NYT: Nadal is the Sharapova of Men's Tennis
June 6, 2005
Barely 19, He's Got Game, Looks and Remarkably Good Manners
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
PARIS, June 5 - It was close to midnight on Sunday, and Rafael Nadal was sipping a glass of Champagne on a restaurant terrace with the Eiffel Tower and the golden dome of Les Invalides shimmering behind him.
Speaking softly to his parents, he wore a dark suit and a conservative tie. He bore little resemblance to the leaping, lunging, fist-clenching 19-year-old in the bandanna and the white clam-digger pants and the fluorescent green sleeveless shirt who had won the French Open tennis tournament in such eye-catching fashion a few hours before.
"I hope all this won't change me," he said, speaking in Spanish. "I would like to stay the same as I've always been. I hope that I will pull it off, and I believe I will be able to pull it off. I want to continue being a 19-year-old youngster and play my tennis."
He has played it better than anyone for the past two months: better than the world's No. 1 player, Roger Federer, the smooth Swiss whom Nadal defeated in the French Open semifinals, and better than Mariano Puerta, the unseeded Argentine whom Nadal beat in four dramatic sets in Sunday's final.
The last time a teenager won a men's Grand Slam singles title was in 1990, when Pete Sampras served his way to victory at the United States Open at age 19.
Nadal is, for the moment, at his best on slower surfaces like clay, but there is no question that he is tennis's next big thing. Spain has produced several French Open champions in the last 15 years: Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero. But until Nadal, it had yet to produce a true tennis star.
A native of the Mediterranean island of Majorca, the left-handed Nadal has more than heavy topspin, strong legs and remarkable nerve.
He has charisma: a swashbuckling way of covering ground on court, an expressive manner of showing his delight or disappointment, along with a gentlemanly streak that has not always been the hallmark of teenage prodigies before him like John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and, most recently, Lleyton Hewitt.
But Nadal is also difficult to ignore because of his appearance. He has long, dark hair and high cheekbones, and then there are his tennis clothes: a jarring blend of past and present, with his long white pants evoking the golden age of the game and his bright sleeveless shirts evoking nothing but the 21st century. The outfit, new this season, was the idea of his clothing sponsor, but Nadal makes no apologies. "I'm very happy with it," he said, insisting that the below-the-knee pants have had no adverse effect on his movement.
They certainly have not affected his ascent in the rankings. He has won 4 tournaments and 24 matches in a row. After starting the year at No. 46, he will rise to No. 3, behind Federer and Hewitt and ahead of Andy Roddick, the big server Nadal beat on the first day of the Davis Cup finals in Spain last December on clay. Nadal became the youngest man in the 104-year history of tennis's premier team competition to be part of a winning team.
"I imagine Andy feels a bit better about losing that match now that he's seen what Rafael is capable of this year," said Jordi Arrese, one of Spain's Davis Cup co-captains.
"I think people in Spain were expecting this victory at the French Open. And I think it will be good for tennis, because Rafa represents good values. He's a well-mannered, respectful person, and I think that sends out a good message, especially to the young."
Nadal was born into a close-knit extended family and still lives in Manacor, the second-largest city on Majorca, where some of Nadal's ancestors arrived in the 14th century.
The family is prosperous. Rafael's father, Sebastian, runs a large window company. His uncle Miguel Angel was a star soccer defender who played for Barcelona and Real Mallorca and was also a member of three World Cup teams for Spain.
Another uncle, Toni, was the one who introduced Rafael to tennis at age 3 and has remained his coach. "Sure, it's been complicated at times and it still can be, but it is also a big advantage," Rafael said of his working relationship with Toni.
Though Nadal has already earned well over $1 million in prize money, he continues to share an apartment building in one of Manacor's principal squares with his family. His grandparents live on the ground floor. Toni, his wife and three daughters live on the first floor. Sebastian and Nadal's mother, Ana Maria, live on the second floor, and Rafael and his younger sister, Maria Isabel, share the third floor.
Many top tennis players have been obliged to leave their homes and families in their teenage years to hone their games in academies or training centers. Among those to do so were Agassi, Federer, Marat Safin and Moya, who also comes from Majorca and has become one of Nadal's mentors.
Nadal was offered financial assistance by the Spanish tennis federation if he moved to the national training center near Barcelona. But the Nadals decided that Rafael should remain in Manacor, train with Toni and go to a regular secondary school.
"I always have thought, and I continue to think, that if one works hard, one can work well in many places," Toni said. "The advantage of staying with his family was big for Rafael. It was a plus, both in terms of tranquility and in terms of organization."
Toni said he began to believe that his nephew could win a Grand Slam event when he won the under-12 title of Majorca when he was 8. "He had a very good mentality, and so I thought it was possible, not probable, but possible," Toni said.
But it was not until Nadal was 12 that he made the decision to pursue tennis as a career instead of soccer, still far and away the most popular sport in Spain. His speed, aggressive instincts and athleticism made him a talented striker, but after winning the European under-12 tennis title, he knew which sport to choose. One of the first prominent players to suffer for it was the former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, who visited Majorca for an exhibition match with Boris Becker in May 2001.
Becker withdrew with an injury, and Cash agreed to play the 14-year-old Nadal, who beat the 36-year-old Cash. The next year, Nadal turned professional and won his first match on the Tour.
In 2003, after missing the French Open with a right elbow injury, he became the youngest player to win two rounds at Wimbledon since Becker. But a more serious injury last year, a stress fracture in his left ankle, forced him to miss nearly all of the clay-court season, including the French Open. "I think if he had not been hurt last year, he would have made his big leap in the rankings then," Arrese said.
When asked how he could remain so composed under pressure, Nadal said, "The only way of finding a solution is to fight back, to move, to run, and to control that pressure."
Nadal certainly made the most of his first opportunity in Paris. The last player to win the French Open on his first attempt was Mats Wilander in 1982. Wilander was one of the people Nadal invited to his celebratory dinner Sunday night at the Cafe de l'Homme, the restaurant with the fine view of the Eiffel Tower.