The Rafa Nadal the world saw as he stormed onto the Centre Court lawn for the start of the 2008 Wimbledon final was a warrior, eyes glazed in murderous concentration, clutching his racket like a Viking his axe. A glance at Federer revealed a striking contrast in styles: the younger player in sleeveless shirt and pirate’s pantaloons, the older one in a cream, gold-embossed cardigan and classic Fred Perry shirt; one playing the part of the street-fighting underdog, the other suave and effortlessly superior.
If Nadal, veined biceps bulging, was a picture of elemental brute force, Federer—lean and lithe, five years older at twenty-seven—was all natural grace. If Nadal, who had just turned twenty-two, was the head-down assassin, Federer was the aristocrat who strolled on court waving airily to the multitudes as if he owned Wimbledon, as if he were welcoming guests to a private garden party.
Federer’s absent-minded, almost supercilious demeanor during the pre-match warm-up hardly hinted at the game’s billing as a clash of titans; Nadal’s thunderous intensity was a grunting caricature of a PlayStation action hero. Nadal hits his forehands as if he were firing a rifle. He cocks an imaginary gun, eyes the target, and pulls the trigger. With Federer—whose name means “trader in feathers” in old German —there is no sense of pause, no visible mechanism. He is all unforced liquidity. Nadal (the name means “Christmas” in Catalan or Mallorcan, a word with altogether more exuberant associations than “feather trader”), was the super fit, self-built sportsman of the modern era; Federer belonged to a type one might have seen in the 1920s, when
That was what the world saw. What Federer saw was a snarling young pretender who threatened to usurp his tennis kingdom, stop his quest for a record of six consecutive Wimbledon victories, and displace him from the position he had held for four years as world number one. The effect Nadal had on Federer in the locker room before the match began had to be intimidating, otherwise, in the view of Francis Roig, Nadal’s second coach, “Federer would have had to be made of stone.”
“It’s the moment he gets up from the massage table, after Maymó has finished putting on his bandages, that he becomes scary for his rivals,” says Roig, himself a former tennis professional. “The simple action of wrapping on his bandanna is so frighteningly intense; his eyes, far away, seem to see nothing that’s around him. Then, suddenly, he’ll breathe deep and kick into life, pumping his legs up and down and then, as if oblivious to the fact that his rival is just a few paces away across the room, he’ll let out a cry of ‘Vamos! Vamos!’ [‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’]. There’s something animal about it. The other player may be thinking his own thoughts but he won’t be able to help casting him a wary sideways glance—I’ve seen it again and again—and he’ll be thinking, ‘Oh, my God! This is Nadal, who fights for every point as if it were his last. Today I’m going to have to be at the very top of my game, I’m going to have to have the day of my life. And not to win, just to have a chance.’ ”
The performance is all the more dramatic in Roig’s eyes for the chasm that separates Nadal the competitor “with that extra something real champions have” from Nadal the private man. “You know that a part of him is wracked by nerves, you know that in everyday life he is an ordinary guy—an unfailingly decent and nice guy—who can be unsure of himself and full of anxieties, but you see him there in the locker room and suddenly he is transforming himself before your very eyes into a conqueror.”
But the Rafael his family saw emerge from the locker room onto the Centre Court was neither a conqueror nor an axe-wielding gladiator, nor a fighting bull. They were terrified for him. They knew he was
Brilliant and they knew he was brave and, while they would never let on, they were a little in awe of him, but what they were seeing now, as the contest was about to begin, was something altogether more humanly fragile.
Rafael Maymó is Nadal’s shadow, his most intimate companion on the grindingly long global tennis circuit. Trim, neat, towered over by his six-foot-one friend and employer, the thirty-three-year-old Maymó is a discreet, shrewd, serene Mallorcan from Nadal’s hometown of Manacor. Since he started working as Nadal’s physical therapist in September 2006, the two have developed a relationship that is practically telepathic. They barely need to talk to understand each other, but Maymó—or Titín, as Nadal affectionately calls him, though the nickname has no meaning—has learned to tell when the mood is ripe for him to speak up, when to lend an ear. His role is not unlike that of a groom with a purebred racehorse. He rubs Nadal’s muscles, tapes his joints, soothes his electric temperament. Maymó is Nadal’s horse whisperer.
Maymó attends to Nadal’s needs of the moment, psychological as well as physical, but he knows his limitations: he sees that these end where the family begins, for they are the pillar that sustains Nadal, as a person and as an athlete. “You cannot stress too much the significance of the family on his life,” Maymó says. “Or how united he and they are. Each of Rafa’s triumphs is indivisibly a triumph of the whole family. The parents, the sister, the uncles, the aunt, the grandparents: they act on the principle of one for all and all for one. They savor his victories and suffer his defeats. They are like a part of his body, as if they were an extension of Rafa’s arm.”
So many of them show up so often at Nadal’s matches, Maymó says, because they understand he is not 100 percent fully functional without them. “It’s not a duty. They need to be there. They see no choice in the matter. But they also feel that his chances of success will increase if, when he looks up at the crowds before a match begins, he sees them there. That is why when he wins a big victory, his instinct is to jump up into the stands to embrace them; or if any are back home watching on TV, the first thing he does back in the locker room is phone them.”
His father, Sebastián Nadal, endured the most nerve-shredding experience of his life at the Centre Court on the day of the 2008 Wimbledon final. An image of what happened after the 2007 final, also against Federer, gnawed at Sebastián, as it did at the rest of the Nadal family. They all knew how Rafael had reacted after that five-set loss. Sebastián had described to them the scene in the Wimbledon locker room: Rafael sitting on the floor of the shower for half an hour, a picture of despair, the water that pounded his head blending with the tears that rolled down his cheeks.
“I was so afraid of another defeat—not for me, but for Rafael,” said Sebastián, a big man who in his working life is a steady, calm entrepreneur. “I had that picture of him destroyed, utterly sunk, after the 2007 final, nailed inside my head and I did not want to have to see it again. And I thought, if he loses, what can I do—what can I possibly do —to make it less traumatic for him? That was the game of Rafael’s life; that was the biggest day. I had a terrible time. I’ve never suffered so much.”
All those closest to Nadal shared Sebastián’s suffering that day; all saw the soft, vulnerable core hidden beneath the hard warrior shell.
Nadal’s sister, Maribel, a lanky and good-humored college student, five years younger than he, is amused by the gap between the perception the public has of her brother and her own knowledge of him. An unusually overprotective big brother, who calls her or texts ten times a day, wherever in the world he might be, he gets into a terrible flap, she says, at the slightest suggestion that she might be falling ill. “One time when he was way in Australia my doctor ordered me to have some tests done—nothing too serious—but in all the messages I exchanged with Rafael that was the one thing I didn’t mention. It would freak him out; it would risk throwing him completely off his game,” says Maribel, whose pride in her brother’s achievements does not blind her to “the truth,” expressed with teasing affection, that he is “a bit of a scaredy cat.”
Nadal’s mother, Ana María Parera, does not disagree. “He’s on top in the tennis world but, deep down, he is a super-sensitive human being full of fears and insecurities that people who don’t know him would scarcely imagine,” she says. “He doesn’t like the dark, for
Example, and he prefers to sleep with the light, or the TV, on. He is not comfortable with thunder and lightning either. When he was a child he’d hide under a cushion when that happened and, even now, when there’s a storm and you need to go outside to fetch something, he won’t let you. And then there are his eating habits, his loathing of cheese and tomato, and of ham, the national dish of Spain. I’m not as mad about ham myself as most people seem to be, but cheese? It is a bit peculiar.”
A fussy eater, he is also fussy behind the wheel of a car. Nadal enjoys driving, but maybe more in the make-believe world of his PlayStation, a constant companion when he is on tour, than in a real car. “He’s a prudent driver,” his mother says. “He accelerates, brakes, accelerates, brakes, and he is awfully careful about overtaking, however powerful his car might be.”
Maribel, his sister, is more blunt than his mother. She describes Rafael as “a terrible driver.” And she finds it funny too that, while loving the sea, he is also afraid of it. “He’s always talking about buying himself a boat. He loves fishing and Jet Skiing, but he won’t Jet Ski, nor will he swim, unless he can see the sand at the bottom. Nor will he ever dive off a high rock into the sea, as his friends do all the time.”
But all these foibles are nothing compared to his most persistent anxiety: that something bad may happen to his family. Not only does he panic at the merest suggestion of ill health in the family, he is forever fretting that an accident may befall them. “I like to light up the fireplace almost every night,” says his mother, at whose large, modern seafront home he still lives, in a wing of the house with its own bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom. “If he goes out, he’ll remind me before leaving to put out the fire before I go to sleep. And then he’ll phone three times from whatever restaurant or bar he is in to make sure I’ve done so. If I take the car to drive to Palma, only an hour away, he’ll beg me, always, to drive slowly and carefully.”
Ana María, a wise and strong Mediterranean matriarch, never ceases to be amazed by the incoherence between how brave he is on the tennis court and how fear-ridden off it. “He is a straightforward kind of person, at first sight,” she says, “and also a very good person, but he is also full of ambiguities. If you know what he is like deep down, there
That is why he has to arm himself with courage in the buildup to a big game, why he does what he does inside the locker room, willing himself into a personality change, bottling up his inherent fears and the nerves of the moment before releasing the gladiator within.
To the anonymous multitudes the man who emerged from the locker room onto the Centre Court for the start of the Wimbledon 2008 final was Superman; to his intimates, he was also Clark Kent. One was quite as real as the other; it might even be that one depended on the other. Benito Pérez Barbadillo, his press chief since December 2006, is as convinced that Nadal’s insecurities are the fuel of his competitive fire as he is that his family offers him the core of affection and support necessary to keep them in check. Pérez worked in the tennis world for ten years, as an official at the Association of Tennis Professionals before becoming Nadal’s press chief, and has known, in some cases very well, most of the top players of this period. Nadal, he believes, is different from the rest, as a player and as a man. “That unique mental strength and self-confidence and warrior spirit is the reverse side of the insecurity that drives him,” he says. All his fears—be they of the dark, of thunderstorms, of the sea, or of the disastrous disruption of his family life—obey a compelling need. “He is a person who needs to be in control of everything,” Pérez says, “but since this is impossible, he invests all he has in controlling the one part of his life over which he has most command, Rafa the tennis player.”