Article from The Independent:
Rafael Nadal: Sleight of hand as Rafa-lution sweeps the world of tennis
For once tennis has bounced football off the front pages. Ronald Atkin in Barcelona speaks to a clay-court prince keen to show grass distinction.
24 April 2005
An incredible thing has happened in Barcelona over the past few days. The faces of Ronaldinho and his Nou Camp team-mates have been swept from their accustomed position on the front pages of the city's multiple daily sports papers and replaced by that of an 18-year-old tennis player. Nadal Mania has hit town.
Spain was already in love with Rafael Nadal after he won the crucial singles for his nation in last December's Davis Cup final against the United States, but the romance has soared to giddy heights as the teenager from Mallorca capped what is already a fantastic year by winning the Masters Series title in Monte Carlo and climbing to 11th in the world rankings.
Last Sunday, 24 hours before the Godo tournament got under way on the manicured acres of the Real Tenis Club de Barcelona, the magazine Tenis A Fondo put on display a thousand posters of Nadal at their sales kiosk to give away as inducements to buy the publication. They were gone inside an hour.
Nadal's first emergence from the clubhouse en route to a doubles match was a revelation. He was followed by a gaggle of adoring, beautifully dressed people of an age to have known better, and greeted outside, almost reverently, by kids whose only wish was to touch him as he passed.
Nadal's arrival in the city could not have offered clearer indication of the young man's attitude and commitment. After Sunday's victory ceremony in Monte Carlo, the family Nadal - Rafael and his uncles, his coach, Toni, and Miguel Angel, his fitness trainer - made the journey back to Spain by car, arriving in Barcelona at 4am on Monday. By 8am, Nadal was breakfasting with Pedro Muñoz, president of the Spanish Tennis Federation, who calls him "a model of comportment", and, at noon, he was taking part in a sponsor's clinic for children at the Real Tenis Club. When approached by tournament officials with the suggestion that, after Monte Carlo, he might like to withdraw from the doubles, he simply said: "Are you crazy?"
As if he hadn't already crammed enough into 24 hours, the boy known to everyone as "Rafa" was happy to sit down afterwards and talk about the wondrous things that have been happening to him of late.
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what I have achieved at 18," he said, swigging a soft drink straight from the can. "But, 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, I reached my first goal of winning an ATP tournament at Sopot [in August]. Then, this year, I won the Brazil and Mexico Opens back to back in February. So, to win again in Monte Carlo, and to beat a great clay-court player like Guillermo Coria in the final, was a huge moment.
"Winning the Davis Cup for Spain made me very happy, but this is incredible, my first big singles title. It is a key moment in my career, but I am only too aware that there will be bad moments to come. I won't always be able to play like that. It is not normal to win the sort of matches I have been winning, and I know a bad patch will come, so it is important to maintain the form I'm in now for as long as I can."
Nadal, who has now won 34 of his 40 matches this year, did not drop a set in reaching this afternoon's Barcelona final where he will meet the man who preceded him as Spain's tennis pin-up, Juan Carlos Ferrero. After a week's rest, he will head for the Masters Series tournaments in Rome and Hamburg before making his debut at the French Open. It is a prospect he relishes, since, in each of the past two seasons, injuries, first to an elbow and then, last year, a stress fracture of the left ankle, kept him away from Paris. Even last January at the Australian Open, Nadal was busy working out what he might need to do to earn a seeding for his French debut. Now there is no need to fret about such matters.
"After last year's injury, which kept me out from April to July, things are going well again, but I know very well that one moment of ill fortune and everything can change. So far, I have managed to avoid such moments. I don't know if I'll still be playing like this in a month's time, so my priority is to maintain form and stay fit."
Clay is the natural playing surface for a youngster brought up in the town of Manacor, on the island of Mallorca , but Nadal insists his main Grand Slam target is Wimbledon, which has only once been won by a Spaniard, Manuel Santana in 1966, not only because it is the world's No 1 event but also because of the challenge it presents. "I want to do well on grass because it is a very special surface, so different to all the others," he said. "Not many players from Spain have done well there, so that is an extra motivation for me."
On his Wimbledon debut in 2003, Rafa defeated Tim Henman's nemesis, Mario Ancic, and then Britain's Lee Childs to become, at 17 years and three weeks, the youngest to reach the third round since the 16-year-old Boris Becker in 1984.
The ankle damage which caused him to miss Wimbledon in 2004 was sustained in April during a tournament in Estoril, apparently because of unsuitable footwear. So keen was Nadal to keep fit until he could run again that he practised for hours sitting on a stool and, a month after his return, had won the Sopot clay-court title.
Nowadays, no risks are taken about things like tennis shoes by a family who guard their prize product closely by the simple expedient of living alongside him. In a house looking out on to the massive, 18th-century church in Manacor, a town of 20,000, grandparents Rafael and Isabel are installed on the ground floor. The first floor is occupied by Uncle Toni, his wife and three daughters, and the second floor by his parents, Sebastien, the owner of a double-glazing factory, and Anna Maria. The top floor is the domain of Rafa and his sister, Maria Isabel.
Toni Nadal, his coach, is a former tennis professional, while his other uncle, the 39-year-old, Miguel Angel, is one of Mallorca's most famous sportsmen, having played nine years for Barcelona and been a member of Spain's 2002 World Cup squad. Rafa came close to following Miguel Angel into football. "He was undecided for a long time whether to play tennis or football," said the uncle, "but, when he started to win all these junior tournaments, it convinced him he had a bigger guarantee of success in tennis. Rafa also has another problem. In tennis, you are your own boss, you make your own decisions. In football, it's the coach who does that. Rafa didn't like that very much."
One massive decision was made for the young Nadal by Uncle Toni. Rafa is a natural right-hander, but Toni was convinced his two-fisted backhand would be helped by using the stronger right arm. So he taught his nephew to play and serve left-handed, to such effect that Lleyton Hewitt calls Nadal's forehand "exceptional".
Wickedly top-spun forehands of lethal pace have been drawing gasps from the Barcelona crowds. To the young people in the audience, however, Nadal's gear is on a par with his shots. The shirt is a garish orangey-yellow, sleeveless with black piping. Though the calf-length white shorts and broad white headband lend a piratical air, the tightness of his trousers is more in keeping with a matador's uniform, though any lack of comfort doesn't show in his whirlwind tennis.
To describe Nadal as exciting would be a serious understatement. Pedro Hernandez, the editor of Tenis A Fondo, has followed his career since the earliest days and says: "He has the spirit, the talent, the fight, the brains. He has everything, and he will be better than most Spaniards because he can play on all surfaces. He is not big-headed but he is very confident and he wants to compete at everything. He will even challenge you to a sandwich-eating contest."
His doubles partner, Feliciano Lopez, reckons Nadal is already the No 1 on clay, while Albert Costa, the Roland Garros champion in 2002, says: "Rafa is in another world. He is able to aspire to whatever he wants and he will probably get it." The Spanish greats concur. Manuel Orantes predicts Nadal will become the best-ever Spaniard, Santana says he is "an authentic phenomenon" and Andres Gimeno, French Open champion of 1972, is certain Nadal will be the world No 1 within a year.
The youngster, who likes to make practice more demanding by having four opponents in the opposite court at the same time, does not buy that last prediction. "I see myself a long way from being No 1. Many players aspire to that, and Roger Federer is a long way in front of everyone.
"All I know is that, if I want to get there one day, I will have to improve," said the teenager, who beat Federer in Miami last year and took him to five sets at the same tournament in this year's final.
"My only thought every day is to become better. My intention is to give 100 per cent every time I play. Sometimes I will win, sometimes lose, but I can always go to sleep knowing I have done my best. I always play with the same humility."
And he might add, with enough eye-catching talent to keep Ronaldinho off the front pages.
Born: 3 June 1986 in Manacor, Mallorca.
Family: parents Sebastian and Ana Maria, sister Maria, aged 14.
Current rankings: ATP Race - 2nd. ATP Entry - 11th.
Career progression: turned pro 2001. End of 2002: 235th. End of 2003: 49th. End of 2004: 51st. Began playing at four; current coach is Toni Nadal, his uncle. Other: favourite player is Carlos Moya. Managed by Carlos Costa, IMG.
Hobbies: football, PlayStation, fishing and watching films.
Wimbledon watch: on his All England debut in 2003, beat Mario Ancic en route to reaching the third round, the youngest to do so since Boris Becker in 1984.