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Rafael Nadal: I'd throw fits of rage if I lost. I still do


Rafael Nadal: 'I'd throw fits of rage if I lost. I still do'

The first time Rafael Nadal stepped foot inside Roland Garros, he was not happy. It was 2004, and the season after the ruling body of men’s tennis, the ATP, had named him “Newcomer of the Year”– an award earned on the back of a rapid ascent up the rankings, which had seen him rise from 199 to 109 in the space of four months.
That year, Nadal says, he was “a teenager in a hurry, madly hyperactive, operating at a thousand revolutions a minute in training as in competition”. But the month before he was due to launch his first assault on the French Open, his body cried enough. A tiny crack in a bone of his left foot meant there was to be no Roland Garros for another year yet.

Nadal’s agent, Carlos Costa, decreed that the future champ should go to Paris anyway, to familiarize himself with a setting that it was hoped would one day bring him much success. A nice idea, in theory – but it only served to ramp up the frustration Nadal was already feeling.

I hated not playing,” he explains. “I felt almost ill watching games involving people who I knew I had it in me to beat. Carlos remembers me telling him: ‘Next year, this one’s mine.’”

He wasn’t wrong. Sunday June 5 2005 heralded the beginning of the Nadal reign at Roland Garros (when he won his first final - see picture 3). It has been a period of domination that has seen him lift the trophy a record seven times – and lose just once in 53 matches – on the brick-dust covered courts, and firmly establish himself as the finest clay-court player of all time.


This year, though, when Nadal arrives in Paris, it won’t be with the unerring belief that one would expect from a player with his formidable record. Instead, it will be with the inevitable self-doubt of a player who hasn’t competed at a Grand Slam for almost a year, thanks to the troublesome knee joints that have so often been the chink in his otherwise sturdy armour.

So when Sport travels to a sun-drenched Mediterranean locale to meet the Spaniard ahead of a tournament that will reveal so much about his mental fortitude as well as his clay-court prowess, it is with a suitcase full of curiosity about what the coming weeks on the courts of Roland Garros might bring.

If results since his comeback in February are anything to go by, Nadal’s lengthy lay-off has done him little harm. He’s reached eight consecutive finals, winning six of them, including his first hard-court tournament in a year at Indian Wells in March. Winning aside, the 26-year-old who greets Sport with the famed Colgate grin and warm graciousness with which he affords everyone who crosses his path is simply elated to be back in the game.

“For the past seven months, the only sport I was really able to practise was golf,” he says, his words carrying an undertone of incredulity. “I enjoy playing golf, but I love to play movement sports – to move my body. And I didn’t have the chance to do that, except for in the gym. And in the gym is very boring a lot of times, no?”

He was doing plenty of swimming – at least a kilometre every morning at one stage of his rehab – but it’s the competitive aspect of sport that a man like Nadal cannot bear to be without. “I need to compete,” he states, the smile completely erased from his now deadly serious face. In his book, Rafa: My Story, Nadal goes further: “As a little boy... I’d throw fits of rage if I lost; I still do. It used to amaze my family that, sweet as I supposedly was, I became transformed into a little demon whenever there was a game on.”


Is it safe to assume, then, that Nadal found his seven months in competition purgatory a painful experience?

“No, nothing is negative,” he insists initially. “In everything in life – or almost everything – you can find something positive. If I am ready to keep competing at 100 per cent after the injury – and that hopefully will happen – we can analyse that this break in my career will be good for me. That it will allow me to come back fresher and to try to have a longer career.

“These things are positive for my future. The negative things are that I lost a year. Almost a year, anyway, with a lot of important tournaments that I really wanted to play and didn’t have the chance to. And that, in tennis, is not coming back, because we don’t have a 25 or 30-year career like the golf players. We have a short period of time... when you lose opportunities, they are not coming back.”

A career as a professional golfer is something that many tennis players have flirted with upon retirement – Andy Murray’s coach Ivan Lendl being perhaps the most famous example. Having lowered his handicap during his time off (“It’s now 3.4, exactly,” he smiles) and won competitions – although he modestly insists they’re referred to as ‘events’ rather than tournaments – might Nadal satisfy his competitive urges on the links after his life in tennis comes to an end?

He laughs, insisting: “No, I don’t feel I’m that good. It’s like if somebody at 18 years old came to me and said: ‘I will try to be a professional tennis player.’ Well, you can try, but you’re not gonna do it – you’re not gonna make it. It’s the same in golf. At 31, 32 or 33 – I don’t know when I will finish my career – I won’t have the chance to be a professional golfer. I will have the chance to improve my handicap to be even better than today for sure, and to play better than I do now.

"But to be a professional golfer is a completely different story. You have to start when you are a kid. I love the sport, though, because it’s so much about your mentality. You need to be focused in every moment, and I really like the sports that are so tough mentally.”


In interviews that Nadal gave during that seven-month period when there appeared to be no scheduled timetable for his return, the 11-time Grand Slam champion was adamant that he didn’t want to come back until he felt 100 per cent fit. “I don’t want to keep playing every day with doubts, not knowing if my knee is going to answer all the questions,” he told The Daily Mail last September.

His recent successes might suggest he achieved his aim, but at the Rome Masters last week – where he lifted the title – Nadal admitted that he has had to cut back on his practice sessions in order to nurse his knee through the busy clay-court season.

The question of whether he is 100 per cent fit is a tricky one for Nadal to answer, though. As he searches for the right way to reply, he fixes his gaze on the table between us. “I cannot say I’m not 100 per cent when I won four tournaments or five,” he says. “Because then the rest of the players can say: ‘Look, this guy is very arrogant, no?’

“But I am not, seriously. You cannot be at 100 per cent after seven months without competing. But not only that, without practising too. I didn’t have a good chance to practise during all this period of time. "So I need time. I need time to feel perfect in myself. But sure, I was at 100 per cent in the last rounds of Indian Wells, Madrid and Rome, because if not, then you cannot beat the players I did.

“So if you ask me if I will be ready to compete over five sets at Roland Garros, I can only say that if I can compete well in best-of-three on clay and am able to compete in the full clay-court season and complete my calendar, then I will be ready for Roland Garros.

“Do I feel any anxiety about it? No, not at all. I never had it, and I don’t think this will be the first time. It is true, this will be my first Grand Slam tournament in many months, but I am more looking at the form I will arrive with – nothing else.”


If you dissected Nadal (not that we’re suggesting it), you would discover a man constructed of three remarkably strong pillars: his nationality, his sport and his family.

All three of these contribute to creating the fierce competitor that we see on the tennis court and the genuinely good-hearted man who would rather lose every one of his Grand Slam titles than be seen to be taking advantage of the fame and fortune that has come his way. At tournaments, for example, he has frequently been observed returning his empty plate to the canteen while other players will leave it to be cleared away – a small but significant detail.

It is when he feels any one of these three pillars are under threat that Nadal’s strength of character emerges. As it does when he is presented with the troubling tale of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace – the former seven-time Tour de France winner having been banned and stripped of his Tour titles for doping charges he chose not to contest. It has inevitably left people wondering: if the American can get away with it for so long, who else is doing it? Nadal bristles at the thought that the profession that brings him so much joy, and which has been an intrinsic part of his life since the age of four, might now be spoiled in the eyes of others.

“In the case of Armstrong, as a fan, I feel really disappointed – but as a sportsman, I feel much more disappointed,” he says forcefully. “That’s the real thing, because it’s true that what happened with Armstrong damaged a lot the image of cycling – but Armstrong is a big star of sport in general, so when he did what he did it affects sport in general. And nobody can say it doesn’t.

“It was a big shock for everybody, and you feel very sad because these kind of things create a bad image of sport, and sport is not like this. I really know that sport is not like this. But other people have to know that too, so we need to do the right things to make the sport clean. We need to work together with the people who run the sports to create the best image of the sport – and to do that, the first thing the sport needs to be is completely clean. We have to work on this to be sure that all the sportsmen and sportswomen who are competing are doing it in the same conditions and fairly.”

Fairness is something his competitors might feel they’re not afforded when coming up against Nadal on a surface he has dominated for so long. “Rafa’s record on clay was incredible before the injury,” Andy Murray said recently, admitting that the Spaniard was “quite far ahead of the rest of the pack” on the red stuff – 100 per cent fit or not.

So, despite taking his lowest seeding (four) since the 2005 French Open into his first Grand Slam in 11 months – unless Andy Murray fails his fitness test, which would bump him up a spot – Nadal remains the favourite with most oddsmakers to win an eighth French Open title in Paris on June 9. The man himself stubbornly refuses to accept the label, though, saying: “I think I am not the favourite, since the rankings are saying a different thing.”

He won’t find many (if any) who agree. But even if he does emerge as ruler of Roland Garros for a record eighth time, uncertainty over Nadal’s future remains. For one of the greatest champions the men’s game has ever seen is physically flawed. Whether or not it turns out to be fatal is the one question nobody wants answered for many years yet. At least, not until he’s ready for the Senior PGA Tour, anyway.
Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag

Nadal’s uncle Toni receives all the credit for developing his nephew into a beast of a player, but it was another uncle – Miguel Angel – who made the headlines when Rafa was growing up. A defender for Mallorca, Barcelona and Spain, he was nicknamed ‘The Beast’, which sounds familiar.

“I never really thought much about his fame,” says Nadal who, incidentally, is a Real Madrid fan. “I met him a lot in Barcelona when he was playing, and I got to play with them all and go in the shower with the team. But I never saw it as him being famous really.”

Source: SportsMagazine

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