Rafael Nadal: Beast in the blood
Spanish prodigy Rafael Nadal talks to John Roberts about his remarkable rise, his sporting pedigree and his hopes for the French Open which starts on Monday
21 May 2005
You do not have to stray far from Rafael Nadal's home in Majorca to find a blood relation with the athletic qualities and mental strength required for success in great arenas. One of the tennis prodigy's uncles is Miguel Angel Nadal, the former Barcelona and Spain central defender.
Miguel Angel is not alone in being excited about Rafael's prospects of winning the French Open, which starts on Monday, at the first attempt. "Rafa", as the sturdy left-hander is known, is one of the favourites, even though he does not turn 19 until a week next Friday, the day of the men's semi-finals.
As a footballer, Miguel was no Angel. Lacking pace, he was often late in the tackle. Even so, "Beast of Barcelona" seems rather harsh. Rafa sprang to his uncle's defence. "Miguel Angel was not rough," he said. "He was a technical player. I used to go to the stadium all the time to see him when he played for Real Mallorca. And I kicked a ball in the garden with him lots of times."
Perhaps Miguel has been confused with Andoni Goicoechea, the "Butcher of Bilbao", who, in 1982, put Barcelona's Diego Maradona out of the game for four months and proudly covered the boot that did the damage in Perspex.
Not that Miguel needs his nephew to stand up for him. "Before I played in the European Championship with the national team in 1996," he recounted, "the English put in the newspaper that I was the 'Beast of Barcelona'. That sort of nickname was not right. I was known in Spain as somebody who played elegantly from defence, not dirty at all. I was not like Goicoechea, who went for the legs of people."
Rafa played football until he was 12. "We had a good team," he recalled. "I was a striker, and we won an inter-league championship. I spoke with Miguel Angel sometimes when he played football. We have a very good relationship, but not a professional relationship."
For that, Rafa relies on Miguel's brother, Toni. "My uncle Toni tells me everything I know," he said. "Apart from being an excellent tennis coach, Toni has been a fantastic educator for him," Miguel concurred. "He has taught him to appreciate things and keep his feet on the ground. He not only teaches him tennis, but also he teaches him life."
Tennis was Miguel's first love. "I used to play tennis until I was 15," he said. "In fact everybody thought I would play tennis instead of football. I always liked tennis more than football.
"A few days ago I was hitting balls with Rafael for an hour and 15 minutes. Last week Spanish television showed again the Roland Garros final between Arantxa [Sanchez Vicario] and Steffi Graf, and I stayed up until 3.30 in the morning watching it. If Rafael gets through to the second week, at Roland Garros, I would love to go."
His nephew is the Spanish No 1, and is obviously No 1 in Majorca, where the No 2 is his friend Carlos Moya, a former world No 1 and the 1998 French Open champion. Moya was born in Palma and now lives in Geneva. Nadal was born in Manacor and still lives there.
"In Manacor, I'm normal," Rafa said. "People have known me since I was a little kid. They congratulate me when I win something, but treat me like everybody else."
Do some of the other Spanish players resent the fact that someone so young has supplanted them in the world rankings?
"I don't really worry about the others, if I'm beating them or not," he said. "For me the important thing is that I win tournaments. If the other Spanish players are winning tournaments too, that's great, because that means I'm going to have more friends on tour."
Miguel has fond memories of Rafa as a child. "He was a kid who loved to play any kind of sport. Even at midnight he didn't want to stop. Being the first nephew that I had, and the first grandson for his father, he was always a centre of attention. He was a little kid who got on with everybody, a very open little kid, and he loved to play football and to watch football."
Did he have the potential to be a professional footballer? "You never know that, because football is not an individual sport, it's a team sport and there are a lot of factors that do not depend on yourself. Obviously, he had a lot of qualities and abilities, and he still does.
"My bother Toni has always been a funny guy and he was always kidding Rafael when he was a little kid. One of the things Toni told him was that he used to play in the Milan football team, and Rafael always thought it was true. But then one time there was a summer football tournament and Rafael saw his uncle Toni play football, and the team lost the match. Rafael was very disappointed and said: 'There's no way he was able to play in Milan. He's not that good - he's pretty bad, actually'."
Young Nadal is a Real Madrid supporter. "That's a very strange thing," Miguel said. "It's probably because when he was a little kid his father put a Real Madrid shirt on him. He's one of the few Real Madrid fans who was happy when Barcelona won the title when his uncle was playing."
When Nadal began kicking sand in the faces of big-name opponents, I tempted him with a top-spin lob. How would he react to being told that he has the physique of a Boris Becker and the fighting qualities of a Jimmy Connors?
"I hope I have, of course," he replied, smiling, "because those two players are great. If I were a mixture of both, I would be really high. I am thankful for the comment, but I don't think so."
He was wise to be doubtful about the comparison. Apart from anything else, Becker and Connors never won the French Open. Nadal, ranked No 5, may not be quite ready to win the world's premier clay-court title this time round, but it seems only a matter of time before he does.
Many European and Latin American players grow up on clay courts, but few look so completely at one with the surface as Nadal, who is au fait with its nuances and in dread of none.
This season, in the space of 27 days, he won 17 matches and three singles titles on clay: the Masters Series championships in Monte Carlo and Rome either side of the Barcelona tournament.
After defeating Guillermo Coria, of Argentina - last year's runner-up at the French Open - in five sets over five hours and 14 minutes in the Rome final (having already beaten Coria in four sets in Monte Carlo), Nadal was forced to take a break and missed the Hamburg Masters.
A blister on the index finger of his racket hand needed to heal, and his mind and body were on the verge of exhaustion. Although the finals in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome were played over the best of five sets, the earlier rounds were over the best of three sets.
To win the French Open, or any of the three other Grand Slam championships, a man must win seven matches over the best-of-five-sets.
In common with many of his compatriots, Nadal, while exceptional on clay and formidable on concrete, needs to adapt his baseline style for grass. "I can play good on hard courts," he said. "I played in the fourth round at the Australian Open and in the final in Key Biscayne. At some point I would love to also play good on grass, because there is a special atmosphere at Wimbledon. I have to improve my serve and my volley and my return."
That would seem to amount to a major overhaul but for the fact that Wimbledon's lawns - as Tim Henman would be the first to agree - are more durable nowadays and offer an even bounce. This time last year Nadal was unable to play because of a stress fracture to the left ankle. "After being injured it makes you think much more when you are doing well. It makes you realise how great it is to win and how great it is to be healthy. You remember those bad times when you were injured and life was more difficult. I like to play tennis. I enjoy the competition, and I am very lucky to be able to do what I like to do."
And to have such a supportive family.
Nadal's trials, titles and titanic struggles
Rise through the ranks
Reaches first ATP final in Auckland in January, but loses to Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Wins first ATP title at Sopot, Poland.
Inspires Spain's Davis Cup final victory against the United States by defeating the world No 2, Andy Roddick, 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-2. That makes Nadal the youngest player, at 18 years and six months, to record a singles victory in a Davis Cup final for a winning team.
Wins back-to-back ATP titles in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil, and Acapulco, Mexico.
Loses epic match against the world No 1, Roger Federer, 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 at Nasdaq-100 tournament in Key Biscayne after coming within two points of the title.
Wins his first Masters Series title in Monte Carlo, defeating the 2004 French Open runner-up, Guillermo Coria, 6-3, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, in the final. A week later wins the Barcelona title, defeating his compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2003 French Open champion, 6-1, 7-6, 6-3.
Wins second Masters title at the Italian Open, defeating Coria 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 in five hours and 14 minutes - the longest final ever played in Rome.