Shortcuts / 30 May 2024

Rafael Nadal

How did Rafa get started in his career?
It all started when he picked up his first racquet at 4yo and began hitting a few balls with his Uncle Toni – who just happened to be a tennis coach. And little Rafa’s talent was obvious when he started taking out Under 12’s tournaments at 8yo.

Wow, that’s impressive…
Yep and he was really dedicated because Rafa is naturally right-handed, but his Uncle noticed he had a double-handed forehand – and from that one shot, Toni encouraged him to practice left-handed for 20 minutes a day until he got the hang of it… So that he’d have an advantage on the court against most other players.

How was that an advantage?
Because statistically 90% of the world’s population is right-handed. So it meant he could play in a way most others couldn’t. And the determination he showed in that one decision tells us just how competitive Rafa is. So before long, he was winning junior tournaments and climbing up the professional rankings until he broke into the big time in 2005 with his first major championship win.

Where was that?
At the French Open… Where he defeated Roger Federer in the semi-finals on his 19th birthday – what a birthday present – and then he went on to win the grand final against Mariano Puerta.

Sounds like a big deal…
It was because it made him only the 2nd man ever to win the French Open on his first attempt and marked the beginning of a long love affair with the tournament for Rafa, who achieved another 13 titles at Roland Garros.  

So he’s dominated on the French Open clay surface, but what else?
He’s also won 92 singles titles during his career, including 22 grand slams – which are the big 4 tournaments of the tennis calendar, starting with the Australian Open in January, the French in May, Wimbledon in June/July and the US Open in August/ September. 

That’s impressive!
It sure is, and he’s also the youngest player ever to win a career gold slam – meaning he’s won at least one of each of the biggies plus an Olympic gold medal – only 4 tennis players have achieved that, and Rafa did it when he was just 24… 

So he must have earned a lot of prize money?
He sure has, and here comes another record – Rafa has won over $134 million in prize money, which makes him one of only 3 tennis players to surpass $100 million in winnings… The other 2 are Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. 

Ah, so that’s why they are called ‘the big 3’?
Yep, but Rafa has a few interesting quirks that set him apart, not all of which endear him to other players…

Ooh such as?
Rafa has a set of about 20 rituals he goes through leading up to matches and while on the court. They’re things like placing his water bottles at an exact angle and not walking on the lines. And then there’s the serve ritual… Before each one, he adjusts his undies, tugs at his shorts, touches each shoulder, then his nose, then he tucks hair behind each ear, touching his nose in between, then he wipes his brow – all before bouncing the ball to serve. And if he serves a fault, he goes through the whole thing again…

That’s a lot to remember…
Yep and fans used to put it down to superstition or even a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but when Rafa was asked about it, he gave a different explanation… He described his routine as a way to – as he puts it – “tidy up” his head. He said what others call tics is his way “to stay focused and silence the inner voices.” 

But his fans love his quirks, right?
They do, but some opponents have accused him of deliberately wasting time between points and trying to psych them out. He’s also been slapped with numerous time violations from umpires.

He’s a tennis genius though, so I guess we expect him to be different?
Exactly, from his famously lethal inside-out forehand to his dogged determination that has seen him respected among his peers as one of the greats. His humour and grace off the court have also made him a favourite. A lot of Aussies will remember during Covid when a couple of …notable… tennis players complained about having to stay in hotel quarantine, Rafa told them publicly to “think bigger” and that a lot more was at stake than their practice time.

No wonder he’s part of one of the ‘golden ages’ of tennis…
Yes there’s been a few, but this one has seen the domination of the Big 3 – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – in the men’s competition for the past 2 decades. They’ve rotated being number 1 for an incredible 946 weeks – the equivalent of 18 years. 

Are they friends or rivals?
A close friendship formed between Nadal and Federer. And even though Djokovic leads the GOAT – aka greatest of all time – debate with the most grand slam titles under his belt, Nadal still considers Federer the most impressive player in history.

Why’s that?
In Rafa’s words, “Numbers are numbers… but watching Federer play has moved me more than Djokovic, and in the end, tennis is about emotion.”

That’s lovely…
It is, and together, Rafa and Federer have raised millions of dollars for charity through exhibition matches and their tennis foundations –  and in 2020, they jointly donated $250,000 to the Australian bushfire fund.

But Federer doesn’t play anymore?
Correct, Federer retired in 2022, and it was in that same year that Aussies saw Rafa play one of his most memorable matches ever, in the final of the Aussie Open… His comeback from 2 sets down to defeat Daniil Medvedev has been described as “miraculous” and his tenacity during that match is something tennis fans will never forget, especially as he was still recovering from surgery on his left foot.

That’s incredible…
And it didn’t end there, he then went on to win the French Open, and people said he was playing his best tennis ever, but then it came crashing down when he retired early from Wimbledon with an abdominal injury. Since then, he’s had several hip and other injuries – the latest one being a torn thigh muscle, which saw him pull out of the Aussie Open this year. 

How unfortunate…
Yeah that’s why everyone’s been watching Rafa again as he prepared for this year’s French Open, but there were some signs things weren’t going exactly to plan because he’d lost in the early rounds of every tournament he’d entered. One of those was to Aussie, Alex ‘The Demon’ de Minaur, in April at the Barcelona Open – on the Rafael Nadal centre court, no less. And fun fact, that win makes de Minaur only the 7th person to ever beat Nadal on clay.

So how did he go at this year’s French Open?
Because of Rafa’s near-flawless record on clay, even with his ATP ranking at 276 this year, he was still considered “the most dangerous unseeded player” leading into the French Open. But when he drew the world number 4, German player Alexander Zverev, in the first round, commentators didn’t hold much hope…

Sounds like a tough draw…
It was, but Rafa was as determined as ever, saying if there was anywhere he was going to “give everything and die” it would be the French Open.

So what happened?
The match was billed as “one of the biggest first-round matches in history” with reports saying fans travelled from all over the world just to catch a glimpse of Rafa practising beforehand. But a 15th title wasn’t to be… He was outdone by the 27yo German – making him only the 4th player to have ever beaten Rafa at the French Open.

Rafa’s still a legend though…
Absolutely, and whatever happens during the twilight of his tennis career, he’ll still walk away as one of the greats, with that unrivalled record on clay. And he has a lot else going on – including his Academy for up-and-coming tennis players, a wife and 2yo son, and he could always do some more modelling… 

Is that is for Rafa’s tennis career then?
Not necessarily… For the moment Rafa’s reluctant to give up on his career – he says as long as he feels fit and enjoys playing, he’ll continue to compete. And he’s not making any decisions just yet, saying recently “Maybe in two months I say it is enough, but that is something I don’t feel yet. I hope to be back on this court for the Olympics, that is going to be another chance.” And as long as he’s up for playing, his fans around the world are all up for watching.

Squiz recommends:

Reading: For the hardcore fans who want to know more about him, check out Rafa’s autobiography called Rafa: My Story*.

Reading: There’s a great GQ story that sees Nadal and Federer posing together for a recent Louis Vuitton campaign at the top of a snowy mountain and saying nice things about each other. What’s not to love?

*Buy using this link and the Squiz may earn a little commission.

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