Tennis ace Rafael Nadal: I'm a normal guy and I have a normal life in my hometown

Rafael Nadal may have won more than US$100 million in tournament prize money but his character, forged in the small Spanish village of Manacor, is intact.
Rafael Nadal may have won more than US$100 million in tournament prize money but his character, forged in the small Spanish village of Manacor, is intact.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS - Rafael Nadal walks onto court for his training session and the crowd erupts in applause.

He looks down and smiles sheepishly, the reaction of a man who is removed from the notion of his fame.

He waves to the crowd, made up of a few hundred fans and members of the media, and they cheer even louder.

It is a hot, clear mid-morning in Paris on the clay courts of Roland Garros, where he is practising for the French Open.

It is his favourite kind of weather, typical of his hometown of Manacor, Spain, on his favourite court. It is the place where he has made history by winning the most French Opens, 11 in total.

Now, his eyes are firmly focused on the 12th one. He is already halfway there. Today (Fri) he meets Roger Federer - for the 39th time in his career - in the semi-finals.

Roland Garros is special, he tells The Straits Times in an exclusive interview.

 
 

"I love what I am doing and I know that it's not forever. As long as I have energy and passion, I will keep doing it," he says with eyes clear and sure.

Ranked No.2 in the world, he is tall and tanned but does not cut the imposing figure one might expect of a super athlete. But one thing does stand out - his legs. Even though he is wearing jeans, you can see the shape, size and separation of the muscle. Like that of a powerful race horse.

Asked about the significance of winning the French Open for the 12th time,he smiles and politely corrects the statement: "Thank you very much but we cannot speak of victory yet."

Nadal, 33, has trained for victory his entire life. His uncle, Toni Nadal, a former professional tennis player, taught him how to play at the age of three.

When he was eight, he won an under 12 regional tennis championship. At 12, he took the Spanish and European tennis titles in his age group.

Eventually, the Spanish Tennis Federation requested that Nadal leave his home and move to Barcelona to continue his training. His family, however, decided it was best he remained in Manacor.

This decision had a great effect on his mentality.

It taught him that he would thrive best by keeping a strong connection with his family and the values of the place where he was born. "I'm from a small village and my real life is there," he says.

Referring to his success, he adds: "This all is something beautiful of course, but I know that it is just temporary."

On the court, his sparring partner for the day is Fernando Verdasco, a fellow countryman currently ranked 27th in the world. Verdasco is known for having such a fearsome forehand that commentators dub it his "fearhand".

The two begin slowly with a calm cadence but the intensity gradually increases.

Rafael remains light on his feet. As the ball comes closer, he widens his stance, plants his feet, pushes off them, then contorts his body for leverage, before hitting the ball so hard, he comes up off the ground.

His eyes light up and he snaps his fingers for dramatic effect when he describes his playing style.

"I am intense on the court. I play with heart but also self-control. I always have an idea of the things I want to do and, of course, there are moments when you need to just react to the situation. But when you have a plan, it's easy to make the right decisions."

Nadal knows he is reaching the later years of his sporting career.

"You cannot do the same things you did before. You need to find ways to adapt your game."

The first hour of the training session is a technical exercise, but for the next hour, they compete in earnest.

Every shot creates a different mood with the crowd. Sometimes they gasp, sometimes they groan at a closely missed shot. Always, they applaud.

As Nadal hits the ball, he makes an almost musical sound from his diaphragm like a bell ringing, to extract even more power. The two players continue to make this mutual sound and it plays in sync to the sound and sight of the ball itself being hit, creating a sort of kinetic trance.

Nadal remains intense but sportsmanlike. He is known for his gracious conduct which extends off the court.

When working with sponsors, what matters most to him is personal friendships.

Richard Mille, a brand of ultra-high performance luxury Swiss watches, is a good example.

"To be honest, what I always want is to be around good people. I met Richard 11 years ago and what he is doing with the brand is incredible," says Nadal.

What started out as a friendship turned into a creative partnership as the pair worked together on seven different watches, each one pushing the boundary of what an extreme timepiece can achieve.

Their latest co-creation is the RM 27-03, a tourbillion timepiece able to withstand extreme shocks of 10,000 g's, which is perfectly suited to handle the velocity of Nadal's playing style.

With striking deep red and yellow hues, it pays tribute to Nadal's home country of Spain.

Known for his commitment to pre-game ritual, Nadal never likes to play without it.

He calls it his "lucky RM charm".

The watchmaker is also a close supporter of the Rafa Nadal foundation, an initiative that uplifts youth through sport and education.

Once again keeping family, friends and home at heart, Nadal chooses to also work closely with his mother, Ana María Parera, and long-time girlfriend, Xisca Perelló, to run the initiative.

"It's a great feeling, giving kids the chance to create a better future," he says, adding that one of his proudest moments was opening the first Rafa Nadal foundation in Manacor.

The athlete may have won more than US$100 million in tournament prize money but his character, forged in the small village of Manacor, is intact.

"I'm a normal guy and I have a normal life in my hometown. I don't act like a big celebrity," he says.

Being grounded, he says, helped him reach and remain at dizzying heights and cope with tremendous pressure, injuries and the beckoning of time, which eventually leads all athletes into their twilight.

He echoes this small-town perspective when it comes to social media: "I grew up without social media. It's good to connect with the fans but it's not my natural thing. If I'm in a beautiful place, I want to look at it, not be thinking about taking a picture."

Back at the training session, the crowd is told it is the final point.

The air becomes tense and everyone falls silent.

Will he score? Surely he has to end the practice on a winning point. You can feel the collective superstition of the crowd.

He hits the final ball with a playful trick shot to finish. It hits the net and he smiles, diffusing the tension and delighting the crowd.

You can feel the smiles in their cheers.

"I love the competition, I love the respect but the feeling of the crowd is something difficult to describe. Sport creates emotion and I enjoy that."

Guy Lewis is a writer and creative director based in Paris.