All sportsmen exist somewhere on a spectrum between Zen mastery and a conscious effort of willpower. Placing Rafael Nadal on this spectrum is straightforward. Not for him the ethereal lightness that flows from Roger Federer’s racket. Nadal toils and sweats, trains and chases, always driven by a feeling of inadequacy.
He is the most admirable and least enviable of champions. His attributes are easy to list: courtesy, unfailing; courage, unquestionable; resilience, off the scale; competitiveness, scary; modesty, hard-wired; mental strength, epic. Yet it adds up to an uncomfortable whole. On court, there is something hounded about Nadal, as though he thinks failing to retrieve one ball—one tiny fraction of a single match—will bring dire consequences. But what?
Over time, with most great players, signs of their deepest motivation emerge unavoidably. Federer, we sense, is serving both his talent—as though it would be a crime to neglect something so precious and rare—and himself. He honours a gift while also hedonistically gulping down the pleasure he derives from it. But Nadal’s motivation remains a mystery. It’s as if his competitive qualities somehow crept into his character without his knowing how. It is not uncommon for elite athletes to be two different people—one person on the pitch, another in real life. But the disconnect between the two Nadals is exceptional. In his autobiography he calls himself Clark Kent, as though the tennis player is unrecognisable from the man.
Is that separation sustainable over the long term? The weight on Nadal has never lifted, yet it hasn’t crushed him either, and you wonder why not. He is arguably the most indestructible athlete in the world, and also strangely, deeply vulnerable.
The view from the other side of the net is very different. Nadal is tennis’s great pugilist. He walks on court—runs, actually—ready for a mini-war, from the first point to the last. The bulging muscles are the least of it. Before each serve his face is fixed in a half-grimace, as though frozen at the peak of intense focus. His famous weapon is the top-spin forehand, his racket ripping through and around the ball, then ending up high above his left ear. After a gruelling rally, he will leap in the air, biceps clenched, fist pumping. Speaking to his ghostwriter John Carlin, he described his astonishing 2013 season—which he began as world number four, still recovering from a serious knee injury, and ended as number one with ten more titles to his name, including his eighth French Open—as “una barbaridad”, literally “a barbarity”. And you knew what he meant.
Occasionally, very occasionally, there are glimpses of the other Nadal, the sensitive soul beneath the warrior mask. At the Australian Open this year, his back gave way in the final against Stan Wawrinka. Nadal had been hot favourite, though the mercurial Wawrinka dominated the first set. When Nadal took an injury time-out at the beginning of the second set, he returned to the court to jeers and boos. The presumption, from a section of the crowd, was that Nadal had exploited a technicality to upset Wawrinka’s rhythm and concentration. What followed was difficult to watch. His movement stricken, his eyes filled with tears, Nadal struggled on, scarcely able to bend down, let alone move with his customary explosive power. Were the tears straightforward pain, or deeper anguish at the suspicions levelled against him, or regret at a grand-slam title slipping away? Perhaps all three.
The incident also hinted at Nadal’s complex relationship with his own body. Some great athletes view their bodies as necessary but unremarkable machines—something that needs to function adequately, but not much more than that. The great West Indian cricketer Gordon Greenidge famously batted better when he was limping. Andy Murray rarely goes through a whole match without a visible niggle. With Nadal, you sense the physical dimension is more central, as though he must feel almost indestructible. When his body lets him down, the effect is not a matter of degree—it is total. He is Clark Kent once again, Superman no longer.
Asked once why he struggles at indoor tournaments, Nadal replied that “sun is energy”, as if he was deprived of special photosynthetic powers when placed under a roof. In his own mind, physicality explained everything. It was another manifestation of the Nadal mystery. How was a steely champion grafted onto such an unconfident man? Thanks to his own honesty, we know quite a lot about Nadal’s upbringing. His parents effectively ceded control of his tennis education to his uncle, Toni—still his coach today. It was a brutally tough learning environment; another uncle felt it amounted to “mental cruelty”. Proof that tiger parenting works? More likely, the Nadals judged—correctly, as it turned out—that Rafa could weather it. But even he admits the pressure amounted to a “fine balance”; it could easily have tipped the other way.
His boyish charm endures partly because he has never flown the nest. He lives in the house he bought for his family and speaks to his sister every day, no matter where he is. Even with 13 slams to his name, Nadal remains driven by blood, duty, fear of failure. A family of atheist Mallorcans have created the ultimate embodiment of the puritan work ethic, and he never stops thanking them for it. An easier life remains unimaginable.
French Open Stade Roland Garros, Paris, May 25th to June 8th