Cover: In New York Magazine


Photo by Clive Brunskill/ Contour
I'll be on the look out for this one .. Rafa admits Djokovic is in his head.. let's hope this time away from tennis Rafa had figured it out! Working on the entire interview!

With his world ranking on the line, tennis superstar Rafael Nadal returns to New York to defend his US Open title.

In conversation, Rafael Nadal is polite. So polite, in fact, that it's hard to imagine this gracious young man is the menacing presence who has dominated men's tennis with 10 Grand Slam titles, including last year's US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens.

That victory made him only the seventh man in tennis history to win a career Grand Slam (the French, Australian and US Opens, plus Wimbledon), so New York has become special to the genial Spaniard—and vice versa.

“It’s always amazing,” he says humbly. “It’s the biggest court in the world! And last year I had an amazing feeling that the crowd wanted to watch me win here. I arrived a week before the tournament started and the support was very, very nice from the beginning.”

But a lot has changed since last year. Specifically, Novak Djokovic. The powerful Serbian not only defeated Nadal at Wimbledon in July, but wrested away the No. 1 world ranking in the process. 

“He’s in my head,” admits Nadal, 25. “I know it, you know it, he knows it. He’s in the best moment of his career, that’s true, but my experience says that probably the level of Novak today is not forever. I’m going to be here fighting all the time, waiting for my moment to beat him.”

The man known as “Rafa” (or the “King of Clay”) gets that competitive fire from his close-knit family of entrepreneurs and athletes. Born Rafael Nadal Parera on Jun. 3, 1986, in Manacor, Spain, on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, he is the oldest of two children of housewife Ana María Parera and Sebastián Nadal, who owned a restaurant, a window glass company and an insurance company. His uncle Toni Nadal was a pro tennis player who introduced Rafa to the game at age 3 and has coached him ever since. 

“My Uncle Toni transmitted to me passion and respect for the game. He supported me and motivated me. Yes, sure, I did make some sacrifices, but still I love to play tennis, love the competition,” Nadal says. “I did what I liked, so …no real sacrifices.”

Well, not quite. “At some point I had to choose between soccer or tennis. I think I made the right decision,” he says. When he was 12, he won the Spanish and European titles for his age group, turned pro at 15 and won his first major tournament at the 2005 French Open. The following year, he launched a long rivalry with Roger Federer by defeating him in the French finals. The two have met in Grand Slam finals eight times, with Nadal taking six of those matches. “Federer games are always intense,” he says. Tennis observers agree; many point to the pair’s 2008 Wimbledon final as one of the greatest matches ever. “He is a gentleman,” Nadal says of the Swiss legend, who is also a friend. “What makes you win is wanting to win and wanting to do everything that has to be done to win.” In the 6-foot-1-inch left-hander’s case, that means superhuman conditioning, stamina and power. His forehand overpowers his opponents, averaging about 3,200 revolutions of the ball per minute (most players manage about 1,800).

Tennis aside, Nadal leads a quiet life in Manacor, has a longtime girlfriend and devotes his free time to his nonprofit Rafa Nadal Foundation, which creates opportunities for disabled and underprivileged children. When he visits New York City, he makes official public appearances, gets his hair cut at the Julien Farel Salon on Madison Ave. and dines with friends at Japanese and Spanish restaurants. Meanwhile, designers capitalize on his good looks. He is one of Nike’s biggest names, as well as the new face of Emporio Armani Underwear and Armani Jeans’ spring and summer 2011 collection.

For the moment, all he can think about is overcoming Djokovic or Federer to regain his title at the US Open. After last year’s win, Nadal was ubiquitous in the city as he made the media rounds, visiting the Today show, CNN, The New York Times, Live With Regis & Kelly and El Mundo. He certainly wouldn’t mind taking the same victory lap this year. Perhaps that memory will be just the incentive he needs to once again hoist the trophy. After all, as Nadal knows, New York City loves a winner.

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