For someone who appreciates and admire Rafael Nadal’s game, but didn’t know a whole lot about Nadal’s personal life or early career, I actually found “Rafa”, his new book written with well-known sportswriter John Carlin, a worthwhile read if only that it gave me an inside look at the Spaniard’s life before he became a worldwide tennis phenomenon along with a candid take on Nadal’s very successful yet tumultuous relationship with his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal.
Framed for the most part around Nadal’s epic five set victory over Roger Federer at the 2008 Wimbledon final, “Rafa” allows Nadal to recount his thoughts and emotions during that classic match while discussing everything that led up to that moment from his early days as a young boy obsessed with football growing up in a protective household in Mallorca to his devastating loss in the 2007 Wimbledon final to Federer that reduced Nadal to tears only minutes later in the locker room shower. With Nadal through all of these moments was “Uncle Toni”, a former player himself who saw potential in Nadal early on and made sure that any early success Nadal had on the tennis court as a junior not only didn’t go to his head, but the whole family’s as well. In one passage, Nadal recounts after having won a junior tournament in South Africa, his godmother had arranged a celebration at his grandparents’s house with banners and all. However Toni, when finding out ahead of time about the party, cancelled the festivities, had the banners torn down and reprimanded the whole family saying. “What are you trying to do to Rafael? You’ll ruin him. Don’t give what he does so much importance!” Toni then forced Nadal to march right back out onto the practice courts near their home.
Though Nadal’s parents at times clashed with Toni on his extreme methods of training Nadal physically and mentally to not only become the best player in the world but to carry himself with “humility” as Toni describes, it’s not as if Toni hasn’t second guessed his almost ruthless methods. But those methods of enduring both emotional and physical pain allowed Nadal to survive what might have been a career foot ending injury early on in his career and then later the end of his parents’s marriage in 2009 that’s discussed in a chapter called “Paradise Lost” that sounds overly dramatic but does convey how the tumult within Nadal’s relied upon sanctuary of his family and private life in Mallorca was almost as debilitating to Nadal as a physical malady.
But even with the breakup of his parents who have since reconciled, Nadal’s “family”, (which includes his physical therapist Joan Forcades, a Nike rep who travels the world with him, and countless others) are really the key to Nadal’s success. Described as a “safety net” by Forcades that “has freed his mind and body to allow him to get the best out of himself. “ the protective shell of his life in Mallorca, his family and even his on-court rituals that some critics deem borderline obsessive-compulsive are all necessary to Nadal. “It’s like a great big matchstick structure,” says Nadal. “If every piece is not symmetrically in place, it can all fall down.”
Aside from exploring the core dynamic of the Nadal family, “Rafa” does a good job of allowing Nadal’s voice to come through as he discusses his career, his life off of the court and more. Nadal’s recollections of key matches in his career may be what intrigues his fans the most but I found his thoughts on how the culture and code of life in Mallorca the most interesting in terms of how it shaped Nadal both as a person and as a player.
The timing of the release of “Rafa” comes at an interesting time in Nadal’s career. He returns to the U.S. Open, where he earned a career Grand Slam last year, with question marks about his confidence and his physical condition. But it’s no doubt that Nadal, with the help of his extended family and ever-present Toni Nadal, will probably endure and eventually overcome this obstacle like all of the others before. For his devoted fans, “Rafa” may not provide any new clues or knowledge that they didn’t already know, but for those who are curious or just want to get a better sense about one of the best tennis players of all time, “Rafa” certainly provides a worthy initial insight into a legendary career that is very likely just getting started.
Be sure to check out the ATN “Contests” page for your chance to win a free copy of “Rafa”!
(Special Thanks to Hyperion Press).