Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rafael Nadal, the Man Behind the Champion

“This is a sport, and you can have victories or defeats. No one remembers defeats in the long run. People remember victories.”

It was 2009 and Rafael Nadal was giving his first press conference after a defeat at the Roland Garros. First time, sole time. In nine appearances he has lost only once on the French clay.

11 November 2013, he has just lost the year ending final to his biggest rival of the past few years, Novak Djokovic. After his best season ever in his career, the Spaniard has failed to grab the only title missing in his palmarès: the ATP World Tour Finals.

His voice is still the same as usual in the press conference and despite the loss he says: “The only thing that I can say is congratulate my opponent and at the same time congratulate my team because all the achievements, all the success that I had this year, without my family, all my team, it was impossible to have; all the special feelings, the special moments.”

Arguably the best clay courter ever in the history of tennis, surely one of the best tennis players of all time, and yet, Nadal feels like he is the same guy as always and his life outside of tennis reflects that as well.

Humbleness and humility are clearly the most suitable words to describe the left-handed from Majorca. Contrary to what the spectator can see on court, there is no loud grunt, nor noisy “vamos!” once his matches are over.

 “[My] ambition is to be a very, very normal guy. A very humble guy. To play tennis, which I love and want to be the best. And, when I'm done, I just want to be at home with my friends.”

His look may resemble the one of the Spanish “macho”, long hair, sculpted muscles and massive biceps well showed by the sleeveless t-shirts. But in reality Nadal is not a party boy and his values are well-rooted in the sense of family.

Whereas many of his rivals found love on the fashion catwalks or in the music studios, Nadal is living a relationship far from the spotlights with his childhood love, Maria Francisca Perello.

In 2009 the equilibrium of his family was broken by the separation of his parents: "My parents' divorce made an important change in my life. It affected me. For one month I was outside the world. I am OK now but you need time to accept.”

As a proof of the importance of the family bonds in his life, the Spanish champion still lives with his family and as he once said he is still chastised by his mother if his room is untidy.

In the same flat, a whole level is occupied by another member of the family, whose bonds with the eight-time-French-Open Champion are as strong as with no-one else: uncle Antonio Nadal, better known as Uncle Toni.

“Everything I have achieved in the game of tennis, all the opportunities I have had, are thanks to him.” Says the nephew. “I’m especially grateful to him for having placed so much emphasis from the very beginning on making sure I kept my feet on the ground and never became complacent.”

The left-handed recalls one precise episode in his childhood to explain how the rough methods of the uncle in the end were always justified by a lesson he would never forget later in his life:

“One very hot day I went to a match without my bottle of water. I’d left it at home. He could have gone and bought me one, but he didn’t.

“So that I’d learn to take responsibility, he said. Why didn’t I rebel? Because I enjoyed tennis, and enjoyed it all the more once I started winning, and because I was an obedient and docile child. My mother says I was too easy to manipulate.

“Maybe, but if I hadn’t loved playing the game, I wouldn’t have put up with my uncle. And I loved him too, as I still do and always will. I trusted him, and so I knew deep down that he was doing what he thought was best for me.”

And he surely knew that as Nadal seemed to become more and more of a all-round player, completing his career Grand Slam in 2010 and showing how he could step ahead in his game over and over again, despite new hurdles, new opponents, new injuries.

“In your career you have a lot of good moments and bad ones. The important thing is to have enough motivation to keep working all the days with humility and trying to be a better player than before. I am going to try to continue doing this."

Fans are divided when it comes to his play style, but surely he is a great example to follow when it comes to behaviour and values.

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