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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book: Rafa, Rafael Nadal's Autobiography

Here is my take on Rafael Nadal's autobiography "Rafa". Being a huge tennis fan, I found it interesting to read what went on in Nadal's head throughout his career up until the end of 2010. It's kind of funny for someone to have an autobiography when they're only 24. I guess someone in his entourage really wanted this project to go through and it did.

Fun Facts
  • Rafa was born and raised in Manacor, Mallorca, a town of 40,000
  • Rafa feels closer to Mallorcans compared to other Spaniards (he speaks Mallorqui, dialect of Catalan and incomprehensible to Spanish)
  • Mallorca is the only place Rafa can be in peace, people leave him alone with the notion that everyone is equal. A quote from a book that describes the culture of Nadal's hometown well, "Dear Mallorcans", tells us, “Anyone who tries to raise their head above the rest will immediately have it chopped off.”  
  • Nadal literally mean "Christmas" in Catalan 
  • Rafa cut out running from training (says he runs enough in practice/matches) Wow! 
  • Uncle Toni did not get paid for his time as a coach but he owns half of Rafa's father's company and takes half the profits without doing any work. 
Manacor on Google Maps

  • He likes nutella (who doesn't?)
  • Rafa was not forced to play left handed by his dictator Uncle Toni
  • He is scared of dogs (Carlos Moya locks up the dog in the bathroom when Rafa visits)
  • He was devastated and thought he would never be in a Wimbledon Final again after losing to Federer in the 2007 Finals
  • Rafa says, "An unusual thing about tennis is that even in the biggest tournaments you share a locker room with your opponent." That is kind of weird.
  • On game days, he drinks water and eats pasta (no sauce) with olive oil and salt and a simple piece of fish to avoid indigestion.
  • 2004 Davis Cup Final vs the US: Nadal is chosen to play the #2 ranked Roddick in singles over more experienced players like Juan Carlos Ferrero and Tommy Robredo. Rafa confided in fellow Mallorcan, Carlos Moya, on whether he should cede his spot in which Moya said: “Don’t be a dumb ass. You go ahead and play...For me, there’s no problem at all.” Moya later reveals that he did have doubts but didn't want to add pressure to the young Nadal. Rafa would go on to win and help Spain win the Davis Cup.
Wimbledon Final  2008

The book starts off with his inner dialogue that takes place during the 2008 Wimbledon finals vs Federer. The first few chapters all start off with his thoughts on how each set was played (Chapter One, set one - Ch 2 set two...) followed by stories of how he became who he is today.

His details his plan against Federer:
"If I have to hit the ball twenty times to Federer’s backhand, I’ll hit it twenty times, not nineteen. If I have to wait for the rally to stretch to ten shots or twelve or fifteen to bide my chance to hit a winner, I’ll wait. There are moments when you have a chance to go for a winning drive, but you have a 70 percent chance of succeeding; you wait five shots more and your odds will have improved to 85 percent. So be alert, be patient, don’t be rash. If I go up to the net, I hit it to his backhand, not to his drive, his strongest shot. Losing your concentration means going to the net and hitting the ball to his forehand, or omitting in a rush of blood to serve to his backhand—always to his backhand—or going for a winner when it’s not time."

Young Nadal

Nadal was the top scorer for this U14 soccer team and had to make a decision on what sport to play. In the past, Rafa's soccer coach understood that Rafa couldn't make all the practices but when a new coach came around, he told Nadal that if he missed one session, he would be benched. That made the usually indecisive Rafa choose tennis rather easily.

At 14, Rafa was offerred a scholarship to move to Barcelona (30mins flight from Mallorca) to train at "one of the best professional tennis academies in Europe". Coming from a very well off family, he had the luxary of staying in his hometown and training with Uncle Toni.

After trudging through boarding school, Rafa's mother wanted him to study for university entrance exams.

"So she signed me up when I was sixteen to a long distance course, but I lost all my books, left them on a plane on a flight to the Canary Islands, and that was the end of my formal education. I don’t think I left those books behind deliberately; it was just another case of me being absentminded in all things other than tennis. And I don’t regret having given up the chance to go to university, because I don’t have regrets, period."

Uncle Toni

One overarching theme is that his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, was a harsh and demeaning dictator. Nadal credits the abuse to making him mentally tougher than anyone out there but I wonder if this is just in hindsight. Toni is still his coach so it wouldn't make sense to say anything negative about him in a public manner.

"Toni was tough on me right from the start, tougher than on the other children. He demanded a lot of me, pressured me hard. He’d use rough language, he’d shout a lot, he’d frighten me—especially when the other boys didn’t turn up and it was just the two of us. If I saw I’d be alone with him when I arrived for training, I’d get a sinking feeling in my stomach." Doesn't seem quite normal to me...

Toni would whip the ball at Rafa when he wasn't concentrated and always pointed out the negative things in his game. Rafa would go home crying, be forced to pick up all or most of balls after practice with other kids and sweep the clay courts at the end of sessions.

"When I won the Spanish under-12s national tennis championship (at age 11)...Toni, unable to repress his instinct to bring me down to earth, who spoiled the party. He phoned up the Spanish Tennis Federation pretending to be a journalist and asked them for the list of the title’s last twenty-five winners. Then, in front of the rest of the family, he read out the names and asked me if I had ever heard of any of them. So and so, do you know him? No. This guy? No. And this one? No. There were just five who had reached a decent level as professionals...“You see? The chances of you making it as a pro are one in five. So, Rafael, don’t get too excited about today’s victory." 

There was to be no celebration - ever - after a tournament win, even big ones like Rolland Garros or Wimbledon. Uncle Toni would get home before Rafa and take down all the decorations his mom and sister had put up after a big title win. After a 14h flight home from a huge win, Rafa would have to wake up after five hours of sleep to train. Crazy.

At one point, Rafa was walking the streets of Paris with his trainer and Toni on both sides of him. Toni flipped and demanded that Rafa walk on the outside, otherwise people would think Rafa had bodyguards and was spoiled or sheltered.

Even today, Toni schedules 9am practices and shows up at 10am and when Rafa is 15 minutes late, Toni freaks out.

On Injuries

Nadal almost had a career ending foot injury at the end of 2008 and start of 2009. His tarsal scaphoid bone in his foot had a deformation which made it painful to even walk on. During his absence, Federer reclaimed the #1 ranking and won the French Open for the first time and Wimbledon for the sixth time. Nadal recounts when he was crying, thinking his career was over. He actually changed his game to be a bit less scrappy, trying to win more free points on the serve and not going for absolutely everything to save on wear and tear.

"Playing sports is a good thing for ordinary people; sport played at the professional level is not good for your health. It pushes your body to limits that human beings are not naturally equipped to handle. That’s why just about every top professional athlete has been laid low by injury, sometimes a career-ending injury. There was a moment in my career when I seriously wondered whether I’d be able to continue competing at the top level. I play through pain much of the time, but I think all elite sports people do. All except Federer, at any rate. I’ve had to push and mold my body to adapt it to cope with the repetitive muscular stress that tennis forces on you, but he just seems to have been born to play the game." 

After getting special shoes made, he was able to cope with the pain. However, this change caused stress in his knees and back which is why you see him wearing so many bandages. I hope that he has a long career because retiring due to injuries is unfortunate and unfair.

Close Circle of Friends
Left to right: Sebastian (Father), Benito (Communications Chief), Tuts (Nike Handler), Carlos Costa (Agent), Rafa,  Maribel (Sister), Ana Maria (Mother)
Nadal always refers to his close circle of family and friends which make everything possible. The reason he ensure the hardships of training (which he says himself is not fun) is because he has a life outside of tennis that he loves. He lives at home and was brought up to be a humble and well mannered gentleman. Tennis is a solitary sport so it makes sense to have an entourage to be there for you. His girlfriend, Mary, has a full-time job and prefers to be out of the spotlight which is why we hardly see her in the audience. His family always keeps him grounded and he has yet to go off and do foolish things. (Note that apparently 70% of NFL players have financial issues two years after retirement).

Overall Thoughts
I read the book in one day and I thought that while not the most revealing autobiography, there were definitely some interesting stories. Uncle Toni's Spartan-like training code seemed particularly harsh and who knows if that was the game changer. I don't think Federer was brought up like that and he's currently the greatest tennis champion ever. Tennis is mentally the toughest sport, and like Rafa says, if you watch a top ten player or a top 500 player in practice, you can't see the difference. It's really on the court, when there's pressure, where the players reveal their mental grit.

It would have been a LOT more interesting if the book was written this year, when Novak Djokovic had a breakthrough and beat Nadal in three straight Grand Slam Finals. To see what is in Nadal's mind now vs Djokovic would maybe reveal too much, whereas his game plan for Federer was already public knowledge. He did state that Novak was a solid all around player and the next star without many weaknesses.

Can't wait to see what happens at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2012! You can get the book from Amazon by clicking here: Rafa

*Update. Amazing how Nadal, Federer and Murray won the last 3 Slams of 2012. I don't think anyone would've predicted that!

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