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About the Author
Matt Oldfield is an accomplished writer and the editor-in-chief of football review site Of Pitch and Page . Tom Oldfield is a freelance sports writer and the author of biographies on Cristiano Ronaldo, Arsène Wenger and Rafael Nadal.
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By Tom Oldfield
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Tom Oldfield
All rights reserved.
TAKING THE FIRST STEPS TO THE TOP
Rafael Nadal's journey to becoming the best tennis player on the planet and Mallorca's favourite son has been a story of hard graft and indestructible confidence, dating back to his earliest days.
He was born on June 3, 1986 in Manacor, Mallorca to parents Sebastian Nadal and Ana Maria Parera and grew up in the town with his parents and younger sister Maria Isabel. The family unit, with the Nadals all living in close proximity in Mallorca, was always special for Rafa and being part of such a tight-knit group was an important aspect of his childhood.
His parents worked hard to provide a happy environment – Sebastian in charge of a glass factory, (and later a range of entrepreneurial efforts) Ana Maria as a beautician before raising the children. They nurtured their son's talents but always kept him grounded. This approach has ensured that Nadal is as popular for his modest, friendly demeanour as he is for his outstanding displays on the court.
It was immediately clear that Rafa was a natural sportsman as he began playing tennis aged three. And it came as little surprise considering the sporting prowess of his family. His uncle Miguel Angel Nadal, played football for Real Mallorca, Barcelona and Spain, earning the nickname 'The Beast of Barcelona' for the intensity and physicality of his playing style. Meanwhile, another of his uncles, Toni, quickly became involved as Rafa's tennis coach.
The story behind Nadal's decision to become a left-handed player has frequently been attributed to Toni's insistence that this approach would bring greater benefit for the youngster's prospects. But the Spaniard dispelled that myth in his autobiography, Rafa, explaining: 'The truth is that I began playing when I was very small, and because I wasn't strong enough to hit the ball over the net, I'd hold the racquet with both hands, on the forehand as well as the backhand. Then one day my uncle said, "There are no professional players who play with two hands and we're not going to be the first ones, so you've got to change.' So I did, and what came naturally to me was to play left-handed.
Rafa recalled one of his uncle's early lectures – on not throwing his racquet in dismay – when speaking to Sport Magazine: 'My uncle told me when I was a child that if I did it, he would stop coaching me. He said that, if I make a bad shot, it is not the racquet's fault – it is mine. Therefore, I should not take my failings out on the racquet.'
As is so often the case with future sporting stars, Nadal threw himself into every challenge as a youngster, across a range of sports. His will to win was evident to all and he had a seemingly endless supply of energy. By the age of five he was having tennis practices several times a week. And, aged just eight, he bagged the regional tennis championships for under 12s. He was on a roll. Before long, his day was totally dedicated to sport. As Alison Kervin explained in the Sunday Times, by the time he was 13 he played tennis every day. He went to school from 9am until noon, then played tennis, had lunch and returned for afternoon classes. Rafa usually then found time for another two hours of tennis in the evenings to complete an active yet exhausting day.
Rafa showed particular ability at football as well as tennis as a boy and he probably had the talent to pursue either career professionally as he excelled at both, attracting attention from scouts. But Sebastian and Ana Maria ensured that Rafa remained level-headed. Ana Maria told the Daily Express: 'I can see how a boy in Rafa's position could let things go to his head. But from an early age we taught him he wasn't that important. He's good at tennis but being a tennis player is a job like any other.' His coach, Toni, was also charged with keeping to this family line. Ana Maria added: 'The first thing he did when Rafa won his first national championship as an 11-year-old was to congratulate him. The second thing was to sit him down with a list of the previous 20 or so champions in that age category and ask him how many he knew. Rafa only knew two or three.'
His parents hammered home the message that plenty of equally talented young players had thrown away their potential to be stars. They did not want to see their son waste his obvious ability when a career as a professional tennis player was opening up for him. Still playing tennis and football seriously, the time came at the age of 12 to make a choice and focus solely on one sport. His father, Sebastian, made it clear that Rafa needed to cut down on his extracurricular activities in order that his academic studies did not suffer. Nadal opted for tennis, turning his back on football but never losing his passion for the sport.
The opportunity soon arose for him to move to Barcelona to further his chances of making the grade in the tennis world. But his parents felt his education would suffer and, with other family members adding their support to the idea of Rafa remaining in Manacor, the decision was made. The only downside to rejecting the switch to Barcelona was that Nadal would now receive less support from the Spanish tennis federation. Life was good for Rafa. He was extremely popular, making friends easily at school, and he has kept up many of these friendships to this day. When he is able to return home, he likes nothing more than to catch up with friends.
He was very happy in Manacor. To some, a switch to Barcelona might have been a chance of a lifetime but Rafa was in no rush to leave Mallorca. Manacor, the second largest town in Mallorca after the capital Palma, is famous for its artificial pearl industry as well as local sweets and a wide range of arts and crafts. But it would soon be adding tennis at the top of that list. The island boasts a huge selection of beaches – over 70 of them – and offered perfect spots for relaxing in between tennis practice. The laid back way of life suited the young Nadal and made him an easy-going person. Looking back on the joys of the island where he grew up, he told the press: 'Majorca is my favourite place in the world, as I have my family and my friends there, and that's where I grew up. I am still close to the friends I went to school with on the island.
'Some of them are studying now, one is a tennis coach, another is a painter – he paints houses, not pictures. I feel like a normal person. I go fishing with my friends and go to play golf. I go out with friends to parties.'
As he won more and more youth trophies, the profile of tennis grew in Mallorca – and it shot off the charts thanks to Nadal's 2008 exploits. The opportunities to play tennis there are readily available. Many hotels have their own courts while there are numerous tennis centres where lessons are offered.
While he had closed the door on a potential career in football, it did not mean Rafa lost his passion for the sport. He loved Real Mallorca and Real Madrid and, of course, followed the Spanish national team fanatically. His keen interest in football often left him frustrated when tennis commitments meant he missed out on watching key games. In this regard, he had that boyish obsession with sport. It comes as a surprise to many that he does not support Barcelona – the team that his uncle Miguel played for. But Rafa set the record straight when speaking to the Daily Mail. He said: 'Before my uncle played for Barcelona my whole family was for Real Madrid, but when he was at Barca, we supported them. After my uncle left, we were all Real again.'
Rumour has it that Rafa was furious that rain delays pushed back one of his matches at Wimbledon in 2008 to the evening, making him miss one of Spain's Euro 2008 games. Like he has always said, behind the aura of invincibility on the court lurks a very normal person. As he later told the Daily Telegraph: 'My ambition is to be a very, very normal guy. A very humble guy. To play tennis, which I love and I want to be the best. And, when I'm done, I just want to be at home with my friends.'
With Toni providing tireless coaching and tough love (to the point where there were some concerns from other family members), Rafa continued on his path towards professional tennis. There would inevitably be plenty of ups and downs along the way but Nadal could not have been better placed to have a crack at the big time. He was already becoming a force on clay courts but he had limited opportunities to hone his skills on grass courts. And with only one of the Grand Slams played on clay, Rafa knew he would have to be capable of adapting to different challenges. Going on to make his mark away from the French Open has given Rafa a lot of pleasure because his early years were not spent on a mixture of surfaces like some aspiring players.
Back in his formative years, he told the Independent: 'I want to do well on grass because it is a very special surface, so different to all the others. Not many players from Spain have done well there, so that is an extra motivation for me.'
He has possessed this fierce determination since his first steps on the road to tennis fame. His game continued to develop and his understanding of the tactical side of the sport improved too. As he repeatedly told the press in years to come, he did not model his game on any particular player, though he was a keen tennis fan. Instead, he developed his own style.
Nadal spoke to Sports Illustrated about this topic, explaining: 'People ask, "Who did you model your game after?" I never thought like that. I just played the way I was comfortable playing.'
Aged 14, Nadal gained his first chance to impress as he faced Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon champion, in an exhibition match in Majorca. Cash was a big name and it was a great chance for Rafa to test himself against a man who had played at the very highest level. In some respects, though, he was playing without too much pressure – he was clearly the underdog and few were expecting him to last the pace. The Spaniard stepped in at the last minute after Cash's original opponent Boris Becker pulled out. It proved to be a humbling experience for Cash as Rafa produced an excellent display of clean hitting to win the match and start grabbing the nation's attention.
Nadal worked hard to balance his studies with his progress on the court. Inevitably, it was difficult to give his school work his full attention with tennis forever on his mind but he knew that having some qualifications to fall back on would be important for the years ahead. By now, Rafa was being picked out by experts as a star for the future. His family were immensely proud while his uncle took great satisfaction in the achievements of his nephew. This, though, was just the beginning. The victory over Cash, along with Nadal's domination of the youth circuit, indicated that his future was extremely bright.
Dealing with the media was something wholly new for him. But he was always courteous and generous with his time – just as he was with the autograph hunters who wanted a signature from the next big thing in tennis. Rafa grew in confidence when it came to answering questions from the press and charmed many reporters with his shy smile and his sense of humour. Those closest to him knew it would not be long before Rafa would be competing on the main circuit, taking on the best in the world. It would mean huge changes in Nadal's life and would involve sacrifices. However, the youngster clearly lived for tennis and his potential demanded that he dedicate every ounce of effort to pursuing his dream. So many youngsters would have given anything to be where he was and he was not about to let the opportunity slip through his fingers.
Rafa's prowess on the tennis court forced him to make sacrifices off it. He could not enjoy the usual teenage experiences. As is usually the case with most young athletes all over the world, Nadal had commitments and was determined to cash in on his opportunities on the court. The Spaniard had to turn his back on drinking and late night partying as he threw all his energies into making it as a professional tennis player.
His physique continued to develop, too, which aided his hard-hitting style. As well as his time on the clay courts with Toni, Nadal spent two summers at Nick Bollettieri's tennis camp in Florida. Rafa was presented with a different language and lifestyle but he got his head down and put everything into his tennis. He refined certain areas of his game and began to look forward to joining the professional circuit. Bollettieri has followed Nadal's career with great interest ever since, taking great pride in his former pupil's successes. He recalls Rafa's desire as a youngster to conquer the tennis world and the sheer brutality of his hitting. In June 2007, he heaped praise on Rafa in an article in the Independent. He wrote: 'Rafael Nadal is the best clay court player in the world and on course to be among the best two or three ever on that surface. But he doesn't want to be labelled that. He wants to work his ass off to win on any surface, be among the greats, period. That's what you need to remember here: he's hugely motivated to prove himself.'
And the motivation that has defined Nadal's career to date paid dividends in 2002 as he entered the ATP tour. It was a very emotional and exciting moment for Rafa and came as a real reward for all the hard work so far. He had made it this far. Now, could he make a name for himself against some of the sport's biggest stars? The young Spaniard was understandably nervous but he has never doubted his own ability on the tennis court. It was not long before he had recorded his first ATP victory, beating Ramon Delgado in Mallorca while still just 15 years of age.
This success put Rafa among rather elite company – he was only the ninth player to win an ATP match before his 16th birthday. He was becoming the talk of the tour as his progress attracted the attention of players and pundits alike. But it was still early days and Toni sought to keep his nephew's feet on the ground. There were so many pitfalls for young athletes to fall into and it was vital that Rafa did not stray from the right path.
Many young tennis players had possessed great ability yet had fallen short due to their attitude or temperament. Nadal did not want to add his name to that list. There was no doubt that, so long as he kept his focus, he could dominate the sport for years to come. For such a young player, Rafa's body was incredibly muscular, aided by his work at Bollettieri's camp. The size of his biceps, in particular the left one, were astounding and allowed him to hit with unbelievable power. Opting to wear a vest rather than a shirt, his strength was there for all to see and was a dispiriting sight for opponents. The vest also allowed him more freedom with his strokes and of course his sponsors were only too happy to promote it as a fashion item.
During 2003, Nadal moved into the top 100 in the men's singles rankings. Suddenly, he was listed alongside some players he had been watching on television just a few years earlier. He could look up the list and see the likes of Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and company. He had some way to go, of course, before he was at their level but there was a lot of encouragement in seeing these rankings. It brought home the reality of his progress but also made him more determined to continue his rise to the top. And it certainly did not unnerve him because he would finish the 2003 season in the top 50 of the rankings. Nadal was loving every minute of his purple patch and hoped to extend it into the upcoming tournaments. While he missed home, the adrenalin rush of success was very much to his liking and there was no limit to his ambition. He had jumped from the top 100 to the top 50 in no time and some of the sport's big guns were now looking over their shoulders nervously.
Being away from his family was difficult for Rafa and equally tough for Ana Maria. She told the Daily Express: 'Family is very important to Rafa and the support he's had from us, his grandparents and aunts and uncles have been decisive in helping him become the person he is today.' It had been a real family effort. His mother revealed how regularly Nadal was and is in contact with his family. Far from being influenced by the success he was having, Rafa supposedly even continued to ask Ana Maria's permission before buying a new pair of trousers! She also explained how the family unit operates: 'We all have our own homes and our separate lives but in winter we live together on one estate and in summer we move on to another by the coast. Rafa rings me every night wherever he is in the world and we chat for 10 to 15 minutes.'
Despite the occasional bout of homesickness, Nadal continued to blaze away on the tour, winning over new fans with strong showings in Cherbourg and Hamburg. Of course, there were still weaknesses in Rafa's game – his serve being one of them in the eyes of some pundits – but his all-round talent was incredible for a 17-year-old. Not only was he physically strong but his work with Toni had given him a real mental edge. He did not crack under pressure. He did not falter on key points or become flustered when things were not going his way.
Excerpted from Nadal by Tom Oldfield. Copyright © 2014 Tom Oldfield. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: TAKING THE FIRST STEPS TO THE TOP,
CHAPTER 2: BUILDING ON HIS EARLY SUCCESS,
CHAPTER 3: HOT ON THE HEELS OF FEDERER,
CHAPTER 4: CHASING GLORY DOWN UNDER AND DEFENDING HIS PATCH IN PARIS,
CHAPTER 5: A GOLDEN SUMMER,
CHAPTER 6: PAYING THE PRICE FOR HIS SUCCESS,
CHAPTER 7: THE WIZARD OF OZ AND INJURY HELL,
CHAPTER 8: COMPLETING THE CAREER GRAND SLAM,
CHAPTER 9: THREE'S A CROWD,
CHAPTER 10: A YEAR OF AGONY,
CHAPTER 11: ON TOP OF THE WORLD AGAIN,
CHAPTER 12: THE ROAD AHEAD,
CHAPTER 13: THE TOP TEN – RAFA'S BIGGEST HITS,