During the French Open 2010, former world No.1 Rafael Nadal was walking down the streets of Paris flanked by Carlos Costa- his agent and former tennis player- on one side and Toni Nadal- his coach (and uncle)- on the other. Nadal was walking in the middle of the two. Suddenly, Toni stops and says “we can’t have this”. He thought it might seem that Rafa is a special person and the others his escorts, so he changed the order and made Nadal walk at the end.
From singling out Rafael during his growing years whilst coaching young kids at the local tennis club at Manacor, a small town on the Spanish island of Mallorca- using rough language, shouting and yelling more at Rafa than all the other kids, making him stay behind after practice sessions to pick up all the balls and sweep the courts- to being the ‘toughest coach in the world’, this was all part of Toni’s devious strategy over the years to toughen up Rafael to play through all sort of pain, under all sorts of conditions, to throw the bathroom tub when the opponent throws kitchen sink at him; to endure: the one quality that has made Rafael Nadal one of the toughest players to beat on the tennis tour. Toni’s relentless methods and his relationship with Rafael Nadal takes centre stage in Nadal’s autobiography called Rafa: My Story by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin.
The book is written in collaboration with John Carlin- a Barcelona-based senior international writer for one of the large Spanish newspapers, El Pais. Every chapter of Rafa contains two parts; one as seen through Nadal’s eyes and one seen through Carlin’s. The book recounts Nadal’s life through the lens of two of the most important matches he’s ever played; Wimbledon 2008 men’s singles final where he beat the then-ranked No.1 Roger Federer is a thrilling five-set final and U.S. Open 2010 men’s singles final which he also won for the first time becoming just the seventh man in the Open era to win all four grand slam titles in a career.
Sports autobiographies can only be as intense as much the subject- on whom the book is based upon- opens up. That’s precisely why Andre Agassi’s classic Open remains one of the best stories ever told. But much of Agassi’s life seen through Open takes its roots from his troubled upbringing and the kind of struggles he’s had to face growing up in the harsh desert of Las Vegas to morph into one of tennis’s most colourful characters. Rafael Nadal’s- former world No.1 and presently ranked second in men’s tennis- childhood has been very pleasant and protective, on the other hand, with little spice occasionally thrown in. Yet, through his autobiography, he gives us precious insights and tells us numerous stories whilst growing up, his feelings, aspirations, insecurities and copiously takes us through various events- year after year- that’s made him to be the sort of killing machine on the tennis courts that we have known.
The book takes a non-linear narrative; it goes back and forth in flashbacks and gives it a sense of a thriller, much like Jon Wertheim’s well-written and insightful take on the same 2008 men’s singles Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer (Stokes of Genius), though clearly not in the same league. But unlike Stokes of Genius that gives us a glimpse of Nadal, Federer and Wimbledon in equal measures, Rafa takes us through his childhood days in great detail. He may be a feared rival on the tennis court, but he is scared of darkness and dogs. His mentor and also former No.1 Carlos Moya has to lock up his dog when Nadal comes home, visiting. And don’t forget to turn off the fireplace before you go to sleep, he’ll call home and tell his mother about three to four times if he’s out with friends or partying, always afraid of a calamity that he fears may befall on his family.
Growing up in a joint family set up, he lived in a five floor building with his grandparents, parents, his father’s three brothers and a sister their spouses and their families. Surely, a long-time coach of a top tennis player would be raking in a handsome fee you’d think, but Rafa tells us that all of Toni’s earnings come only from Rafael's own dad’s business where Toni is an equal and dormant partner; Rafael doesn't pay him a penny. The family's one message to him has always been: ‘be humble, keep your feet firmly on your ground and never disrespect anyone.’ But being around his loved ones at all times also gave him the sense of continuity so important, according to Joan Forcados, his physical trainer, to Nadal’s success, such as Toni being around for 20 years and others in entourage with him for well over 10 years.
This continuity got a setback when Nadal’s parents separated in 2009; a rare glimpse of what went through his mind and the eventual darkness he slipped into, that also led him to lose his only match at the French Open ever; an event that he has otherwise won six times. “Through all these years of constant travel and eve more frenzied claims on my time as my fame had grown, Manacor and our neighboring seaside resort of Porto Cristo was a bubble of peace and sanity, a private world where I could isolate myself from the celebrity madness and be entirely myself again. Fishing, golf, friends, the old routine of family lunches and dinners – all that had changed. My father had moved out of our Porto Cristo home, and now when we sat down to eat or watch TV, he wasn’t there. Where there had been laughter and jokes, a heavy silence hung. Paradise had become paradise lost.” But Nadal would soon bounce back in 2010, winning three of the last four grand slams of the calendar year to complete his career slam.
Rafa does get a bit flat towards the latter half when his minute to minute decision making during his key matches gets a bit too much. Instead, a critical analysis of his opponents- much like Agassi in Open- would have been more interesting. Like how he felt when Djokovic was impersonating everyone around, especially Nadal the most. But we couldn’t expect that from Nadal who’s ever so diplomatic and well-mannered could we? It’s also possibly why he has written so less about the trauma he faced after his parent’s separation, focusing largely on the positive side for most part of the book.
The minor complaints aside, Rafa is a good read.