An unparalleled tennis superstar, Rafael Nadal uncovers the highs and lows of a celebrated man and sports great in his prime.
The summer trickled in like the last few days of the school year—long, arduous, and exhausting. It was 2003 and I had long decided that I was going to hole up in my room for the next two-and-a-half months. Alas, this wasn’t the case as unknown to me, my well-meaning parents with a misplaced sense of enthusiasm (and perhaps hope) were dead-set on me taking up a summer sport. Never too subtle, they had already procured a tennis racket, which they excitedly handed over. For the rest of the summer, I would drag myself (or actually, get dragged) to the court, where I groaned under the heat of the sun gnawing on my nape.
Unfortunately, I did not show signs of being the next tennis great. Make no mistake, I wasn’t exactly terrible at it and I fairly enjoyed whacking the neon balls across the court. Keeping my end of the bargain, I finished the summer session on the first week of June with a new skill set and never looked back. (The tennis racket still survives to this day, lodged in a cabinet with age-old encyclopedias gathering dust.)
While I was constantly bemoaning the fact that I was doing something against my will, a young tennis racket wielding hero was emerging from the grass courts halfway around the world. Turning pro the year before at 15 years old, Rafael Nadal made his Wimbledon debut in 2003, where he became the youngest man to reach the third round since Boris Becker in 1984.
From then on the world took notice of the greatness that he would display from the firm rectangular surface courts. It was clear from his fired up brand of playing that this was would mark the beginning of the Rafael Nadal era in tennis history.
The Game Play
“It was impossible to think that I would reach this when I was young,” says the hard-hitting left-hander from Spain in our conversation via email. “I always did my best during trainings and tried to have fun. Success isn’t possible without failure—but that’s what makes you work harder and play stronger and really live for the success when they do come.”
On a fervent quixotic mission in the sport from the get-go, he has since whacked up a win-loss record of 1004-204 with a whopping 86 career titles. His penchant for topspin-heavy shots and blazing bolts of tenacity has earned him French Open titles, his maiden Wimbledon title in 2008, and a Golden Slam by winning the US Open in 2010. This wasn’t to say that his career thus far has been rid of missteps. Like any great sporting great, he has struggled sporadically. With the 2015 Wimbledon tournament being a point of contention, some sports analysts have been asking: what’s next for the King of Clay?
“I think that the most important is to always want to improve and to always stay humble…even when things go well we always need to strive to improve and continue to play the best we can,” he says. “Everything in life changes and evolves. You have to keep adapting, learning and improving, which can only be done with hard work.”
As with anything, the game can and will get a little too real for one to handle. This has plagued many a great athlete over the course of history, but Rafael Nadal obviously has a good head on his shoulders. “One of the most important things is to realize that not everything depends on you,” he muses. Touché.
Bold, strong and confident—Rafael Nadal cannot be missed on the court. Stepping out to play, he appears pretty much Zen on the outside. While his shoulder length hair kept at bay by a bandanna tied across his head, as well as of a selection of signature bright-colored sportswear says otherwise, his quick mile-long strides in between sets and unmistakable decibel-registering grunts dispels any notion of things that are calm. “On the inside it’s different. It’s important to control your mind and keep yourself fresh,” mentions the no-frills and fuss sporting great.
You might think that for a player of his caliber, he has given in to the trappings of his megastar status and fame. But interestingly enough, the guy solely considers himself as just a tennis player. When asked what his dreams are at this point, he bares something so simple it is startling. “To keep playing tennis for as long as possible. I want to perform at my best, keep trying harder.” While it may sound so altruistic, it isn’t hard to believe as this comes from the man whose only known fear is to disappoint. “The people all have faith in me,” he reasons.
It is clear that while he will forever be etched in the history of tennis as one of the greatest players to ever grip a racket, chase after a whizzing ball, and conquer earthly terrains, there is so much for him to do. Call it is his constant unraveling of an unfinished business, but that’s who he really is—never stopping until he is satisfied.
But up until that (match) point, ¡Vamos, Rafa!