Nadal thrives on home help
Family team behind the remarkable Spaniard hope to guide him to his great dream of victory in SW19
Stephen Bierley and Peter Jenson
Saturday June 18, 2005
Rafael Nadal's mum, Ana María, had other things on her mind on the Sunday that her 19-year-old son was playing in the French Open final. "I watch him on court and the way he behaves is the way he behaves in life - all heart, very responsible, hard-working and much more mature than most boys his age. But he is very untidy and disorganised. On the day of the final I went into his room and I was shocked ... it was a complete mess."
Unlike the rest of his life. At the beginning of this year Rafa was ranked outside the top 50 with one title. Now, after less than six months, the young Spaniard is the French champion, the winner of five other titles, including the Monte Carlo and Italian Opens, and poised to challenge Roger Federer for the world No1 spot. It has been a remarkable rise.
The Nadals are a close-knit family. As Rafa's manager, Carlos Costa, puts it: "They have not only educated him to be a mature tennis player but also to be a mature person." The head of the family is Nadal's grandfather, also called Rafael. Heis a musician, the director of the orchestra in his home town of Manacor in Mallorca.
He wanted his five children to live close by him so bought a stretch of land at Puerto Cristo on the Mediterranean coast where Rafa lives with his dad, Sebastián, his mum, and his sister, Maribel. The extended family live in the same complex, including his three uncles: Rafael, who played third division football in Spain, and Miguel Angel, an uncompromising defender in Johan Cruyff's Barcelona team that won four Spanish titles and the 1992 European Cup.
However, it has been Uncle Toni, a top-30 Spanish tennis pro in the 80s, who has been the major influence. As Nadal's grandfather recalled: "Rafael was a good attacking midfielder who could play the perfect pass and score goals. He could easily have chosen football but with advice from his Uncle Toni it was decided that he would go further with a racket in his hand than with a ball at his feet."
He was bought his first racket at four. "I was amazed at how well he handled it," Uncle Miguel remembered. "Even though it weighed more than he did." By eight years old Rafa had won his first title - the Community of Baleares under-12s, a victory gained by playing all of his shots two-handed.
But it was not something of which his uncle Toni approved. "Have you ever seen a great tennis player playing with two hands?" he asked, and so Nadal began practising his forehand shots with his stronger right hand. It was then that Toni encouraged his ambidextrous nephew to play his forehand shots with his slightly weaker left hand. This gave him the full weight of his powerful right arm behind his double-fisted backhand.
Jofre Porta, who worked at the same tennis club and now forms part of Rafa's coaching team, was one of the first to notice his raw power. "He was just brutal. The first time I saw him I could see he was going to be a great player. It didn't take much for him to master playing with his left hand because he was so disciplined. He would sometimes deliberately play to his weaknesses so as to improve them even at the expense of winning matches."
At 12 Nadal reached the final of Europe's most prestigious under-14s tournament in Barbès, France and two years later the Spanish federation offered him the chance to train in Barcelona. He turned it down, feeling more comfortable with his Uncle Toni, Porta and Carlos Moyá, the 1998 French Open champion, who was also born in Mallorca.
In 2000 Rafa was chosen as a flag bearer at the Davis Cup final in Barcelona when Spain won the trophy for the first time against Australia. But the public in Spain took no more notice of him than those at Wimbledon two years ago when, as a 17-year-old, Nadal reached the third round, the youngest man to advance that far at the All England Club since a 16-year-old Boris Becker in 1984.
Last year he won his first ATP title at Sopot, while also becoming the youngest man in the history of the Davis Cup to win a singles match in a final for the winning team, his victory over Andy Roddick giving Spain the momentum to defeat the US. His aptitude to play at his best on the big occasion was immediately apparent, though few would have guessed how quickly he would rise this year.
Some already worry that his star may burn brightly but briefly in the tennis firmament. Not Toni and the family. "Once when he had just won a big tournament I spent the whole night going over the match in my head," said Costa. "But Toni and Rafa had forgotten about it almost immediately and were talking about other things besides tennis."
His grandfather further highlights the relaxed relationship between Rafa and Toni. "He was playing one of his first matches against a professional and his uncle told him: 'Don't worry, just stay calm and relaxed. If things don't go well I will make it rain and get the game stopped.' Rafa was behind and then pulled back to level, and it started raining. He went over to his uncle and said: 'It's OK, you can stop the rain. I think I can beat this guy.'"
Grandad Rafael led the cheering in Manacor when the French Open final was beamed live to the town's 30,000 residents on a huge screen in the main square. "We buy the newspapers and then we notice that some of the pages seem to have gone missing," says Rafa's auntie, María Elena, of her father's habit of keeping all Rafa's cuttings.
For all the natural exuberance of Nadal's play on court - the fist-pumping, the bounding leaps, and the stentorian shouts of "Vamos", there is nothing of the brat about his behaviour. "He has never broken a racket in anger," said Toni. "It would be showing a lack of respect to people who actually have to buy the equipment to play the sport."
"It's a long road ahead. He has to keep his feet on the ground and his head out of the clouds," said his grandfather. "But he will. He has always been someone who is able to come off the court happier having lost and played well than having won and played badly. And you know something else - despite being a clay-court player his great dream has always been to win the title at Wimbledon."
June 3 1986 Born in Mallorca, Spain
September 2001 Aged 15, reaches second round at Seville Challenger, turns professional
April 2002 Wins first ATP match, becoming only ninth player in open era to do so before age of 16
January 2003 Reaches final in Hamburg ATP tournament without dropping a set, loses to Mario Ancic in final
June 2003 At 17 becomes youngest player to reach third round at Wimbledon since Becker (aged 16) in 1984
September 2004 Wins first ATP singles title at Sopot, Poland
December 2004 Wins Davis Cup, becomes youngest player ever to record singles victory in cup final, beating Andy Roddick in four sets
February-May 2005 Wins five ATP singles titles
May 2005 Wins French Open to become youngest winner of a major since 1989. First player since 1982 to win French title on debut. Undefeated in 24 matches during clay-court season.