You didn’t need especially fine antennae on the eve of the Davis Cup Final of 2004 to spot the disgruntlement in the faces of Juan Carlos Ferrero and Tommy Robredo, denied their places in history by the eighteen-year-old upstart Nadal. It was obvious to anybody watching the team press conference the night before the first day of play, seeing the foursome pose for photographs, that the Spanish team was not a portrait of patriotic harmony. Carlos Moyá, Spain’s number one, spoke with ambassadorial poise; Ferrero and Robredo looked as if they would rather be somewhere else; Nadal fidgeted, stared at his feet and forced smiles that did little to disguise his unease.
“When Rafa came to me and said he was willing to cede his place in the match against Roddick to one of the two older guys, I said no, that was the captains’ call and, anyway, he had my full confidence. But inside,” Moyá recalls, “I had my doubts.” Moyá transmitted the same
Message to Toni Nadal, who was also uncomfortable. “The decision had been made,” Moyá said, “and I saw no point in causing even more tension in the group, and adding to the pressure on Rafa, who was in a dilemma, by saying anything else.”
Moyá spoke bluntly to Ferrero, asking him to take the decision on the chin and remember that he had played his part in getting Spain to the final. The Davis Cup record books would show that, and wins for him and Nadal would mean victory for him too. Whether they bought the argument or not, Rafa’s doubts as to the legitimacy of him playing was now an added factor of concern for Moyá. Had Rafa been more brash, less sensitive, had he either not picked up on, or simply not been bothered by, the ill feeling that suddenly plagued the group, he would at least have been going into the decisive match against the experienced American number one in a less cluttered frame of mind. But that was not the case. Moyá knew very well that beneath the gladiatorial front he put on during a match there lurked a wary, sensitive soul; he knew the Clark Kent Rafa the indecisive one who had to hear many opinions before he could make up his mind, the one afraid of the dark, frightened of dogs. When Nadal visited Moyá at home, Moyá had to lock his dog up in a bedroom, otherwise Nadal would be completely incapable of settling down.
He was a highly strung young man alert to other people’s feelings, accustomed to a protected and harmonious family environment, out of sorts when there was bad blood. Spain’s Davis Cup family was distinctly out of sorts now, and making things worse, Nadal was—if not the cause—certainly at the heart of the problem. Getting his head in order for the biggest match of his life, Moyá sensed, was going be a bigger challenge than usual for his young friend. As if that were not bad enough, Moyá could not help reminding himself that Rafa, however sharp he might have looked in training that week, had lost just fourteen days earlier against a player ranked 400 in the world. And his serve was conspicuously weaker than Roddick’s, which was almost 50 percent faster.
But Moyá did also have reasons to believe in his young teammate. He had known Rafa since he was twelve years old, had trained with him scores of times, and had been beaten by him two years earlier in
An important tournament. No top professional had been closer to Rafa, and none would continue to remain on more intimate terms with him, than his fellow Mallorcan. Ten years older than Nadal, Moyá, who had briefly snatched the number one spot from Pete Sampras in 1999, knew that Nadal had special qualities; but just how special he would not find out until after the youngster had gone out in front of 27,000 people at Seville’s converted athletics stadium, all the pressure in the world on his shoulders, and played the world number two in four physically grinding, emotionally supercharged sets.
“People were already talking about Rafa in Mallorca when he was six or seven years old,” says Moyá, “although at first you had to wonder if it was because his uncle was Miguel Ángel, the football player, who was a legend on the island. But the tennis world is small there—my trainer, Jofre Porta, used to do some coaching with him too—and after he’d won the Mallorca under-12s championship at the age of eight, a buzz began to be generated around him. I remember Jofre telling me, ‘This one’s going to be good.’ By the age of twelve he was already one of the best in the world in his category. That was when I met him for the first time.”
The meeting took place in Stuttgart, Germany. Moyá was playing in an ATP tournament, Nadal in a junior one. “Someone from Nike, who’d already had the smarts to sign him up, asked me if I’d warm up with him. I did, for about an hour. Now, to be honest, he did not strike me as being singularly more gifted than other players of his age. I did see he was very combative, though what was more surprising was how incredibly shy he also was. We met and shook hands, but he didn’t even look at me and uttered barely a syllable. It’s true he was probably a bit overawed, since I’d made a bit of a splash in the media after making it, unseeded, to the Australian Open final earlier that year. But the contrast was still striking—shocking, actually—between the timid little boy off court and the super-competitive kid on it, even though we were just rallying, not even playing points.”
When he was fourteen, by which time Moyá had won his one and only Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, he began training with Moyá in Mallorca, as often as three times a week. “People sometimes say to me, ‘You’ve helped Rafa a lot, right?’ Well, maybe, but he’s
Helped me a lot too. Those training sessions were of value to me too. He was good enough already to push me hard, even though I was well established by now in the world top ten. We played sets together, and since I didn’t want to lose against a kid of fourteen, he helped me keep my edge. I even think he helped make me a better player.”
The reverse was more obviously true. Few aspiring professionals, if any, in the history of the game can have had the good fortune to practice on a regular basis at the age of fourteen with a player who had won a Grand Slam tournament and who, when he was away on tour, was frequently competing with such tennis deities as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. It was another example of how kindly the stars had been aligned for the young man who dreamed of being a champion.
There was the original good luck of having had an uncle who, after failing to achieve his own tennis-playing dreams, dedicated himself life and soul to building a player capable of competing mentally and physically at the highest level. There was the warm, doting, remarkably close remainder of the family to act as a counterweight to the uncle’s fiercely disciplined regime. There was his uncle Miguel Ángel, whose sporting celebrity provided an example, right on his doorstep, of the importance of training hard and of how to stay centered, however much acclaim came his way. And then there was Carlos Moyá. Stumbling across a mentor, confidant, and practice partner of such stature and generosity would be beyond the dreams of an aspirant professional raised in New York, London, or Madrid, but in the hermetic tennis environment of a small island like Mallorca, whose natives by nature stick together, it could happen, and it did.
Moyá, who has a home in Miami and another in Madrid and is much more cosmopolitan by nature than Nadal, made the kid from Manacor his pet project. Nadal’s parents gush when they talk about Moyá, noting that a lesser character than he might have run off in the opposite direction at the sight of the young pretender, all the faster the more threatening to his dominion he became. Yet the more successful Nadal became—as he progressively usurped Moyá’s status as king of Mallorca, king of Spain, and king of the tennis world—the warmer the relationship between the two became. Nadal regards him to this day
As the wise and benevolent big brother he never had. He has continued to confide in Moyá and seek advice from him to a degree that he can with no one else outside his family circle, with the possible exception of his physiotherapist and resident de facto psychologist, the man he calls Titín.
“I did like to feel in the beginning that I was helping a boy to achieve his dream and I felt motivated by the idea of being a mirror in which he might see himself,” says Moyá, who admits that before long it was Nadal who would be motivating him. “I could see, by the sheer intensity with which he trained, that he was super-ambitious and desperate to improve. He hit every shot as if his life depended on it. I’ve never seen anything like it, not even close. You compared him with other kids his age and, well, it was exactly what you see now that he has become one of the greats of the tennis circuit. Sure, at that age you never know what’s going to happen. The world is full of sportsmen and -women who looked like world beaters at the age of fourteen and, for whatever circumstances of life or hidden weaknesses of character, sank without a trace. What was certain about Rafa was that he had something different.”
And he had an audacity that belied his self-effacing demeanor off court. “He began playing the Futures tournaments, the junior competitions of the ATP, at fifteen,” said Moyá, “playing at times against players ten years older than he was. I worried at first that for a boy accustomed to winning, the inevitability of losing—and losing often —would sap his confidence. That was the danger. One more time, I underestimated him. Within five months he started winning games; within eight or nine, tournaments.”
Moyá is amazed at the speed with which Nadal “burned through” the normal stages of tennis evolution. “When I was fifteen, I played summer tournaments in Mallorca and went to school in winter. That was my limit. If I’d started playing Futures matches then, I’d have lost 6–0, 6–0 every time. As it was, I started at seventeen and that was what happened.
“After a year, when he was sixteen, he moved up from the Futures to the Challengers competition, one step below the full-on ATP circuit. At first it was tough for him. He was playing on indoor hard courts, the
Fastest surface there is—a million miles removed, in tennis terms, from the clay courts in the humid, hot environment where he was raised. Typically we Spanish perform badly on those courts, and at first he suffered too. In fact, Spanish players often don’t even bother to turn up, because they know from experience that the chances are they’ll be out in the first round.
“The first time we’d played a competitive match against one another he was sixteen and I was twenty-six. It was in Hamburg, a big ATP Masters tournament, early in 2003. In the many practice games we’d had over the previous couple of years I almost always won. I’d say, in fact, that if I really wanted to win, I always did. Not surprisingly. But on this occasion I was nervous. I felt incredibly pressured. I was in the top ten, he was a kid, an emerging star, sure, but ranked 300 or so. Losing would be an embarrassment, and I felt that pressure keenly.
“It was a night game, it was cold. I felt the cold but he seemed not to; he seemed to be hot before we’d even played the first point. Actually, he didn’t play at his best. And nor did I. But he beat me, in two sets. It was as clear-cut a case as you’ll find of a player winning through superior mental strength. You’d see other kids of sixteen on the circuit who were not as good as he was but with a far more chaotic attitude on court, raging away at the slightest setback. What I saw across the net from me that day was a player who was very talented indeed but, above all, one whose concentration, professionalism, focus were on another level from mine. Someone whose weak game was ten times stronger than any equivalent player’s weak game. And—I say this just to show how remarkable this was—don’t forget that by now I’d won a Grand Slam and had been a finalist at the Australian Open.
“At the end of the match we hugged at the net and he said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He needn’t have said it. I took the loss more philosophically than I might have expected beforehand. I knew that this was going to be the first of many defeats; that Rafa was the future and I, while far from finished, was beginning my descent.”
As the years went by, and one rose and the other fell, Moyá became increasingly aware of the intimidating effect Nadal had on other players. “I don’t think he would ever admit it, and I’ve never asked him about it, but I do believe that he does deliberately intimidate rivals,”
Moyá says. “He is more complex and vulnerable in private than he lets on in public, but the effect he has on his rivals is not complex at all. They are daunted by him. Those rituals he has: they’re a show in themselves. You don’t see any other player do anything like it. And as for his physical preparation, he goes out on court practically sweating, something I never managed to do, but it is the ideal condition in which to start a match.”
Carlos Costa, Rafa’s agent and also a former pro, agrees with Moyá that there is something scary about coming up against Nadal, describing his impact on his rivals, like the impact Tiger Woods at his best had on the rest of the professional golf world, as that of the dominant alpha male over the rest of the pack. “Towards the end of my career I played against him competitively,” Costa says, “and, yes, there came a point in a match when fear entered your heart. You knew you were in the presence of a born winner. Rafael is stronger mentally than everybody else; he’s made of special stuff.”
He also has a special charisma. Moyá, a big star in his day, had been Spain’s first ever world number one, but long before Nadal himself even made it to number two, the younger man had outstripped him in popular appeal, in his own country and beyond. Moyá was more classically good-looking (in May 1999 People magazine put him in its list of “the 50 most beautiful people in the world”), but he could not match Nadal’s elemental appeal; Moyá was a more elegant player, with a more powerful serve, but Nadal’s ferocious competitiveness had more seductive force. He connected with the public in a way that Moyá never could.
Moyá calmly accepts this because he knows he is not, nor ever was, in the same league as Nadal. Not in terms of talent, but in terms of attitude. “It’s Rafa’s head that distinguishes him from the rest. That comes through on court, not just for his rival but also for people watching on TV. It’s invisible but you feel it. His backhand, his forehand: others have that. Of course he is talented. I think he doesn’t realize himself how much, because he has a tendency to underestimate himself. But in terms of mentality, he is out of this world. I’ve known many top athletes, not just in tennis, and nobody has what he has—with the exception maybe of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.
He is an assassin on the crucial points; his concentration is absolute, and he has something I never had, an ambition without limits. I won one Grand Slam, I was happy: my life’s work was done. Rafa needs to win more and more and he’ll never have enough.
“He has the same hunger in each point. I was 5–0 up in a set: my mind would wander; I gave away a game, two. Rafa, never. He gives nothing away for free; he conveys to his rivals the crushing, disheartening message that he is going to do all he can to beat you 6-love, 6-love.”
Yet that is not, for Moyá, the whole story, which he says is more layered and complex. Nadal does have a flaw. And one connected in Moyá’s mind with that ambiguity between his sensitive, insecure private self and the sporting battering ram the world sees. In Moyá’s view, Nadal does not entirely shed his Clark Kent persona on court; the transformation to Superman, willed as it is and convincing as it looks, is not complete. “He is more cautious than you might think on court. He has always been wary of his second serve, and that is why he does not hit his first as hard he could, given how powerful his physique is. You see the same caution in his open play. I’ve trained with him a thousand times on court, and I’m always struck when I see him play a match by how much more aggressive he is in training, how many more winners he hits. I’ve said to him many times, ‘Why don’t you loosen up more? Why not play more inside the court and go on the attack more, at least in the early rounds of tournaments, when you often come up against players you could beat with your eyes shut?’ But he doesn’t, or does so less often than he should. Maybe in part because of that refusal of his to believe how good he really is.”
Moyá believes that Nadal’s warrior image comes not so much from his attacking aggression as from his never-say-die defensiveness. He plays with the spirit of the Alamo, a sensation that transmits itself to the crowds, to whom he conveys the impression, no matter his standing in the world rankings, that he is playing the part of the defiant underdog. As Moyá says, Federer would never be seen as a gladiatorial figure because he is not a battler, a scrambler; he is not fighting for his life as Nadal always seems to be doing. Federer’s trademark is his lethal precision.
That Nadal has proved such a resilient champion has all the more merit, in Moyá’s eyes, for the anxieties he has had to overcome to get there. It also helps account for his magnetic on-court persona. People connect more with the battling underdog than with the effortlessly superior performer, because the battling underdog is more recognizably human; more people see themselves in the flawed Nadal than in the Olympian Federer. They would do so less if he were more like the past master with whom he is sometimes compared, Björn Borg; or if he were as wildly exuberant on court as John McEnroe was. For Moyá, Nadal is a cross between the two players who staged the greatest rivalry tennis had seen until Nadal and Federer came along. Borg was pure ice, McEnroe was all fire. “The secret of the tremendous appeal he has worldwide,” says Moyá, “is that you can see he is as passionate as McEnroe was, but he has the self-control of Borg, the cold-blooded killer. To be both in one is a contradiction, and that’s what Rafa is.”