May 15, 2005
Tennis: Prince of the court
A few weeks ago it would have been unthinkable, but Rafael Nadal’s form makes him a French Open contender
Those who purport to know about matters of adolescence maintain that much can be gleaned of a youth’s characteristics by table manners. Teenagers who bolt their food are likely to be impetuous; eating too slowly may depict hesitation. Denied sustenance by the pressures of fame, Rafael Nadal contemplated a late lunch with a calculated plan of strategy and meticulously set about the task of satisfying his ravenous hunger.
Most people his age would opt for a burger or the like after being deprived of dinner the previous night by the demands of work and then forced to rush breakfast. Fittingly, however, a plate of seafood lay before the 18-year-old who was raised on the Mediterranean island of Majorca; slivers of salmon, crab, scallops and king prawns.
Selecting the rarest of tuna steaks, Nadal neatly cut the fish into six equal strips with the same precision with which he has carved up most of his tennis opposition over the past few months. He eats his food in the same way he plays his sport; deliberate, assured and in a manner beyond his years.
And the fact that most of the tennis world expects him to become the most successful debutant at a Grand Slam tournament for almost a quarter of a century is not about to cause even the faintest twinge. “It is good, I like,” he says with a smile, spearing a piece of fish, but knowing that another session of interrogation on the matter of his sensational rise over the past six months is about to begin.
Laying down his fork to answer the initial and most obvious question, he brushes away the thick mop of black hair that perpetually shades his left eye and answers: “No, I don’t really believe what is going on for me right now, because everything is falling my way, but the sensible thing is not to think about it too much. Five tournament wins is great, no? And big titles, in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. It makes me very happy, but I know I don’t win these things through luck. I win because I work hard and play good. All I can do is make sure those things carry on and then maybe I will win some more. If I got to the French (Open) and keep playing like this, I have a good chance, because nobody has beaten me recently, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
Youthful exuberance has had little to do with the trail of success Nadal has left through the showpiece clay courts of the world this year. He may be a player who has prematurely come of age since scoring the pivotal win over world No 2 Andy Roddick that heralded Spain’s victory in last December’s Davis Cup final.
But he is perfectly at ease with the situation, and although Roger Federer is the world’s top-ranked male player and Gaston Gaudio the defending champion, it is the boy with the body and mind of a grown man who is expected to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires in three weeks.
Yet those closest to Nadal remain amazed by the demeanour of the player who started the year ranked outside the world’s top 50 and is now No 5. “He just doesn’t seem affected or bothered by it all,” says his agent, Carlos Costa, a top 10 player in the early 1990s who says he is now far busier dealing with the business side of sport’s newest superstar.
“I notice no pressure in his mind, just a maturity that I have never seen in somebody so young.”
Benito Perez-Barbadillo, the ATP’s director of communications and Latin relations, agrees, but adds: “Watching the way he handles everything to do with his tennis, you would never realise how introverted he can be off the court. Rafa is the most famous thing ever to happen in his home town of Manacor, but when he goes home he is still shy when it comes to talking to the girls he likes. He can do whatever he likes on a tennis court, but back home, being a normal teenager, he has the same problems as so many other kids.”
Perhaps the French Open title and its potential financial rewards might improve his attraction, although Nadal is already doing pretty well in that department, with career prize-money to date of more than $2m. He is following a proud Spanish tradition, established more than 40 years ago by Manolo Santana and repeated by Andres Gimeno, Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Yet Nadal refuses to put undue pressure on himself and riles at the suggestion that it has always been his ambition to follow this line of succession. “Nunca (never),” he snaps. “It is wrong to think so high at a young age. It is not clever for me to hear what the people are saying about me going to Roland Garros this year. Right now I’m just thinking if I lose, it’s because nobody can win every week.
“If I don’t win another match this year, I will have accomplished the goal I set in January of getting into the top 20 in 2005. Last year it was the same, I just wanted to win my first ATP tournament and I did that in August after missing three months. Then there was Davis Cup final, and now to win Masters Series finals twice against a player like (Guillermo) Coria, who people said was the best in the world on clay last year, is a great thing. But I know I won’t be able to keep playing like this all the time. It is not normal to win the sort of matches I have been winning. I know a bad patch will come. The important thing is that this will be my first year playing in Paris, not my last.”
Such a defence mechanism is understandable. Public expectation has long been a factor in Nadal’s life. Almost from the time he chose to concentrate on tennis rather than football at 12, he has been the focus of media attention in his homeland.
When fellow Majorcan Moya was the champion of Roland Garros in 1998 and subsequently the world No 1, he was quick to recognise the youngster’s talent and volunteered for the role of mentor to a player he was convinced would ultimately succeed him. A year later, Nadal was chosen as the Spanish flag-carrier as Barcelona staged the Davis Cup final against Australia, at which patriotism and subsequent ill-feeling courtside resulted in the away team’s captain, John Newcombe, giving serious consideration to silencing his antagonistic opposite number, Javier Duarte, with a well-timed right hook to the jaw.
Nadal has been groomed for the test to come, being pitched into men’s tournaments at 14 rather than playing on the junior circuit. With his 16th birthday still several months distant, he registered his first ATP Tour victory over Paraguay’s Ramon Delgado on the Majorcan clay of Palma. “What was the need for Rafa to play against boys when he was already strong enough to take on the men ?” says Perez- Barbadillo.
Everything was on the upward curve until almost 12 months ago, when he found himself, sad and dispirited, hobbling on crutches at Roland Garros after fracturing an ankle in a build-up tournament at Estoril. “At the time I was feeling very down and the idea was to make me feel happier by seeing what I would experience,” Nadal recalls, pondering added misfortune because a year earlier he had been prevented from competing because of an elbow injured during practice. “I watched my friend Carlos (Moya) win his first-round match and I was glad for him, but not being able to play made me feel bad and I just wanted to go home.”
Nadal will be in the same place this weekend, again far away from tennis. For a time he will be sitting on a fishing boat a couple of kilometres off the Majorcan coast. Together with a group of childhood friends he will have made the 15-minute drive from his hometown, heading east away from tourist traps of Magaluf, Cala Major and the capital, Palma, instead setting sail from Porto Cristo, intent on catching a few halibut or perhaps even a swordfish. His beloved Real Madrid’s match against Seville also has huge importance (and the fact that his uncle, the recently retired Miguel Angel, was a Barcelona legend has no bearing on whom the youngster wants to win La Liga).
And of course there will be the Pro Evolution game on his PlayStation, a near obsessional method of relaxation that eventually allowed him to calm down in the small hours of Monday morning after five hours and as many sets of intense confrontation against Coria to win the Master Series title in Rome.
Tomorrow or the day after he will return to the courts, although he will be careful not to aggravate the cut on his left hand which he suffered in that concentrated struggle against Coria, the reason for his perhaps timely inability to contest the Masters Series tournament in Hamburg. A photoshoot for the American magazine People will be a brief distraction before he flies to Paris on Wednesday.
The consensus among those who know first-hand what it takes to succeed in the ultimate test of clay-court play is he will return as French champion. Even the wily Coria, perfectly qualified to make a discompassionate judgment between the chances of Nadal and Federer after losing to both in the past week, is insistent: “Sometimes you think Roger is impossible to beat, but of the two, Rafa is far the stronger on clay.”