As we drool at the prospect of the U.S. Open, two snapshots provide graphic evidence of the chasm between Rafael Nadal’s image and the reality of a tennis champion’s experience. In the first, the Spaniard stares moodily from kiosks and billboards, dressed in Armani underpants. His chest shaved, his belly flexed in a perfect six-pack, his chiseled face without blemish, this is Nadal as airbrushed metrosexual, calculated to sell not just underwear but the whole “Rafa” brand. As the world’s No. 2 player—dethroned at Wimbledon by the Serb Novak Djokovic—and holder of 10 Grand Slam titles, he has pocketed an estimated $60 million in endorsement fees on top of $40 million in prize money.
The other snapshot comes from the final at Roland Garros in Paris in June of this year. Down 2–5 in the first set to Roger Federer, Rafa calls for the trainer and removes his left shoe and sock. As the camera zooms in, the crowd, watching the giant screen on Court Philippe Chatrier, gasps. Rafa’s foot is a hunk of raw meat, toes mangled, nails purple, his arch wrapped in tape as thick as a plaster cast.
After the trainer loosens the tape, Rafa plays as if released from leg irons, taking five straight games and the set. Oblivious to pain, he grinds on and on, winning his sixth French Open title to tie Björn Borg’s record.
At the postmatch press conference, nobody asked about his bloody foot. Nobody suggested sheer grit was the difference between the two players. Reporters wanted to know how it felt to be King of Clay again, and Nadal struggled as always to describe his emotions. A round earlier, after an emphatic victory on his 25th birthday, journalists asked about his feelings as he reflected on his career. “Well,” Rafa replied, “is nine years ago already, so long time here flying around the world. You know, a lot of things changed. What never changed is the illusion to keep playing tennis, the illusion to keep doing well the things, and the illusion to be in a good position of the ranking and play these kind of matches.”
Perplexed, reporters wondered about this illusion business. Had Rafa lost his marbles, claiming his success amounted to nothing?
It remained for Christopher Clarey of the International Herald Tribune to decode Nadal’s meaning. In Spanish, the word ilusión, Clarey said, connotes desire and drive.
For hacks, this wasn’t much help. It sounded like another bit of jock-speak, the mantra of every American football coach. They wanted to find something deeper that would explain how Rafael Nadal beats the stuffing out of everybody. But in the end, like kids playing with Legos, all they ever came up with was a plastic man.
Occasionally a new Lego gets clipped onto this stock figure. Several years back it was revealed that Rafa has a girlfriend. But she seldom attends tournaments and doesn’t talk to the press, and Rafa says they have no marriage plans, and he doesn’t mind not seeing her for months. So the ur-narrative of Nadal centers on his uncle Toni, who has coached him since Rafa was 4 and persuaded the natural-born righty to play left-handed, giving him greater control and power on his two-fisted backhand.
There’s no mention of school in the Nadal narrative. When would there have been time? He turned pro at 15 and won the French Open at 19. Hailed as a clay-court virtuoso, he later went on to beat Federer on grass at Wimbledon. Then he defeated him on the hard courts at the Australian Open and won the U.S. Open, again on hard courts, becoming one of only seven men to win a career Grand Slam.
Because of his spectacular physique and relentless energy, Rafa has confronted questions about steroids and denied he or anyone else on the tour takes drugs. That this flies in the face of documented facts—a couple of dozen players have tested positive for performance enhancers—doesn’t dissuade him. When his friend Richard Gasquet tested positive for cocaine in 2009, Nadal speculated that the Frenchman must have kissed a girl who had snorted coke. As an alibi, this ranked with the Twinkie defense in Harvey Milk’s murder. Yet, remarkably, it worked, and Gasquet got off with a two-month suspension.
Normally reluctant to utter a negative word about a fellow player, Nadal has been critical of Andre Agassi for admitting in his autobiography, Open, that he used crystal meth during his playing days. In a foreshadowing of Gasquet’s case, Agassi tested positive at a tournament, but convinced authorities that he had sipped a spiked drink that belonged to a guy named Slim. The goofiness of this excuse isn’t what riled Nadal; it was that Agassi’s confession brought the game into disrepute.
Since Rafa seldom says anything controversial or quotable, the press searches for significance in his nervous tics and obsessions. He doesn’t just towel off between points, tuck his hair beneath his Nike bandana, and tug at his socks. He reaches around and yanks at his Armani underpants, prompting British wags to wisecrack that he wears “bum-hungry knickers.”
Even sitting down, he can’t stay still. During changeovers, he lines up his water bottles, arranging the labels in the same direction. Reporters have taken meticulous note of these quirks, but none has hazarded a plausible guess how they figure in his on-court dominance.
In 2009 The New York Times Magazine sent a reporter to Majorca to do a profile before the French Open. The piece described Rafa as a tower of physical and emotional strength constructed on the platform of a loving, cohesive family. Then Nadal flew off to Paris and got thumped in the fourth round by Robin Söderling, a Swede previously best known for mimicking the Spaniard’s habit of picking at his seat. Belatedly, it emerged that Nadal had tendinitis in both knees—so much for his physical indestructibility—and was emotionally undermined by his parents’ pending divorce. So much for the family. And so much, one assumes, for the delusion that a journalist can crack the smooth carapace that protects top tennis players. The last thing they’ll share is the slightest tidbit that might help an opponent or mar their marketable images. This year at the French Open, Djokovic wouldn’t even discuss his gluten-free diet.
Several years before his tragic death by suicide, the celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace wrote an article, “Federer as Religious Experience,” which suggested that the best way to understand a tennis champion is to tighten the focus, ignore his personal foibles and celebrity, and concentrate on his play. In a piece of literary genius about sporting genius, Wallace captured Federer’s kinetic beauty and grace, and the ecstasy of those who witnessed the miracle of his shot-making. He praised Federer’s “intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision.” He concluded that Federer was a “mutant, or avatar … a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”
Though Wallace dismissed Nadal as “mesomorphic and totally martial,” it seems that almost everything he wrote about Federer applies to Rafa and that it was the Spaniard’s apostasy in beating Federer over and over that clouded Wallace’s judgment. A fantastic chimera, part bull, part bullfighter, Nadal has his own supernal gifts and wins not by making the game look easy, but by making it look every bit as demanding and difficult as it actually is. While Federer is planning points four shots in advance, Nadal often kills the ball before Federer has a chance to realize his arabesques of excellence. Although his serve doesn’t have explosive pace—in this category Federer is the muscleman, outserving Rafa by 10mph—Nadal puts in a higher percentage of first serves and places the ball with accuracy and guile. He has good hands, a deft touch for a big man, and ballistic, if not balletic, movement afoot. He keeps the ball in play even when he is out of position and has a preternatural ability to go in a nanosecond from desperate retrieving to smacking a winner. Like a heavyweight, he can take a punch, stand up to an opponent’s best shots, then dole out punishment himself. He stays lucid during tense passages of play, quickly recovers after setbacks, and never quits or makes excuses in defeat.
Most remarkably, he denies he’s better than Federer, even though he holds a huge edge, 17–8, over the player he calls “the best in history.” Of course, humility is as much a part of the wallpaper of sport as Muhammad Ali’s boasting. It’s often good strategy to praise an adversary, all the better to aggrandize yourself. If Federer is the best ever and you beat him … well, you don’t need to say the rest.
Still, there’s a deeper humility, the kind associated with saints, that suggests Rafael Nadal deserves to be viewed as another variety of religious experience, low church rather than high, his hymnal full of spirited gospel singing instead of Gregorian chant. But as his believers clap and talk in tongues, watching him in awe, scripture suddenly seems to have been revised. With the ascendancy of Novak Djokovic, Rafa has become the pursuer, not the pursued, and now it’s the Serb, not the Swiss, he has to prove he can beat. If he hopes to retain his U.S. Open title, he’ll have to shake off the rust after his defeat at Wimbledon and end a five-match losing streak against Djokovic. It’s not, however, as though his fans have to pray for a miracle. A player of Rafa’s character, ready to run until his feet bleed, is always a good bet to catch up to the best opponents and reconnect with the best in himself.