Master Of The Court: Tracing Rafael Nadal’s Rise To Greatness

On the field, Rafael Nadal plays like a fearless tiger. But off the field, the sensitive, caring and often fearful person will catch you by surprise… Here’s an insight into the other side of the tennis GOAT.

By Tsunami Costabir

Nadal needs no introduction. One of the greatest tennis players of all time, who pushed through times of injury and moments of despair only to come out on top and shine. Like an unrelenting superhero, he takes it to the end of every game, meeting his competition where they’re at, and then pushes them to their very limit. 

Small Strides

Nadal was introduced to tennis at the age of three by his uncle Toni, who worked at the Manacor Tennis Club as a coach. Toni discovered that his nephew had both the talent and passion to pursue a professional career in tennis. He pushed him harder than the rest and in his 2011 autobiography, ‘Rafa: My Story’, Nadal admitted that he was afraid of Toni and dreaded solo practice sessions with him.

Rafael Nadal

There was a rumour about Toni forcing Nadal – who uses his right hand dominantly –  to use his left on the tennis court, as it would give him a natural advantage. This rumour was, however, dispelled by Nadal in his book who claimed that as a child, to bear the weight of the racquet, he would hold it with both hands. Then, when it came to picking one for the benefit of his shots, using the left came naturally to him. 

Setting A Precedent

To showcase his dedication and passion, here’s an incident from when he was 12. Nadal was playing opposite his best friend Bartolomé at a U14 Spanish Championship when he broke his pinky finger from impact after tripping on the court. He continued to play, with four fingers gripping the racquet and his pinkie dangling. He couldn’t bandage it up as it would affect his grip. 

Rafael Nadal

This incident set a precedent for the rest of his career. Nadal not only went on to win that tournament but several others over the years with injuries. He has had 16 major injuries, including a recurring left foot injury, scaphoid stress fracture, elbow injuries and major and minor muscle tears. Sometimes, they kept him from playing matches, but other times, he powered through them, through the pain, to the point that he stopped feeling it. 

Nadal also talks about how sometimes the pain shows up as a way for the body to make an excuse – to not have to play through the hours of rigour of having to go toe-to-toe against some of the best tennis players in the world. And in times like that, all that matters is the strength of the mind. 

He most recently made a comeback after 347 days at the Brisbane International following a hip flexor injury. What seemed like an impossible comeback, Nadal did with no apparent hampering to his mobility. 

Making The Big Decision

When teen Nadal was runner-up at the U14 Spanish Championship, he was still playing football. His father told him he had to choose between football and tennis so that his schoolwork would not deteriorate entirely. As soon as he chose tennis, football had to stop. 

The life of an athlete is hectic. And while he has a lot of accomplishments, being the sensitive person that he is, a sense of regret can sometimes creep in. Nadal’s sister Maria once found him weeping in the house – he felt a deep sense of regret that he hadn’t spent enough time playing with his friends as a child. 

Rafael Nadal

But once Nadal made his decision, his father, who is a businessman, got super strategic about his career in sports. Nadal, who was training under his uncle Toni, took on a manager, a personal trainer, and a nutritionist to help him along his journey.  

Eye Of The Tiger 

Athletes inspire each other. Nadal has a reverence for his tennis competitors, which can sometimes push him to the edge of insecurity. But he also has a deep sense of admiration for Tiger Woods. As you can imagine, people playing at the same competitive levels, when they watch each other, they see beyond what the common folk can. They recognise the level of conviction and the mentality it takes. Nadal finds Tiger Woods cut from a different cloth. “When he [Woods] is at his best, I see in him what I would like to see in myself,” says Nadal. “I like that winning look he has when he plays, and I most of all like his attitude.”

Friends & Enemies 

The story of Rafael Nadal remains unfinished without talking about his friendship and rivalry with six-time world number one, Roger Federer. The battle between Rafa and Roger is one of the greatest on-court rivalries ever to exist – the former, brute, a killer; the latter, more graceful. Theirs is a story that goes down in history marking the golden period of tennis. Pushing each other’s limits, knowing fully well that the other is not going to let up. Not too easy. 

Rafael Nadal

In his autobiography, Nadal agrees that Federer has an upper hand on him in almost all the technical spheres – he has a better serve, forehand, sliced backhand and positioning on the court. Toni, his coach, told him, “You’re not going to beat Federer in talent, on the brilliance of your shot-making.” So, Nadal’s bet has always been to force Federer to play at the very limit of his abilities. 

Nadal has won 22 Grand Slams and is the only player who has competed and won against Federer in the final of a Grand Slam on all three surfaces (grass, hard and clay). People often question what Fedrer’s career would have looked like had he not had to compete with someone as unrelenting as Nadal. 

But the way Nadal likes to look at it is – the two of them, and their years of nail-biting competition, has given the tennis world something to be proud of. Tournaments when the two would meet have been a source of hype for fans around the world. And rather than having taken from each other’s careers, their partnership has added immensely to the world of tennis.

Rafael Nadal

In 2022, Federer wrapped up his professional tennis career with a doubles match at the Laver Cup alongside Nadal. From 2006 to 2008, the two contested every French Open and Wimbledon final. Their 2008 Wimbledon final was lauded as the greatest match ever by tennis analysts. Of the 40 times they played each other, Nadal led on clay (14–2), while Federer led on grass (3–1) and hard court (11–9).

During the 2010 French Open which Nadal went on to win, he said about Fedrer, “If somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person (doesn’t) know (anything) about tennis!”

Off The Field 

While he’s a killer on the court, Nadal’s family has attested to him being extremely loving and overly protective of his family, fearing that he may lose them. His mother and sister have spoken about how he’s someone who doesn’t like to not be in control of everything. It scares him, how he isn’t. So, he puts all his energy into controlling his time on the tennis court. 

Rafael Nadal

Nadal and his wife Mery “Xisca” Perelló had been together 14 years before they tied the knot in 2019. On October 8, 2022, the couple welcomed a baby boy. 

The women in Nadal’s life – his mother, sister and wife – keep low profiles. For one, because that is the way of their culture, and secondly, Nadal appreciates it that way. Ana, his mother, says that Nadal’s fame is what makes them crave that sense of privacy even more. 

Rafael Nadal

Xisca also has a full-time job with an insurance company in Palama. So, she doesn’t travel around the world with him, claiming that it wouldn’t be good for either of them. “He needs his space when he is competing, and the idea of me waiting on his needs all day wears me out,” she says. The hotels he lives in, when competing, are also often swarming with photographers, which is something she would prefer to avoid. 

What It Takes To Be A GOAT

The list of his awards and adulations is exhaustive. But, in a nutshell, he is considered the greatest clay-court tennis player of his generation. He has collected $125 million in prize money overall since he turned pro in 2001. His 81 consecutive wins on clay constitute the longest single-surface win streak in the Open Era. And, for over a decade, Nadal has led men’s tennis along with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as the Big Three, finishing as the year-end No.1 five times. 

Rafael Nadal
2K31J4K London, UK. 24th Sep, 2022. 23rd September 2022; O2, London England: Laver Cup international tennis tournament: Novak Djokovic of Team Europe speaks with Rafael Nadal and Rodger Federer during the break in their doubles match against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World Credit: Action Plus Sports Images/Alamy Live News

Nadal admits that talent is only an initial building block in a sport like tennis. And with tournaments like a Grand Slam, where you play for the best of five, stamina could mean as much as talent. Physical prowess too falls short in the life of a professional athlete, where injuries are inevitable. And that’s where psychological strength comes in. Staying in the zone when your opponent is dominating you rather than busting into flames. Nadal’s stamina accounts for a lot – he pushes his opponents to their very edge and then waits for them to make mistakes. 

He considers balancing his professional tennis career, and the demands of his personal life and private needs another element of the battle on the court.  Nadal candidly opens up about how Toni is to be credited for a lot of the good that has happened in his career, and in addition to that, a lot of his insecurities – for having been too hard on him, and pushing him. Nadal also puts that insecurity down to the great sense of respect he has for his opponents. 

Rafael Nadal

In 2016, Nadal opened his own tennis academy in his hometown of Manacor. The campus has 23 hard courts, 20 clay courts, 12 padel courts, two squash courts, a football pitch and two swimming pools. The academy also has an international school, for 10 to 18-year-olds, called the Rafa Nadal International School.

The 37-year-old intends for 2024 to be his farewell year but says that he doesn’t see the point of setting a deadline for his career. 

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