I stayed in the Olympic village with all the other athletes, and once again, as in the Davis Cup, I had a taste of that team spirit that I loved so much when I played football as a kid. Living with my Spanish teammates, in the same residential compound, meeting and making friends with the Spanish basketball team and track athletes (some of whom, a little embarrassingly, would stop me in the corridors, or in the communal laundry room where we all washed our clothes, to ask me for my autograph) and stepping out in uniform alongside them all for the opening ceremony – these were unforgettable experiences. But my sense of good fortune came accompanied by a strong dose of indignation.
I understood better than ever just how privileged we professional tennis players are, and how unjust is the predicament of so many Olympic athletes. They train incredibly hard, at least as hard as we do, yet the rewards tend to be far smaller. A tennis player ranked number eighty in the world has economic benefits, social privileges, and a degree of recognition beyond the dreams of someone who is number one in track and field, swimming, or gymnastics. On the tennis circuit everything is laid on for us all year round, and the money we receive allows us the chance to save for our futures. These people train with the discipline of monks over a period of four years in preparation for the one competition that stands out above all others, the Olympics, yet the vast majority of them receive very little support relative to the effort they invest. It’s admirable that they should prepare so rigorously, at so much personal sacrifice, for the mere satisfaction of competing and because of the passion they feel for their sports. That has a value beyond price. But that shouldn’t have to be enough. With all the income the International Olympic Committee generates from the Games – an event that depends for its success on the commitment of the athletes – you’d think they might be able to share the cash a little more fairly. In my case, I have no need to be paid, luckily, but an athlete who runs in the 400 meters or the marathon needs a lot of financial backing just to be able to train at the level required to make it to the Olympics and then compete for the top prizes. I understand that tennis has broader public appeal, at least over the course of a calendar year, but I think it’s unjust that more of an effort is not made to allow these incredibly dedicated people to live more decently and train in better conditions.
But these were my reflections after it was all over. Moaning and griping was not what defined my time in Beijing. What stays with me, above all, was the camaraderie between the athletes and the chance I had to learn about so many different new sports and discover how much we all had in common. Just to be able to participate, and to have access to a world I never thought I’d get to know, was uplifing enough.
Then to win gold in the men’s singles, after beating Djokovic in the semis and Fernando Gonzalez of Chile in the final, and to see the Spanish flag being raised to the accompaniment of the national anthem as I stood on the winner’s podium: well, it was one of my life’s proudest moments. People don’t usually associate the Olympic Games with tennis. I certainly didn’t when I was growing up. The game only reappeared as an Olympic sport in 1988, after a 64 years absence. But in tennis players’ minds Olympic gold has become something to covet. After a Grand Slam, it’s now the prize we most cherish.
Winner of his first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 2005, Rafael Nadal suffered a foot injury in the fall that could have put an end to his career. He missed the Australian Open in 2006 but came back and fought his way to a second Roland Garros title.
Extract from Nadal’s autobiography, Rafa:
Returning to Monte Carlo that year was like coming home. Once again I came up against Federer in the final, and once again I won. Then I faced him again in the final at Rome. It was a killer match, a true test of whether I recovered from my injury. I had. The match went to five sets, lasted five hours; I saved two match points, and I won. And then it was Roland Garros and a chance I thought I’d never have just four months earlier of preserving my French Open crown. It meant more to me to be back here now than it had to be here the year before, even though tgat had been my first time. Winning this would mean, for me and my family, that the nightmare we’d gone through would be, if not forgotten, exorcised, and we could resume, in a clear and confident state of mind, the victorious trajectory that had been so nearly terminally curtailed. And I had a point to prove: I wanted to show that my win in 2005 had not been a one-off, that I was in the Grand Slam league to stay.
I made it to the final by a tough route, beating some of the top players of the moment, among them Robin Soderling, Lleyton Hewitt and, in the quarterfinals, Novak Djokovic. A year younger than me, Djokovic was a hell of a player, temperamental but hugely talented. Toni and I had been talking about him and I’d been watching him in my rearview miror, looming closer, for a while now. He’d been racing up the rankings, and I had a strong feeling that he would be neck and neck with me before too long, that it would not just be me, but me and him, against Federer. Djokovic had a strong serve and was fast and wiry and strong – often dazzling – on both forehand and backhand. Above all, I could see he had big ambitions and a winner’s temperament. More a hard court than a clay court player, he was competitive enough to make it difficult for me in the Roland quarters. I won the first two sets 6-4 6-4, and was preparing for a long afternoon’s work when unfortunately for him, but fortunately for me, he had to pull out with an injury.
In the final it was Federer again. I lost the first set 6-1, but won the next three, the final one on a tiebreak. Wathing the video of the match later, I thought Federer played better than me overall, but in an atmosphere of high tension (he, so eager to complete the foursome of major titles; me, so desperate to banish the ghosts of my exile), I stuck it out.
As Carlos Moya saw it, Federer was not fully Federer when he played against me. Carlos said I had beaten him by attrition, badgering him into untypical mistakes for a man of such enormous natural talent. That had been the plan, but I also think I won because I’d won the year before and that gave me a confidence I might otherwise have lacked, especially against Federer. Whatever the case, I’d won my second Grand Slam.
After all I had been through, it was an incredibly emotional moment. I ran up in the stands, as I had done the year before, and this time it was my father I sought. We hugged hard and we were both crying. “Thank you, Daddy, for everything!” I said. He doesn’t like to show his feelings. He had felt the need to look strong and composed during my injury, but it was not until now that I fully grasped how hard he’d battled to stop himself from breaking down. Then I hugged my mother, who was also in tears. The thought that filled my mind at that moment of victory was that it as their support that had pulled me through. Winning the French Open in 2006 meant that we’d come through the worst; we’d overcome a challenge we feared might overwhelm us, and we had come out the stronger for it. For my father, I know, that was the moment of greatest joy of my entire career.
“Going into the Australian Open in 2009, I felt my chances of winning were as good as they had been at Wimbledon six months earlier. I had, in other words, a good chance. The ball bounces higher than it does at the US Open, so it doesn’t fly so fast and it takes my topspin well. What I hadn’t reckoned on was a semifinal like the one I had against my friend and fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. I won, in the end, but I had to battle so hard and was left so physically destroyed by the end of it. For most of the one and a half day of preparation I had for the final against Federer, I was convinced I had absolutely no chance of winning. The only time I’d felt like that before a Grand Slam final was at Wimbledon in 2006, but that was because I did not believe, in my heart of heats, that winning was an option.
Before the Australian Open final in 2009 it was my body that rebelled, begging me to call a halt. It didn’t cross my mind to pull out of the match but the result I anticipated, and for which I strove mentally to prepare myself, was a 6-1 6-2 6-2 defeat.
The semifinal I played against Verdasco was the longest match in Australian Open history. It was incredibly tight every step of the way, with him playing spectacularly, hitting an extraordinarily high percentage of winners. But I somehow held on, on the defense but making few erors, and after 5h14, I won 6-7 6-4 7-6 6-7 6-4. It was so hot on court that the two of us rushed to drape ice packs around our necks and shoulders in the breaks between games. In the very last game, just before the very last point, my eyes filled with tears. I wasn’t crying because I sensed defeat, or even victory, but as a response to the sheer excruciating tension of it all. I had lost the fourth set on a tie break, and that in a game so tense and in such conditions, would have devastating had I not been able to call on every last reserve of mental strength I’d accumulated over fifteen years of relentless competition. I was able to put that blow behind me and begin the fifth believing I still had it in me to win.
The chance finally arrived with me 5-4 and 0-40 up on Verdasco’s serve. That should have been it, with three match points, but it wasn’t quite. I lost both the first and second points. That was when it all got too much for me and I broke down; that was where the armor plating fell away and the warrior Rafa Nadal, who tennis fans think they know, revealed as the vulnerable, human Rafael.
The one person who didn’t see it was Verdasco. Either that or he was in even worse shape than I was. Because his nerves got the better of him too. In a moment of incredible good luck for me (and terrible luck for him), he double faulted, handing me victory without me having to hit a shot. Both of us fell flat on our backs, ready to expire of physical and nervous exhaustion, but it was me who made it up first, stumbling forward and stepping over the net to embrace Fernando and tell him it was a match neither of us had deserved to lose.
The match ended at one in the morning, and i did not go to sleep till after five. […]
“No sooner had the match got under way than the the aches began to recede. So much so that I won the first game, breaking Federer’s serve. Then he broke me back, but as the games unfolded I found, to my great relief, that I wasn’t out of breath, and while my calves still felt heavy, there were no signs of the muscle cramps I had feared. And none materialized, despite the match going to five sets. In the end, as Titin says, pain is in the mind.
If you can control the mind, you can control the body
I lost the fourth set, as I had done against Verdasco, after going two sets to one up, but I came back, my determination bolstered and my spirit enhanced by the surprise and delight I felt at having made it as far as I had without falling apart. At 2-0 up in the fifth set I turned to where Toni, Carlos, Tuts and Titin were sitting and said, just loud enough so they could hear, in Mallorquin, ‘I’m going to win’. And I did. Toni had been right. Yes, I could. I won 7-5 3-6 7-6 3-6 6-2 and I was Australian Open champion; to my astonishment I had come back to life, and there it was, my third of the four Grand Slam titles, now my sixth overall.”
That diesel engine image Carlo Costa uses to describe me was especially appropriate in this tournament.
I started sluggishly, but once I got going, there was no stopping me. I nearly went out in the second round, squeaking through in five sets, but the further I advanced and the tougher the opponents were the more my game improved.
I beat Soderling in the quarterfinals in four sets and Andy Murray in the semis in three. In the match against Murray the Centre Court behaved impeccably. The British have been longing to have their own Wimbledon champion since 1936, when Fred Perry last won, and the crowd made it quite clear from the start where their allegiances lay. Murray, seeded four in the tournament, was the best hope they had had in a long time. Yet I felt they were entirely fair with me throughout, not cheering my double faults, clapping after my better shots. And when, to the disappointment of the great majority, I won in straight sets, they did not begrudge me a warm ound of applause.
I had expected that if I made it to the final, I’d be meeting Roger Federer for the fourth year running. I didn’t. My opponent this time was the number twelve seed Tomas Berdych, who’d had a brilliant run in the tournament, beating Federer in the quarters and Djokovic in the semifinals.
Though complacency was not on my mind, I was not nearly as nervous as I had been before the final two years earlier. Just as never having played a Wimbledon final before places you at a disavantage, the experience of having done so – in my case four times now- provides a soothing measure of familiarity. Playing an almost perfect game, I won in three sets, 6-3 7-5 6-4, to collect my second Wimbledon championship and eight Grand Slam.
From Nadal autobiography Rafa:
The Argentines are like the Spaniards, experts on clay. And Puerta played better than me for long stretches of the match. I had not yet mastered the trick of isolating myself from my environment and from my fears. You never do fully, otherwise you wouldn’t be human. But back then building the emotional defenses necessary to win consistently remained a work in progress, and the nerves tampered with my thoughts processes more than they would later in my career. What I didn’t lack in that final was energy.
Puerta was playing well, well enough to win the first set 7-5. But I think of that game now and what comes to mind is a sense of never having paused for a breath. I was fighting and running as if I could fight and run for two days without rest. I was so excited at the thought of winning that I never felt a moment’s tiredness, which in turn tired Puerta out. I held on, I was steadier on the big points, and I won every set after the first one 6-3, 6-1, 7-5.
In the space of barely six months I’d climbed three peaks, one higher than the next. The Davis Cup, my first ATP win at Monte Carlo, and now, the headiest of all, the French Open, my first grand Slam.
The emotions I felt were indescribable. At the moment of the victory I turned and saw my family going nuts, my paents hugging, my uncles screaming, and I understood immediately that, for all the years of hard work I had put in, this victory had not been mine alone. Without thinking, the first thing I did after shaking hands with Puerta was rush into the crowd and clamber up the steps to hug my family, Toni first among them. My godmother Marilen was there and she was crying. “I couldn’t believe it“, she told me later, recalling her reaction to the final point. “I looked at you there, a big, grown-up champion with his arms in the air, and suddenly my mind leapt back in time and I saw an image of a deadly serious, skinny little boy of seven, training on court back home in Manacor.”
I had similar thoughts. I had battled so hard and long to get here. But into my mind there also came images of home with my family, and more than ever before, I understood that day that, however great your dedication, you never win anything on your own. The French Open was my reward, and my family’s reward too.
I also felt relief. In winning a Grand Slam I’d taken a weight off my shoulders. Anything else that life bought would be a welcome bonus. Not that I was going to ease up on my ambition. I had tasted victory at the highest level; I had liked it and wanted more. And I had a sense that after winning a tournament of this magnitude once, it would be less difficult to do it again. It was now, after winning at Roland Garros, that the idea began to take shape in my mind that I would win Wimbledon one day.
They say you should never judge a book by its cover and as it turns out, it couldn’t be more true for the cover of Rafael Nadal’s memoir.
With his chest bare and broad, a stern-faced Nadal leers like a warrior ready for battle. The warrior expression is what we’re used to seeing from the multiple Grand Slam winner on his battleground of the tennis court but it holds more of an intimidating look on the front of Rafa; one which hundreds of tennis players who share the locker room with him have to contend with before even entering the fold.
But while this is the Nadal we are all familiar with on court it’s far from the Mallorcan, family-loving football fanatic his closest personnel know inside out. His family have bred him to be a gentleman and a humble one at that.
There’s a reason he’s shirtless too. Not just to make the ladies swoon but it’s a statement of how naked and open he is with the most intimate details of his personal life. It’s a surprise the book even came to pass with the attitude he holds to keeping his private life under lock and key.
If there were still things to strive for like an eluding Grand Slam title or Olympic gold medal, there’s no doubt Nadal wouldn’t have taken time out to work on it. His uncle and coach Toni Nadal would not have stood for anything less.
Such is the importance of the team Nadal has assembled and loyally stuck by for his whole career, the
often strained relationship with his coach is centred on throughout the book as Rafael and his family struggled to come to terms with his uncle’s harsh tutorage.
The book itself consists of Nadal looking back on his two greatest triumphs at Wimbledon 2008 where he defeated Roger Federer for his dream title and the 2010 US Open, the scene of his career Grand Slam. Each chapter reflects with a series of flashbacks as to how the character of the champion was built to overcome his greatest tests.
Every subject associated with Nadal is brought up. His routines in the locker room, his much scrutinised on-court habits, the relentless work ethic and possibly the best 21st century rivalry in sport between himself and Federer.
There’s a lot of setbacks and a lot of tears. The dark days are described as vividly as the glory days on Centre Court and Arthur Ashe Stadium. At times, the story of Rafael Nadal is inspirational in that it makes you go that mile further or do those extra few reps at the gym after reading.
At the end of every section Spain’s British writer John Carlin gives a welcome extension to the words Nadal says, offering analysis and contributions from his team and family, adding to the picture of the champion and the man behind the records.