“Could you sign this for me?” I ask sweetly. “Sorry, he’s too busy” replies his coach Uncle Toni matter-of-factly. I must look perplexed because Rafael Nadal bursts out laughing, touching my arm to reassure me that he was joking. (He’s very tactile is our Rafa.) However, all are impressed when informed that last year’s signed ball raised 2,250 euros for disadvantaged Mallorcan children. “This year could you date it?” I request. Rafa lifts a quizzical eyebrow. “Because this is the year you’re going to win Wimbledon” I predict.
Only weeks before Rafa had told me “it would be more than a dream come true” if Spain scooped the 2008 football title and he won Wimbledon. “I am playing well but I don’t know if it’s enough. But I’m gonna try my best every point. Just be calm, be humble and relax” he added with a disarming smile. This illustrates the 22 year-old’s modest and gracious manner which has endeared him to even the most hardened media. I first interviewed Rafa in 2002, when aged sixteen he played his first Junior Wimbledon. He stunned all by battling his way into the semi finals. Before then, the Nadal name was linked only to his famous Spanish footballer Uncle Miguel Angel Nadal, nicknamed “The Beast of Barcelona”.
However, many were concerned by his rather unpleasant repetitive habit of adjusting his socks, scratching his backside and finally spitting between each point. We dubbed this: “3 S’s syndrome” (socks, scratch, spit). Off court, despite impeccable behaviour, he was a rather unprepossessing gangly youth.
Thus I was stunned two years later to see a transformed Rafa, burst onto court looking like Rambo. As for the “3 S’s”: the fiddling with socks remained, while the scratch had turned into more of an absent-minded tug. “It’s something I do without realising,” he says shrugging. Instead of the spit, there’s a prolonged bouncing of the ball. “Never less than 5 times” Rafa tells me. “When I bounce more times it is because I am not clear of where to serve. I’m thinking of my options.” Then he insists on three tennis balls from which to chose “the two fluffiest” he explains. Many find the towelling down after each point odd; not to mention the two water bottles which have to be placed in perfect symmetry, (labels facing inwards) to swig from whenever he changes side.
However, nothing can detract from Nadal’s wholesome image, prodigious talent and impeccable court etiquette. “On court I am relaxed. I never say nothing. I never put the racquet outside the hand. I keep myself under control” he stresses. His mature and diplomatic manner belies his youth.” When told that many, including John McEnroe, had described his 2008 Wimbledon final as the best match ever. Rafa replied “I am young, so they know better than me if it is one of the greatest in history. I don’t like to say because I really don’t know.”
To date Rafa’s raw aggression and “positive attitude” (two of his favourite English words) have generated 14,733,874 dollars prize money. Moreover, not only is he the first player to maintain his number two world ranking for three consecutive years, but should he win the US Open at the end of August he may well supplant his rival Roger Federer as number one.
Yet Rafa remains a home-loving family boy who is content to still live with his parents. “Family is the most important thing” his Uncle Toni told me. “My father wanted to keep us all close and built a house for us all in Manacor. Today, my parents, my family and my brother’s family including Rafael and his sister all live in the same house on different floors.” Rafa readily admits to getting homesick while on tour, endeavouring to return whenever possible “even for a day”. Indeed, he rarely misses an opportunity to promote Mallorca. Enquiring about his perfect weekend he replied “Be in Mallorca. Get up early around 7. I don’t like to waste the day. Go fishing in the morning: play golf in the afternoon. If it’s Saturday party later: if Sunday be with my family.”
Thus he was delighted when all his family and dozens of friends flew out to support him in his third battle for the Wimbledon title against Roger Federer. (Although his girlfriend of three years, local beauty Maria Francisca Perello, 20, nicknamed Xisca, stayed away.) “I’m happy they’re here. It helps because I spend a lot of time away from home,” he admitted.
Rafa’s determination to steal the most prestigious title from his rival was epic. The longest finals in history saw four hours 48 minutes of scintillating tennis as each warrior constantly raised their game to another level. While Spanish heir Prince Felipe and Dona Letizia sat transfixed in the Royal Box, I noted the Prince surreptitiously slip out a camera for a quick snap of his dazzling countryman. Rafa’s varied and inventive shots, combined with his sound strategy of keeping his rival from his comfort zone to force errors, eventually won the day. After the triumph he declared that it was his “best and most emotional victory. When I was a kid I dreamt of playing here. But to win is amazing.”
However, now as he plays the US summer interspersed by the Olympics, he enters the toughest physical phase of the year for him. All are played on cement hard courts, which play havoc with already dodgy knees. “I am Wimbledon Champion, but although it will always be an unbelievable memory for me, I totally forget that now. The season continues and tennis doesn’t finish there,” he explains. “Roger has to defend more than me, that’s sure. But he’s more favourite than me on this kind of surface (hard).” Rafa also has to focus on doubles for Beijing. “It’s a little bit more practice to play well in the Olympics, but for sure I am going to try my best.” he says. “Of course I want to be No.1. But right now the important thing is to try to continue to focus and play at the same level as the last few months. It has been a great season for Spanish sport and right now I’m just happy because in the last months I have played my best tennis ever!”