Those who have appreciated Nadals unflinching intensity and his reservoir of pride will enjoy the book immensely because they will gain a deeper understanding of the man and the high pressure world in which he resides. They will be fascinated by the candid portrait he paints of the complex Uncle Toni, the architect of Nadals success in many ways. They will welcome the chance to learn more about Rafas mother, father, girlfriend, and other confidantes who have formed such a loyal web of supportiveness around the champion, and contributed with such utter reliability to his success. Nadal is only 25, and his evolution as a competitor and a personality is incomplete. A decade down the road, he might be even wiser to the ways of the world, and will surely no longer be competing on the ATP World Tour. That might be a time when Nadal would be at greater liberty to comment on his innermost feelings on his friends, relatives and rivals.
Yet the fact remains that this is a remarkably mature, thoughtful, and inquisitive human being, much older in many ways than his chronological years, highly intelligent beyond the realm of most people his age, more fully developed than a good many athletes who think of themselves as intellectually agile even if infrequently are not. In his mid-twenties, Nadal is unusually reflective, a philosopher at heart, ready to openly examine himself and his actions in depth without resorting to truth stretching. He deliberately leaves out details of his private family life and tells us very little about the breakup of his parents in 2009, but who can really blame him for that? Nadal is entitled to keep matters of deep sensitivity and importance to himself, but he does not shy away from sharing his emotions on a number of other topics, and must be commended for that.
The format for this autobiography is unconventional. Most celebrities writing books about their lives tell their stories entirely in the first person. We hear their voices clearly and unmistakably, and feel as if we are sitting in on extraordinary interviews with the subjects. In most top of the line autobiographies, the first person telling of the story is powerful, compelling, and enriching for the reader. But Nadal and Carlin approach their project differently. In Rafa, the chapters alternate between Nadal in the first person and Carlin writing in the third person, using extensive interview material from the inner Nadal circle to give the reader a chance to learn about this all time great tennis player without forcing him to say it all in his own voice.
Frankly, I prefer the conventional format for autobiographies, and would rather have had Nadal speaking to us in every chapter from the beginning to the end of the book. But that is a minor grievance. Carlin writes skillfully and, as we make our way through the book, the back and forth between hearing from and then about Nadal becomes seamless and penetrating. We grow accustomed quickly to the nature of the book, and go with the flow after a while. The backdrop for much of what Nadal says from his standpoint is the single most important and celebrated match of his career, his appointment on the fabled Centre Court against Roger Federer, when the Spaniard won Wimbledon for the first time in an incomparable five set skirmish that concluded on the edge of darkness in 2008.
As a reader, you always look forward to Nadals next chapter on that astonishing contest, to his insights on the physical and psychological ramifications of that pendulum swinging match. This is not to suggest that Nadals personal sections of the book are reserved solely for his recollections of the renowned battle with Federer at Wimbledon three years ago, or other strictly tennis related matters. He does branch out into a wide range of other points of view, particularly about the people who matter most in his life. Not surprisingly, Nadal is never more interesting or candid than when he addresses Uncle Toni, his coach, mentor, and crucial life figure.
To all of us in the media and out among the public, Uncle Toni has established a well-earned reputation for the vital role he has played in enabling Nadal to realize his potential. From a distance, we have seen Uncle Toni as a serious yet genial man, as the person more than any other who has guided Nadal with the best of instincts and the soundest of judgment. Their relationship has been fascinating. Uncle Toni has been a driving force behind this commendable champion, and a central figure in the life of his famous nephew. Until now, Nadalat least in the English speaking presshas spoken of his uncle almost entirely in favorable and reverential terms.
In the book, Nadal constantly reinforces his view that Uncle Toni has been indispensable, sagacious, and everlastingly loyal. He salutes Toni Nadal for having the courage of his convictions, and always having Rafas best interests at heart. But he also conveys that Uncle Toni can be impossibly obstinate, a task master who carries discipline to an unnecessary extreme at times, and a coach who has emphasized humility to the point where Rafa is sometimes hindered by insecurity when he should be much more confident about himself and his chances at various stages of his career. Uncle Tonis virtues are splashed all over the pages of Rafa, but his flaws are also revealed as well. Nadal is direct, unfailingly honest, and balanced as he reflects on his uncles role in his career.
Describing what it was like to work with his uncle at the outsetwith five or six other kids also learning from ToniNadal writes, Toni was tough on me right from the start, tougher than on the other children. He demanded a lot of me, pressured me hard. Hed use rough language, hed shout a lot, hed frighten meespecially when the other boys didnt turn up and it was just the two of us. If I saw Id be alone with him when I arrived for training, Id get a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Yet Rafael Nadal knew there was a method to his uncles madness, and he was deeply appreciative of that. As he writes, By pushing me to the edge, he built up my mental strength, an effort that paid dividends in the quarterfinals of that first under-12s championship I played, in a match where my rival was the favorite, a boy three years older than me. I lost the first three games without winning a point but ended up winning in straight sets. I won the final in two sets too. Ive still got the cup at home, on display alongside the trophies Ive won as a professional. It was a very important victory, for it provided me with the impetus for everything that followed.
In a revealing passage later on in the book, Nadal explains the double-edged sword effect of his uncles advice, how it can both fuel him and create self-doubts at almost simultaneously. He writes, Toni [has] conditioned me to believe from childhood that every match is going to be an uphill battle. I am not sure this is always the healthiest frame of mind in which to enter a match, because sometimes it puts a check on my confidence, leading me to play with less aggression than I might. But, on the plus side, it means that I treat everyone I play with respect and never succumb to complacency. It may be the reason why I rarely lose against players who, by their position in the rankings, I should beat.
As Nadal writes about his triumph at the 2010 U.S. Opena victory that made him only the seventh man in history to complete a career Grand Slamhe lets us all in on a dispute that arose between himself and Uncle Toni that could have spiraled out of control and damaged both men at the worst possible time. Before Nadal took on Denis Istomin in the second round, Toni urged him to lengthen the points, play safely, loop balls up high, and establish a rhythm that would serve him well for the rest of the tournament. Rafa felt he went out and did precisely what his uncle had asked him to do, but Toni chided him for what he considered a poor attitude. Toni had stressed to Rafa that he needed as always to put on a good face, meaning he should conceal any inner doubts and present a brave and positive face to the world.
After the Istomin match, Toni Nadal was dissatisfied, and told his young nephew of his concerns. Nadal explained that if his expression looked that way, it was because he felt nervous and was afraid he might lose. He saw that as an understandable human reaction. After Nadal stood up for himself politely to Toni, his uncle responded, O.K. O.K. I just tell you what I think, and if you dont like it, Im off home and you can find yourself another coach.
Nadal writes, I wasnt thrilled at his reaction. Toni must know that I am one of the easiest players on the tour to get along with. Few treat their coach with more respect than I do. I listen to Toni, I do as he instructs, and even when things become tense, I rarely answer back. I am well-mannered on the court, I train at a hundred percent, and in everyday life I dont put any pressure on those around me, much less Toni. So when he responded the way he did in the locker room at Flushing Meadows, I felt I had been treated unjustly. But I made an effort and contained myself.
As told in the book, Nadal tried to explain to his strong-minded uncle that he simply did not agree with him in this instance. Usually he was in accord with Uncle Toni, but not this time. This time, Rafa told Toni that he felt he was wrong. Astoundingly, the older man responded this way: If this is the way things are going to be, I cant see any pleasure in being your coach any longer. With that line, Uncle Toni stormed out of the locker room.
The two men resolved their difference on this issue, and Toni Nadal was there to see Rafa capture that U.S. Open, sitting in his familiar position behind the court, offering constant encouragement to his highly charged player. In any event, Rafael Nadal writes in Rafa, The atmosphere in our team is tenser when Tonis around than when hes not. What I never lose sight of is that, on balance, that tension benefits my game. Nor do I forget that he wouldnt generate such a response in me, be it for good or for bad, if I didnt feel a tremendous respect for him. When I am hard on him, its because I believe he asks for it. But one thing must be clear: If we have fights, they are to be taken in the context of a mutual trust and a deep affection built up over many years of being together. I do not begrudge him the public recognition he has. He may have obtained it due to me, but everything I have achieved in the game of tennis, all the opportunities I have had, are thanks to him. Im especially grateful to him for having placed so much emphasis from the very beginning on making sure I keep my feet on the ground and never become complacent.
To be sure, the Rafa-Toni relationship from the standpoint of the student and star is the best material in the book, but lets not forget about other family members. His father Sebastián emerges as a first rate man, secure in his own right as a formidable businessman, yet always instilling in his son the need to be himself and not be swayed by living as a celebrity. The decency of Sebastián Nadal is the mans standout quality, and neither he nor Rafas mother Ana María Parera ever intruded on their sons tennis activities or did anything to add to the burdens of the pressure experienced by Rafas drive for perfection. To the contraryas Rafa Nadal brings across so persuasively in the bookhis parents have shaped his character impeccably. He is the embodiment of them, and they can be proud of how he has turned out.
Nadal tells an intriguing story in the book about his father. In 2008, he was making more money than Id ever imagined. He refused to think about buying an expensive apartment for himself, but he did dream of buying a luxury car once in a while. That year, he was walking through the streets of Paris with his father. Rafa Nadal saw a luxury sports car through a window, a beautiful vehicle as he describes it in the book. He told his father he might want to buy that car for himself, but Sebastián Nadal gave him a look that suggested this was a crazy idea. Rafael Nadal knew that purchasing such a car might come across as ostentatious and extravagant to his family and their neighbors back home in Spain.
Yet he still wanted that car. He writes that if his father had rejected the idea and simply said no, he would have walked away. But Sebastián told Rafael, Look, if you win Wimbledon this year, you can buy yourself one of those. How about that? Rafa tried making the case that he should get the car if he won the French Open that was going on at that time, but his dad persisted, thinking that Rafa was not really ready to win Wimbledon. But, of course, Rafael Nadal did just that, and more than earned the right to get his luxury car.
As Nadal sums up the role his parents have played in his life, he writes, With big things and little things that arise, its my dad who brings the order and calm and good humor that I need to function at peak focus on a tennis court. This is not to diminish in any way the role Toni has played in my life, For all the clashes weve had, hes my uncle and I love him. But the principal driving force in my life has been my father, who, along with my mother, created a happy and stable home base without which I would not be the tennis player I am. Maybe it was not the best thing for [my mother], but she practically abandoned her own selfleaving behind a perfume shop she ownedand sacrificed everything got us, for my sister, my father and me. She is a social person by nature, who loves to learn and see new things, but her life became confined to the family after I was born. She did it because she wanted to, because she never had any doubts this was what she had to do. I sometimes think she made too many personal sacrifices for us. But if her objective was that we should have the space and love necessary to thrive, it worked. While my father was out managing his businesses, she was the one who shaped our values.
Clearly, the words written by Nadal about his family are illuminating and heartfelt, and gaining a greater understanding of them explains in plain and simple terms to us why he has become one of the worlds most appealing athletes. But then, of course, the book has plenty of absorbing parts that pertain to the making of the tennis player. Early in the book, he sets the record straight on how he became a left-hander. He writes, Ive seen reports in the news media saying that Toni forced me to play left-handed, and that he did this because it would make me harder to play against. Well, its not true. Its a story the newspapers have made up. The truth is I began playing when I was very small, and because I wasnt strong enough to hit the ball over the net, Id hold the racket with both hands, on the forehand as well as the backhand. Then one day my uncle said, There are no professional players who play with two hands [off both sides] and were not going to be the first ones, so youve got to change. So I did, and what came naturally to me was to play left-handed. Why, I cant tell. Because I write with my right hand, and when I play basketball or golfor dartsI play right-handed, too. But in football [soccer] I play with my left; my left foot is much stronger than my right. People say this gave me an advantage on the double-handed backhand, and they may be right. Having more feeling, more control on both hands than the majority of players, has to work in my favor, especially on cross-court shots, where a little strength helps. But this was definitely not something that Toni, in a moment of genius, thought up. Its dumb to imagine that he might have been able to force me to play in a way that did not come naturally to me.
The many observations made by Nadal about his epic duel with Federer at Wimbledon in 2008 will be a treat for all readers who recall that legendary battle, but here is how he concludes his thoughts on that long afternoon into the evening and on into darkness, with suspense hanging in the air on every stroke. Writes Nadal, Was that the greatest moment of my career? Every match is important; I play every one as if it is my last, but that one, in that setting, with that history, that expectation, that tension, the rain interruptions, the darkness, the number one against the number two, both of us playing at the top of our games, the comeback by Federer and my resistance to it, me prouder than I had ever been of my attitude on a tennis court, haunted by the recollection of defeat in 2007 [against Federer on the same court] but fighting and winning my own war of nerves
. so, yes, put it all together, and its almost impossible to imagine any other match that could have generated so much drama and emotion, and for me, and for those closest to me, such enormous satisfaction and joy.
Meanwhile, he pays tribute to the greatness of Novak Djokovic, and was prescient about the Serbian for quite a long time before that charismatic competitor travelled to the top of the ladder. Writing of a period early in 2008not long after Djokovic had secured his first Grand Slam championship at the Australian OpenNadal says, Everybody still had their eyes on Federer and me, but we both knew that Djokovic was the up-and-coming star and that our dual dominance was going to be more at risk from him than any other player. Disconcertingly, he was also younger than me. This was something new. I had been accustomed all my life until this point, in tennis and also in the junior football leagues in Mallorca, to being the kid who had the audacity to take on and beat his elders. This younger guy was beating me, and even when I won, he was giving me very tough matches. Federer would presumably retire before I did, assuming injury didnt do me in. Djokovic would be dogging me right to the end of my career, trying everything to jump ahead of me in the rankings.
Let me leave you with one last bit of analysis from Rafael Nadal about the art of winning, and the way that champions think. After he had overcome Fernando Verdasco in a five hour, 14 minute, five set collision in the semifinals of the 2009 Australian Open, he faced Federer in the championship match. Even the redoubtable and indefatigable Nadal wondered how he would hold up physically after his debilitating encounter with Verdasco. Federer, after all, had knocked out Andy Roddick in a straight set semifinal after disposing of Juan Martin Del Potro 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 in the quarters. The Swiss was as fresh as could be, while Nadal was beleaguered and vulnerable in many ways. Yet he somehow found a way to win that match, holding back Federer in a classic, winning 6-2 in the fifth set.
As Nadal writes in Rafa, I took a big lesson from that victory. It was a lesson Toni had been drumming into me for years, but never had I discovered how true it was until now. I learned that you always have to hang in there, that however remote your chances of winning might seem, you have to push yourself to the very limits of your abilities and try your luck. That day in Melbourne, I saw, more clearly than ever before, that the key to this game resides in the mind, and if the mind is clear and strong, you can overcome almost any obstacle, including pain. Mind can triumph over matter.
Make certain to read Rafa. Read it cover to cover. You will meet one of the great characters in the entire world of sports. You will discover why he has driven himself so hard for so long, how he has endured in so many monumental battles, and what makes him stand out among all champions as a man who has continuously demanded nearly impossible things from himself in pursuit of his deepest ambitions. You will see why we cant count him out now in his ongoing series with Djokovic, because the game has seldom if ever witnessed a player with this degree of determination. You will find out in Rafa that the game is fortunate to have him up there in the upper reaches.
Of this much I am certain: someday, after he has retired, after time for proper reflection, when he is able to look back fully on a magnificent career, this man will want to write a second book on his life. He will call it Rafa Revisited.
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