Rafael Nadal suffered an early pre-quarterfinals defeat at the Shanghai Open. Many top players would have been tempted to take a few days off from their hectic schedule before playing in the showcase Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. Rafael Nadal however, decided to fly to India to inaugurate a tennis school set up by his foundation for underprivileged children in Andhra Pradesh.
But then Rafael Nadal has always been unlike anyone else. He wears capris and plays with his left-hand while being naturally right-handed. Even at the age of 15 when he won his first ATP title, ‘Rafa’ had bigger muscles and brighter clothes than anyone else. Charming and handsome, he stands out in any company. It is impossible not to notice him. But what really sets Rafael Nadal apart is his heart.
To succeed in the world of competitive sport is becoming more and more difficult. Never in the past has there been so much opportunity and help available to talented sportsmen. The sheer number of new entrants makes the competition tougher than it has ever been. The percentage difference in skills in the top 10 is so small, that it is impossible to guarantee continued success while the gazillions of dollars in sports makes losing painful in more ways than one. All this makes the job of being a successful athlete extremely stressful. What truly differentiates the ‘greats’ from the good of the game today is how they deal with adversity and with success. Who do they blame when they lose, how do they act when they win and what do they learn from it.
Till 2009, Rafael Nadal never really faced a major crisis is his career. Many will say winning makes being gracious very easy. However, if you win as much as Nadal does, you could easily become arrogant, bratty and obnoxious, everything he was taught, very early in life by his coach and uncle Tony, not to be. Uncle Tony taught little Rafa to take responsibility for his success as well as his failure. The story goes that once Rafael as a kid broke his racket after he lost a game. Uncle Tony talked to him and told him never to blame his failing on someone else and never ever to break a racket in anger again. And to this day, he never has.
From day one, ‘Uncle Tony’ was grooming his nephew to be one of the ‘greats’ of the game. And true to his training Rafa was quick to help Roger Federer cope with his remorse after he beat him in Melbourne in the Australian open. An inconsolable Roger could not stop crying and gasped, “God, it’s killing me”. Nadal was quick to remind him how good a player he is. He walked up to him, put his arm around him and said with compassion, “Remember you are a great champion and one of the best in history – and you will beat Pete Sampras’s 14 titles for sure.” Roger went on to do that and more. Here was an opportunity when a lesser person would have chosen to completely demolish an adversary but Rafael Nadal chose to edify him and build him up. It is this compassion that makes him so much more than just a good tennis player. That is the importance of being Rafael Nadal. A true role model.
When crisis struck, like it always does, Nadal had it worst than most. For a sports person the only thing worse than getting injured is getting injured when you are at the top of your game. That is exactly what happened to Rafa. In mid 2009, when he got hit by tendonitis in both his knees a lot of people believed that this was the end of the Spaniard. Not many knew that while he was recovering after his knee surgery, he was also coming to terms with his parents’ divorce. The final blow came when it became clear that he wasn’t fit enough to defend his Wimbledon title in 2009. It all seemed to be falling apart for the Majorcan.
Nadal could have become one of those players whose dazzling short careers are forever admired accompanied by a sigh and a rueful shake of the head. However, Rafael Nadal’s response was the stuff legends are made of. He got back in even better shape with a new, faster serve and is playing some of the best tennis of his career. But more importantly, he hasn’t let the challenges of last year, make him bitter or cynical. If anything, he has come back more grateful, more humble; something that shines through in his increased efforts in charity. The new 2010 version of Nadal is an even better human being than his last version. Dare I say, that someday, someone will probably catch up with him on his title count, but to match him as a person is where the real challenge lies.
It looks quite likely that he top off an extraordinary year with a win in the Barclays World Tour ATP Finals in London, where only the best 8 singles players and the best 8 doubles teams qualify to play. Vamos Rafa!