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Sunday 19 May 2019

rafa nadal

King of clay

  • The French Open later this month offers one of the last chances to witness one of the most dominant champions in any sport
  • Rafa Nadal has ruled the clay courts of Europe for more than a decade and set standards that may never be matched
  • His secret? A family network like no other in sport

By Simon Barnes and Alix Ramsay

LISTEN: King of clay by Simon Barnes & Alix Ramsay (14:56)

The soul of Rafael Nadal the man lies in Manacor on the island of Mallorca: home, family, friends; love, love, love. The soul of Rafa Nadal the tennis player is to be found in the phenomenon known as topspin: power, power, power. The combination of these two things that has made him one of the greatest champions any sport has known.

Let us set aside contrasts and comparisons and similarities and consider Nadal purely as himself, not as a member of the company of great tennis players but as one of the most remarkable people ever to pick up a racket.

Nadal successfully defends his title at last year’s French Open at Roland Garros

Like Adam, like all of us, Nadal must trace his origin to clay … although we must not forget that he is the only player to have won three Grand Slam tournaments in a year on three different surfaces. He’s no one-trick pony. All the same, Nadal’s tennis soul is made from clay, the red stuff above which the ball hangs about waiting to be walloped – walloped with topspin. But the mere walloper is always vulnerable to the walloping thinker. To Nadal.

Nadal’s perceived greatness lies in the 11 times he has won the French Open; no one else is in double figures for a single grand-slam championship. But the clay court season is more than a brief Parisian fortnight. It lasts two months, marching across Europe, constantly swapping one romance language for another: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and finally Paris. Nadal has won Monte Carlo 11 times, Barcelona 11 times, Rome eight times, Madrid five times. The shock when he lost in the semi-finals in Madrid last week shook the tennis world.

On those numbers lies Nadal’s real greatness. He has owned those two months of the year for more than a decade, and done so as Tamburlaine the Great ruled the known world – is it not passing brave to be a king? It’s exceptional for top athletes to win multiple championships in the half-dozen years of their peak. Nadal has dominated those two months for the entire length of his career – and as he reaches the age of 33 next month, it’s still going on. This is not exceptional – it’s unprecedented.

Killer backhand: Nadal plays a shot in the 2018 Australian Open in Melbourne

And yet he remains a man curiously misunderstood. He is seen as the product of a mad, dysfunctional family, a project, trained like a racehorse with no mind of his own, not even to the choice of hand he plays his tennis with, the robotic creation of his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal. The truth is that Nadal always had a choice and always had a mind. Like the rest of us, he is the result of his choices.

There are two things that we must always consider when we think about Nadal the man: family and place. Insofar as they can be separated. There are two things we must always consider when thinking of Nadal the tennis player: topspin and left-handedness. Insofar as they can be separated.

Nadal comes from Manacor, a town of 40,000 people on the island of Mallorca. Don’t think of this as geography, it is all and everything. It is not just where he was born and where he grew up, it is the place he turns to whenever he needs his soul restoring. In defeat, in victory, he goes back to Manacor: to fish – “I like fishing. Not the actual fishing…”, to play golf, to walk about in peace in the streets where everyone has always known him and where he is taken absolutely for granted.

And to be with his family. Or rather his extended family. Or rather his clan. The Nadals have been compared to the Corleone clan in The Godfather but without the criminality, and it’s back to the clan that Nadal goes, time and again, as if sinking into a warm bath on a cold day.

Back home in Manacor, back home round the family table, Nadal is no freak. He is a successful man in a family of successful people. His father, Sebastian, is an effective businessman, a man with a great love of the deal. Success in sport is also seen as a natural activity for the Nadals.

The inner circle: from left, Nadal’s girlfriend Xica Perello, sister Maribel Nadal, mother Ana Maria and father Sebastian

Sebastian was one of four brothers, all big men physically. One brother, Rafael, played football in the Mallorcan League, another, Miguel Angel, played for Barcelona and Spain, winning 62 caps; he was known as The Beast of Barcelona.

The other brother set out to be tennis professional but found he lacked a kill shot, so he became a coach. It was natural, then, for Nadal’s parents to ask Toni to try coaching the young Nadal. Toni took no money for this; he didn’t need it. He was a sleeping partner in the lucrative glass company run by Sebastian. That’s how the clan operates.

Toni was a hard coach, desperately hard, fuelled by his own disappointments. He demanded very correct behaviour – “more important to be a good person than a good tennis player” – no tantrums, and, even in success, he delivered the harshest kind of criticism. Nadal accepted this because Toni was part of the clan – and also because his parents’ support for him was utterly unconditional. Sebastian drove his son to competitions and watched but the results were never life and death to him. Rafa always had perspective and a love he could rely on. Nothing depended on his success in tennis – only his own view of the world and his place in it.

Rafa with his ‘Bad Cop’ coach Uncle Toni

Behind the institutional insecurity of sport he has the utter security of family. He may have had Toni as the Bad Cop but he had the rest of his family as the Good Cop. So he accepted Toni’s teachings on the necessity of endurance and the idea that suffering makes you stronger. Miguel Angel (the Beast) was the only other member of the family to endorse Toni’s methods uncritically. “At the same time you are demonstrating endurance, your head becomes stronger,” he said.

That ability to endure has marked Rafa’s tennis career. Awful injuries to feet and knees should have finished him, but back he comes again, ready for more … until you are forced to come to the obvious conclusion that he plays tennis not because he’s been told to, but because he wants to. He could have stopped at any time, with the full support of his parents.

But he loved and loves tennis, the process of hitting balls, and perhaps especially, the joy of performing one of the most extraordinary skills the game has ever seen. He can go out there and risk all and fail or not fail; and then back home to Manacor and the certainty of love.

He chose to give up football, which he loved, a goal-scoring centre-forward at every age-level he played. No one needed the money or the vicarious fame he might get from tennis – his family already had both. So he went on – and on – hitting the ball in a manner that only he could do.

Another of the myths about Rafa’s boyhood is that, though naturally right-handed, Toni forced him to play left-handed, to give him an edge against right-handers. The truth is more complicated. That’s because the issue of “handedness” is itself complex, being all about the wiring of the brain.

Nadal eats as a right-hander eats and writes with his right hand. But when he was banging in the goals for Manacor he did so mainly with his left foot. When he was playing tennis as a very young boy, he instinctively played with both hands on the racket handle at all times. Toni was in no itching hurry to correct this: let the boy enjoy walloping the crap out tennis balls, that’s the first and most important thing to instil.

The boy wonder signs autographs after winning Les Petits As junior tournament in 2000

But when Rafa was 12, it was time to make a choice, for, as Toni pointed out, no universal double-fister had ever won anything in men’s tennis. So Nadal took his one hand off the racket to play – and found himself playing a left-handed forehand. “Since I’m not completely stupid,” Toni said with characteristic combativeness, “I simply advised him to use his strongest hand.”

Except that it’s not quite that simple. When you play a two-handed backhand, the power comes from your non-dominant hand. But here’s a rum thing – when Nadal plays a backhand the power comes from his dominant right hand. That ambidexterity gives him his edge.

But only when it’s combined with topspin. Let us examine this.

The master of topspin in action, 2015

If you hit a tennis ball as hard as you can from the back of the tennis court you will probably hit the spectator in Row G. But if you impart topspin – forward rotation – on the ball, it will clear the net with ease, giving you a comfortable margin for error, and then dip in the air to land inside the court.

It will then rise up steeply, so that your opponent – especially on a clay court with a high bounce – will be constantly playing the ball from beneath his earlobes, which is (a) exhausting and (b) not conducive to power-hitting.

Nadal’s skills in this area have been measured. It’s been found that he hits the ball with 18 per cent more revolutions than any other player. On the forehand his average is 3,200 revs per minute, twice the spin cycle on your washing machine. The ball will complete 80 revolutions before it strikes the ground. At extremes he has hit some balls at 4,900 rpm. And on the backhand, which he operates with an extreme grip with his right hand almost under the racket handle, he can also impart phenomenal topspin on what is supposed to be the weaker wing.

How does he do it? When he was 16 and 17, he did conditioning training with his fellow Mallorcan Joan Forcades. They employed a machine used by astronauts to stop their muscles from atrophying in zero gravity. Rafa recalled: “By pulling on a cord attached to a metallic flywheel, I built up my arm and leg muscles, but especially my arms, so as to increase their acceleration speed, a major reason … why I am able to apply more revolutions…”

That doesn’t take into account his phenomenal eye, what people in sport call timing – the intersection of the ball and the striking surface at the optimal microsecond. You can have the fastest arm in the galaxy, but if you don’t hit the ball at precisely the right instant the strike is wasted. Timing comes from natural gifts honed to perfection in endless hours of practice, in short in the combination of the discipline he got from Toni and the flair for the game that’s all his own.

There is another aspect of his ambidexterity. Andy Murray noted: “He is the only player on the tour right now who can slide with their right leg and their left leg.” This skating into a shot is essential to clay-court play, a reason why British players, not being born to it, so often struggle on that surface. Nadal, born to clay if any player ever was, was also born with the advantages of the double slide.

Nadal’s unique double slide has taken its toll on his body

If Nadal had played injury-free throughout his career, he would have won more Grand Slam titles than the 17 he has already. But as we all know, if things had been otherwise everybody’s life would be otherwise. His all-out style, in which there is no such thing as a lost cause, along with his supreme ability to turn defence into attack, were essential to his early victories – and caused him great physical damage in the long run.

In maturity he stands closer into the baseline, is more selective about what he chases and seeks to end points faster. He can no longer wear down every other player on the circuit. His canniness has helped him in more recent years: for Toni was never in the business of building a robot. In defeat, he would invite Nadal to analyse his own failings and suggest how to set them aright.

Rafa remains the oddest of contradictions. He has epitomised the roaring warrior-athlete, for whom no cause is a lost cause; he is the man who came back in the darkness of Wimbledon in 2008 to win the fifth set. But he describes himself as a fearful man. He hates it when there is turbulence on an aeroplane, won’t swim unless he can see the bottom of the sea, is deeply wary of dogs, doesn’t like to sleep in the dark and prefers to leave the telly on all night. “I’m not brave about anything in life,” he once said. “In tennis, yes. In everything else, not very.”

Grand Slam: photocall after winning his first Wimbledon title in 2008

So let us cherish every second of Rafael Nadal that we have left. After one injury he said: “I saw that I would never know entirely for sure whether a match I was playing would be my last. This understanding led me to only one conclusion – I’d have to play each one, and train for each one, as if it were my last.”


The Nadal family

Father, successful businessman, owns glass manufacturing company, restaurant, café, insurance company.

Ana Maria Parera
Mother; both parents very close to their son.

Maria Isabel ‘Maribel’
Nadal’s sister, five years younger, also very close.

Maria Francisca ‘Xica’ Perello
Nadal’s girlfriend since 2005; worked as executive in insurance, now project director for Rafa Nadal Foundation, Nadal’s charity for disadvantaged children. Hates the limelight.

Uncle, for most of his life Nadal’s mentor and tennis coach.

Miguel Angel
Former pro footballer, aka The Beast of Barcelona.

Can be up to 30 at some tournaments; Nadal likes to feel at home. Essential members other than family include:

  • Carlos Moya
    Former world number one, French Open winner. Joined the team in 2016. Long time friend and practice partner. Took over from Toni as main coach, much friendlier approach.
  • Dr Angel Ruiz Cotorro
    Doctor, specialist in sports medicine.
  • Benito Perez Barbadillo
    Media manager since 2006.
  • Jordi Robert
    Known as Tuts, Nadal’s agent at Nike.
  • Tomeu Salva
    Close friend, joined the team at the start of this season to help with coaching.
  • Joan Forcades
    Fitness trainer, has been with Nadal from the beginning.
  • Rafael Maymo
    Physical therapist, works with Forcades.
  • Carlos Costa
    Nadal’s agent, former player.

Nadal’s numbers

17 Grand Slam singles titles

11 French Open

3 US Open

2 Wimbledon

1 Australian Open

80 Career titles

57 clay court career titles

424-39 Win-loss record on clay over 18 years

111-2 Win-loss record in best of five set matches on clay (French Open and Davis Cup)

81 Successive victories on clay courts

Further reading

Rafa: My Story by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin, pub 2011. A good example of ghosted autobiography: it actually sounds like Rafa.

Topspin and the Bernoulli Effect
A frank and honest account of how it works – with no spin.

Guide to Manacor
A small Spanish town for you and me: love, heaven and peace on earth for Nadal.