Rafa: An Intimate and Uncomfortable Look at Rafael Nadal

Rafa, written by Rafael Nadal and John Carlin, provides incredibly intimate insight into its’ subject: the player we have come to know as simply “Rafa”.

I have long-admired Rafa since he burst onto the scene as a bicep-baring, Capri pants-wearing teen. His muscular build, showcased by the sleeveless shirts he initially wore; the flourish of his strokes that were equally as stylish to me as the effortless artistry of Federer; the relentless intensity and seemingly “Never say die” attitude in pursuit of each and every point; and a remarkable “tennis intelligence” and maturity that clearly separated him from his peers.

There was, and is, so much to admire about Rafa the tennis player that I didn’t want to risk seeing Rafa exposed as a mere mortal, complete with frailties, foibles, and tics. But rather than diminishing this great champion in the eyes of his legion of fans, Rafa helps us all to better understand this remarkable and sensitive young man!

Rafa flows easily, bouncing back and forth between Rafa’s personal reflections and John’s more objective telling of the people, places, and events in Rafa’s life. There is overlap in the detailing of specific events between the two writers. But this “dual-telling” provides a nice contrast between John’s objective view from the outside looking in (Rafa’s loss to Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, for example) and Rafa’s very personal view from within.

Yes we learn about many of his casual quirks such as his proficiency at golf, his love of olives and disdain for ham, his messiness, his fear of dogs, his reputation as a “cautious” (read slow) driver, even his fear of the dark. But Rafa provides much more information than that.

We gain insight into team Nadal, the core of family, professionals, and friends that accompany him around the world, are part of a safety net that he desperately needs to feel secure and calm, unfettered by his many fears and distractions.

We meet many of them in great detail; his mom, dad and sister (Ana Maria, Sebastian, and Maribel), his girlfriend (Maria Francesca). Even his Nike representative (“Tuts”) and his agent (former ATP pro Carlos Costa) are much more than just part of Rafa’s tennis business. They are all his “family”, each playing a necessary role in protecting Rafa’s sensitive psyche: creating a barrier to the chaos and loneliness of the ATP tour.

Rafa lays himself completely bare in much of his writing. Unlike on-court gladiatorial persona he projects, he is extremely sensitive and prone to extreme nervousness that he battles during his matches. One such bout almost caused him to lose his epic 5-set semifinal against Fernando Verdasco at the 2009 Australian Open.

The intensity of the match began to so overwhelm Rafa that tears welled up in his eyes at 5-4 in the fifth set, with Verdasco serving to stay in the match. Unable to see the ball clearly, he was handed the victory outright as Fernando double-faulted on match point. In an amazingly honest assessment, both he and Toni firmly believe that he won the match only because of Fernando’s double fault.

These moments of unflinching honesty expose Rafa’s vulnerabilities during times we would expect him to be at his most imperious. And it’s in the telling of such moments that this book succeeds in revealing Rafa to the world, albeit a sometimes very fearful Rafa.

At times, these revelations feel much too intimate, leaving the reader with an uncomfortable feeling of “TMI”. This is especially true in the passages about his longtime (and complicated) relationship with his uncle Toni.

The relationship between Rafa and Toni has obviously been a successful one for both. But in reading Rafa one can sense that the relationship has at times been difficult, causing concern in the Nadal clan for many years as they felt that Toni’s treatment of Rafa bordered on mental abuse. It’s definitely a multi- layered familial relationship that hovers close to dysfunction, and works in spite of itself.

In a very matter-of-fact style, Rafa illustrates the methods by which Toni sought to impart the practice of “endurance” on his young charge i.e. learning to endure the hardships in his matches, and try to be the best while remembering that he was not better than other’s due to his athletic abilities. That’s all well and good, but one can sense the resentful tone in Rafa’s writings borne out of their athlete-coach relationship and the harsh standards he was held to by his uncle.

There are many examples of this treatment. One particular episode caused their issues to come to a head during the 2010 US Open after his second-round win over Denis Istomin. The problem was more or less resolved, but the reader is left with the feeling that Rafa is resigned to his relationship with Toni, even as he is not altogether happy about it.

It seems that this is not a relationship to be celebrated, just merely another thing for Rafa to endure. Resentment, resignation, and hints of sadness: I guess that’s natural when one is never allowed to be happy for their achievements (there was not even a celebration after his infamous win over Roger in the 2008 Wimbledon final). Rafa could easily have been titled “Toni Dearest”, yet I don’t think it was Rafa’s intent to show any disrespect to his uncle, whom he readily credits with much of his success. Maybe it’s just that Rafa realizes they were bound together in a way that goes deeper than family or tennis.

Rafa has many positive moments as well. Beating Roger at Wimbledon after two consecutive losses in finals, the second a spectacularly bitter defeat that left him in tears, is one of his most memorable. Winning Olympic gold also left an indelible impression, especially in meeting the other athletes and seeing first-hand how most of them don’t enjoy anything close to the level of financial reward that he and his peers take for granted. And of course, his career Grand Slam is an immensely satisfying achievement.

The most important moments, however, are those that he is able to share with his family and friends. That means the most to this young man from Manacor. Family, friends, and life on Mallorca: the only place he can feel normal…and happy.

Rafa also provides insight into the tennis mind of Rafa as he recounts his matches. It’s a tennis player’s dream to learn from the experiences of a multiple Grand Slam champion, as one can from this book. There are also plenty of pictures to make any Nadal fan happy. And his thoughts on his peers, Federer in particular, are especially interesting.

In all, it’s a terrific entry in the category of tennis biographies. Upon finishing this book, I feel that I more fully understand and appreciate Rafael Nadal. He’s not as superhuman as I once believed. But he is a good kid who tries hard and loves his family.

What’s not to admire about that?

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