it from your house. In my family, we had two athletes who have been successful. Miguel lived and trained his whole life in Manacor, and Rafael does the same things to continue at this level.”
Luckily for Rafa, he did have the unique opportunity of being able to rely on another Mallorca resident, Carlos Moya.
“I had heard about him already in Mallorca, but I never got to see him,” said former No. 1 Moya. “And then when he was 14, we started to practice together. When I was younger, I was in the spot that he wanted to be, so he asked me questions and I tried to advise him a little...but on the court, he also helped me a lot. When I was practicing with him, he was 14, 15, and 16 years old and I didn’t want to lose to him! He forces you to improve because he’s so good. I helped him, and he helped me a lot.”
As Roland Garros approaches, all eyes will be on the 21-year-old Nadal. Over the last three clay seasons, Rafa has become a legend: he held an 81-match winning streak on dirt, a three-year hold on the world’s No. 2 ranking, three Roland Garros titles, an open-era record four straight TMS Monte Carlo crowns, four straight Barcelona titles, and three TMS Rome titles. Plus, he has a 7-1 winning record over No. 1 Roger Federer on clay.
At just over six feet tall, he’s pure muscle and all heart. Sporting Capri pants and a gritty, never-say-die attitude on clay, he has the ability to get fans deeply involved with his on-court acrobatics and fist pumps.
Says two-time Roland Garros winner, Sergi Bruguera: “I’m like everybody else — I’m very impressed with his physical condition and his will to fight — especially these days when you don’t see any guys who are fighters, these guys who have a good game, and then if it doesn’t go their way, they go home. You can see with Rafa maybe he’s not playing well, but he’s still winning. He fights, he moves and he uses tactics to find a way to win.”
With each passing year, the pressure increases on the small island kid. This year, the world will watch to see if Nadal can employ his tireless defense, his huge, hooking lefty forehand and pinpoint passing shots effectively to win his fourth consecutive French title. That accomplishment would make the Spaniard the first player to do so since the great Bjorn Borg’s run from ‘78 to ‘81.
“I am not sure why I am so good on clay,” Nadal said with a laugh. “It’s not that I have intended to specifically win on this surface...I just play the best that I can, I play as much as possible and I fight to get to the finals.”
This season, Nadal has posted solid if unspectacular results on hardcourts, reaching the Aussie Open semis where he was smoked by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; the Indian Wells final, where he was punched out by Novak Djokovic, and the Miami final where Nikolay Davydenko ran past him. Back on clay, he was ferocious in grabbing a three-set victory over Federer in the Monte Carlo final and was simply devastating in pasting countryman David Ferrer in the Barcelona final. But in Rome, two straight weeks of play caught up to him and former French Champ and countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero chopped him down.
Still, if he comes into Paris healthy, where he has only lost seven sets in his 21 consecutive victories, Nadal will once again be a sizeable favorite. He’s deeply aware of the expectations and the criticism that awaits him, but as usual, he’ll just try to focus on the moment.
“What I love about tennis is the competition,” he said with
a smile. “Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved to compete and win at
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