Ask Toni Nadal what his last words were to his nephew before he left the Wimbledon locker room at the start of the 2008 final and he’ll tell you: “I told him to battle to the end and endure.” Ask him why Rafa has made it to the top of world tennis and he’ll reply: “Because it’s all in the head, in your attitude, in wanting more, in enduring more than your rival.” Ask him what he says to Rafa on those days when the body rebels and the pain seems too great to compete on court, and his reply will be: “I say to him, ‘Look, you’ve got two roads to choose from: tell yourself you’ve had enough and we leave, or be prepared to suffer and keep going. The choice is between enduring and giving up.’ ”
“Endurance” is a word Toni has been hammering into Nadal’s skull from a very early age. It expresses a Spartan philosophy of life uncommon on an island, and in a country, where the pleasure principle reigns. Toni comes across as a Spaniard from an earlier age, as if he were descended from Hernán Cortés, the sixteenth-century conquistador who landed in Mexico with a force of barely a hundred men, burned his boats so no one would be tempted to flee for home, and, after overcoming appalling privations and outrageous odds, defeated the Aztec empire, claiming its treasure and vast lands for the
Toni, chunkily built and swarthy, with thick, powerful legs, looks like good conquistador material. Cold-eyed and resolute, he is a straight-speaker who makes little visible effort to ingratiate himself with those around him. He is not unkind: in the eyes of his family, he is generous to a fault with strangers who ask him for tickets to matches or with journalists needing a quote. But toward those closest to him, while unbendingly loyal, he can be moody, gruff, and quarrelsome. He is not the black sheep of the family, because ostracism is not something the tight-knit Nadals do. As Carlos Costa, who knows the Nadal family well, says, “Toni is different.” He is grumpier than his brothers, more contrary; he is a moralizer, stiffly opinionated, always up for an argument.
But he is not quite as tough, or as self-sufficient a conquistador, as appearances might suggest. There has been a tendency in some of the sports media to suggest that Rafa would be nothing without Toni. One could make the opposite case: that Toni would be nothing without Rafa. The truth, though, lies in the middle. Toni and Rafa are a mutually dependent duo whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other. They are more powerful together than each would be on his own.
Toni once dreamt he might become a tennis champion. He excelled at the game in his youth, establishing a name for himself as one of Mallorca’s finest. He was also the island’s best table tennis player for a while, as well as a chess player of local repute. He had the body and he had the brains, but when he became a tennis professional and left home to try to conquer the Spanish mainland, he discovered that, while a steady player, he lacked the killer punch, which was precisely the quality he strove hardest to imbue in his young charges when he took up coaching. Boys whom he taught alongside his nephew recall that whereas other coaches highlighted the need to control the ball, Toni’s emphasis was always on the aggressive cultivation of winners. Toni himself cites the example of the golfer Jack Nicklaus saying once in a coaching video that his advice to young players was “First, hit the ball far; then we’ll think about getting it in the hole.” Toni took the lesson to heart. His advice to his nephew, right from the start, when he was four years old, was “First, hit the ball hard; then we’ll see about keeping it
And then he set about the more challenging task of constructing a mentally armor-plated competitor. He began, as he meant to continue, by treating his nephew with undisguised injustice in the company of his peers, while requiring him never to complain. The boys Nadal trained with recall that when Toni bellowed an order to him, made him stay behind and pick up the balls, then sweep the courts after training, he would bow his head and do as he was told. When the two trained alone, and the sun shone glaringly on one half of the court, that was the half where Toni would tell Rafa to play. If at the start of a session they were playing with good, sound balls, Toni would unexpectedly produce a bad one, a bare one that bounced erratically, or a soggy, lifeless one that hardly bounced at all. If his nephew complained, Toni would say, “The balls might be third rate but you’re fourth rate!”
Cruel to be kind, as Toni saw it, he would play games with Rafa in which the winner was the first to twenty points. He would allow the excited child to get to nineteen, and then he’d raise his game, beating him to the post, ruining his nephew’s day just as he was beginning to savor the thrill of an unlikely little victory. The blows to morale and the relentlessly harsh discipline to which he submitted Rafa all had a grand strategic purpose: teaching him to endure.
Toni’s own relationship with the principle of “endurance,” on the other hand, has been contradictory. Toni and his brother Sebastián first had impressed upon them the virtues of endurance during their teens, when they were away at boarding school in Palma, an hour’s drive from Manacor. The school principal would preach to the pupils at length on the benefits of accepting life’s inevitable trials and disappointments with manly resilience. The most immediate trial the brothers had to submit to was the harsh fact of boarding school existence itself, away from their unusually close, unusually nurturing family. Sebastián lasted the course. He stayed on at the school until the end of his appointed time. Toni lasted a year, after which he begged his parents to be allowed to return back home, and they consented. Later he began studying law and history at university but dropped out before obtaining his degree. After giving up on his quest to become a successful professional tennis player, he returned home to Manacor to coach
Here he settled, having at last found his calling and, by spectacular good fortune, a nephew who possessed a mettle and a God-given ability he had not discovered in any other child before, or ever would again. From the way Rafa struck the ball, from his natural sense of positioning and from his strength of will, Toni quickly formed the impression that he had on his hands a future champion of Spain. Fate had arrived at the family doorstep, and he would make the most of it, drawing on the lessons he had learned from his own mistakes to instill in his nephew the habits of a winner, helping him forge a future in whose glories he would be able legitimately to share.
Rafa’s success has given Toni a strong sense of vindication, encouraging him to become immensely forthright in his views, as severe in his certitudes as a black-clad Catholic in the Spanish court during the age of Cortés. But he seeks no comfort in the afterlife or in a benevolent divinity. No Catholic himself, he is as adamant as he is on all matters that religion is weakness and tomfoolery. He dismisses faith in God as a primitive magical belief as infantile as his nephew’s former belief in his uncle’s power to make rain.
Where Toni is unbendingly doctrinaire, however, is in his views regarding the way children should be brought up. “The problem nowadays,” he says, “is that children have become too much the center of attention. Their parents, their families, everybody around them feels a need to put them on a pedestal. So much effort is invested in boosting their self-esteem that they are made to feel special in and of themselves, without having done anything. People get confused: they fail to grasp that you are not special because of who you are but because of what you do.
“I see it all the time, and then, if it turns out that they make money and acquire a little fame and everything is made easy for them and no one ever contradicts them, they are accommodated in every little detail of life, well. . . you end up with the most unbearable spoiled brats.”
The phenomenon is so common in professional sports that the surprise comes, in Toni’s view, when a brilliant young sportsman turns out to behave not like a brat but like an ordinary decent human being. Fawned upon, surrounded by grasping yes men, sports figures are told
All the time they are gods, and they come to believe it. Rafa Nadal’s feet-on-the-ground civility, such a departure from the expected norm, never ceases to be remarked upon, and Toni is proud of that.
Everything in the way Rafa Nadal was brought up prepared him to behave in this way. Were he to end up a superstar, Toni and his parents would make damn sure he’d end up a humble one. Were he to be applauded for his humility, as he often has been, that too would be disdained as excessive praise. “Humble is the way you have to be, period,” Toni says. “There’s no special merit in it. What’s more, I wouldn’t use the word ‘humble’ to describe Rafael. He just knows his place in the world. Everybody should know their place in the world. The point is that the world is quite big enough already without you imagining that you’re big too. People sometimes exaggerate this business of humility. It’s a question simply of knowing who you are, where you are, and that the world will continue exactly as it is without you.”
Toni’s reflex to stamp out the merest suggestion of complacency or self-regard in his nephew does not make him blind to his innate qualities, or to the influence his parents have had over him. “I don’t think he would have turned out badly on his own accord,” he concedes. “Because of his parents, who in their own way are just as much no-nonsense people as I am, and because of the way he is. He has always been obedient, which is a sign of intelligence in a child because it shows you understand that your elders know better than you, that you respect their superior experience of the world. So I do think the raw material we were working with here was of the finest material. But I made it my mission to encourage the tendency along. When I saw his enormous potential, I thought, beyond his actual abilities as a player, what kind of a person would I like to see on the court? Someone who has personality but is not a show-off. I don’t like divas, and there are plenty of them in the world of tennis. That’s why I forbade him ever to throw his racket to the ground during a match; why I always insisted on the need to put on what I call ‘a good face’ when he was playing—calm and serious, not angry or irritated; why it was always important to be sporting and gracious to your opponent, in victory and defeat.”
Respect for other people, for everyone irrespective of who they might be or what they might do, is the starting point of everything, Toni says. “What is not acceptable is that people who have had it all in life should behave coarsely with other people. No, the higher you are, the greater your duty to treat people with respect. I would have hated my nephew to have turned out any other way, to have performed tantrums on court, to have been churlish with his opponents, with the whole world watching on TV. Or, for that matter, to be impolite with the umpires or the fans. I always say, and his parents do too, that it is more important to be a good person than a good player.”
Toni is enough of a good person himself to recognize that at times he might have gone “too far in the other direction” with his nephew. His harshness toward him in training was a conscious and calculated strategy. As was his unfailingly belittling response to his nephew’s early competitive successes. If Rafa hit a great forehand during a match, well, there was a lot of work to do still on his backhand If he hit an impressive succession of strokes deep toward the baseline, yes, but what about his volleys? If he won a tournament, it was no big deal, and besides, what about his serve?
“You haven’t achieved anything yet,” Toni would say. “We need more, much more!”
The rest of the family looked on with a bemusement that, in the case of Rafa’s mother, occasionally gave way to anger. His father, Sebastián, had his misgivings. His uncle Rafael wondered sometimes whether Toni was pushing his nephew too hard. His godfather, his mother’s brother, Juan, went so far as to say that what Toni was doing to the child amounted to “mental cruelty.”
But Toni was hard on Rafa because he knew Rafa could take it and would eventually thrive. He would not have applied the same principles, he insists, with a weaker child. The sense that perhaps he might have been right was what stopped the more doubtful members of his family from outright rebellion. One who did not doubt Toni was Miguel Ángel, the professional football player. Another disciple of the endurance principle, in which he believes with almost as much reverence as Toni himself, Miguel Ángel says that success for the elite sportsman rests on the capacity “to suffer,” even to enjoy suffering.
“It means learning to accept that if you have to train two hours, you train two hours; if you have to train five, you train five; if you have to repeat an exercise fifty thousand times, you do it. That’s what separates the champions from the merely talented. And it’s all directly related to the winners’ mentality; at the same time as you are demonstrating endurance, your head becomes stronger. The things you receive as gifts, unless they come with a special sentimental attachment, you don’t value, whereas the things you achieve by your own efforts, you value a lot. The greater the effort, the greater the value.” This argument prevailed in the family at least to the point that no one, not even Rafa’s mother, ever really confronted Toni and told him to ease up on the child. They understood that spending so many hours and hours with Toni was wearing in the extreme, but that the two of them had reached a point where they could not live, much less succeed in tennis, without each other.
The family muttered but let Toni do his stuff, respected the sovereignty of his kingdom, a Spartan regime where no whining was allowed, where the young warrior in the making was exposed to all manner of tests and privations and was allowed no excuses, ever, however legitimate these might be. It was always his fault. If he lost a game because there happened to be a crack in the frame of his racket, Toni didn’t want to know; if he played badly because the racket had not been strung tightly enough and the ball went flying, Toni remained unimpressed. If he had a temperature, if his knee hurt, if he’d had a bad day at school: nothing worked on Toni. Rafa had to grin and endure.