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Rafael Nadal’s secret weapon is something all can copy—at Roland Garros and beyond
By showing concern for injured Alexander Zverev, the 21-time Grand Slam champion displayed a level of humanity too often missing at all levels of the game.
Published Jun 03, 2022
WATCH: Nadal spoke to the press after his semifinal victory over Alexander Zverev at Roland Garros.
As the world has seen now for nearly 20 years, Rafael Nadal’s extraordinary footspeed once again was on display, today in his Roland Garros semifinal versus Alexander Zverev. Across the width, forward, sideways, defense, offense and all spots in between, Nadal was everywhere he needed to be. Perhaps more than anysingle attribute, movement around the court has helped Nadal win more Grand Slam singles titles than any man in tennis history.
But another sprint Nadal took this Friday evening revealed what truly defines him as a champion—an attribute anyone who picks up a racquet can learn to master. After more than three hours on the court, Zverev mid-rally rolled his ankle and hit the ground. Nadal’s next move came to him instinctively. Instinct, best defined as trained knowledge. Go back to Nadal’s training, lessons imparted by his Uncle Toni. One Toni Nadal concept: “It is more important to be a good person than a good player.”
So, it was that as the tournament staff tended to Zverev, Nadal dashed across the court, deeply concerned about his opponent’s health. Soon enough, Nadal joined Zverev in the small room where he was being treated. Once the decision was made to end the match, Nadal comforted Zverev.
“We are colleagues,” said Nadal, “we have been practicing together a lot of times. And see a colleague on the tour like this, even if for me it's a dream be in the final of Roland Garros, of course that way is not the way that we want it to be. Feels very sorry for, if you are human, you should feel very sorry for a colleague.”
In the United States, the volume around player development often grows louder during Roland Garros, this being the major where American men are often most frustrated. Talking points typically cite the need for more clay courts, an increased emphasis on subtle point construction over raw power, more time on touch and footwork, devotion to fitness and concentration.
Nadal, of course, has proven masterful in all realms, thoroughly establishing himself in the world’s eyes as the “King of Clay.” But to hear these words from Uncle Toni makes you wonder how Rafa himself views his success: “When you think you are the king of the world, you are really stupid in my opinion because in this life every person is important.” Picture young Rafa, taught from a young age that proficiency in tennis in no way confers superiority in any other realm.
We are colleagues, we have been practicing together a lot of times. And see a colleague on the tour like this, even if for me it's a dream be in the final of Roland Garros, of course that way is not the way that we want it to be. Feels very sorry for, if you are human, you should feel very sorry for a colleague. Rafael Nadal
Sadly, so much about America’s tennis culture takes the opposite approach. The junior tennis world is frequently toxic, infected by parents who concurrently deify and denigrate their children, measuring success heavily by match scores. Instructors, eager to earn a living, are compelled to act more like concierges than consultants, and therefore often walk on eggshells rather than speak candidly to students and parents. Then there are the youngsters, taking in these disparate messages, prone to whine and dismiss certain opponents as so-called “pushers.” Let me also aim a critique at adult players, many of whom will join a league team but only stay for their own matches. Can you imagine Uncle Toni letting Rafa do that?
So many players are in large part given a pass every time they toss a racquet, sag their shoulders, issue a profanity, discuss a loss with passive-aggressive regard for the winner. No wonder we see pros have moments when they treat the game with profound disrespect. Zverev, who has been accused of domestic violence against a former girlfriend, had a meltdown earlier this year, repeatedly banging a racquet against the umpire’s stand.
Which brings me back to Nadal. Just as a player’s strokes are largely formed once he or she reaches the pro tour, the same might well hold true for their manners. Explore the American tennis culture and you will see sportsmanship regarded as an app, an extension to be added sometime after the promising player has been simultaneously instructed and enabled.
But in Nadal’s case, sportsmanship is baked into his operating system, as woven into the DNA of how he conducts himself all match long as the tremendous effort he brings to each point. And perhaps there’s this: the more respect you show for your opponent, the easier it is to be an exemplary competitor, to give your all in the quest for victory—and concurrently be aware that should you lose, you have left blood on the court.
The great Australians—such gracious warriors as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Patrick Rafter—demonstrated this superbly. Later came classy Swedes—Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg. And now we have Nadal, a champion not just because he wins, but also because he cares. Hard as it is to emulate the way Nadal hits the ball, anyone of us can mimic how he approaches competition. Let your opponent be worthy of your blood and grace.