Rafael Nadal began his 13th victory speech at Roland Garros the way he had begun most of his previous 12. He paid tribute to his opponent, Novak Djokovic. He gave a shout-out to his family and coaching team.
He thanked the organizers for staging a tournament that had once seemed certain to be canceled. Other than the fact that Nadal was speaking through a pink mask, it seemed like business as usual for the King of Clay.
But as he reflected on what winning another title in Court Philippe-Chatrier meant to him, Nadal gazed around the sleekly renovated yet largely empty arena and thought about something else: the virus that had upended the world. Even tying Roger Federer with his 20th major singles title wasn’t enough to make Rafa forget that tennis trophies only mean so much right now.
“We are under very tough circumstances,” Nadal said, gripping the microphone a little tighter. “In some ways it is not that happy; we can’t celebrate the tournament in a normal way. I really hope when we are back [to Roland Garros] in June, we will be able to celebrate this amazing, beautiful new stadium with a full crowd here.”
For anyone who had followed Nadal’s reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, this sobering reality check didn’t come as a surprise. Of the top men’s players, he had been the most upfront about voicing his fears and frustrations. While Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev ignored quarantine rules, and Djokovic hosted a protocol-free exhibition and contracted the virus, Nadal stayed at home. He even declined to defend his US Open title.
Eight months after his last Grand Slam tournament, Rafa returned to top-tier competition at Roland Garros. The layoff only seemed to help him, as the Spaniard won his 13th title in Paris—without losing a single set. (Getty Images)
“Do I want to compete?” he asked during an interview with sports daily, in April. The answer would have been obvious in the past, but in 2020 he had other, simpler priorities.
“I think now my wish is to see my whole family and my friends,” Nadal went on. “Make a party, go to the sea, swim a little bit, have the feeling of freedom. To hug someone.”
With his blend of common sense and positivity, of vigilance and warmth, Nadal would seem to be a model athlete for our jumpy, pandemic-stricken moment. Now that he has finally drawn level with Federer in the major-title chase, it also seems like a good time to reassess Rafa’s place in the game.
Has Federer’s popularity kept us from appreciating what Nadal means to his own supporters?
Rafa draws people in with his gritty play and exuberant celebrations, yes—but he also does it with a philosophy that extends well beyond the court.
“I don’t know if I connected with the aesthetics of his game, but it’s the intangibles, the way he competes and carries himself,” says Bay Area sportswriter Chris Oddo. A fan of each of the Big Three, Oddo has written about the inspiring aspects of Nadal’s character.
“He shows his fears, his vulnerabilities—and then overcomes them, and you can relate to that. He spends 30 seconds to get his water bottles in exactly the right position, and then leaps out on court and just rips into the first point.”
For others, it has been satisfying to see the excitable, scissor-kicking teenager of his early years grow into a widely respected, and respectful, sportsman at 34.
“I became a fan when I saw him at the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing,” says Amy Tsao, a Brooklynite who has traveled from Indian Wells to Monte Carlo to watch Nadal play. “It was great to see this young character be so excited, chasing everything with this relentless tenacity. Now it’s great to see how much he has matured, the respect he shows to everyone, to see him go from this kid playing PlayStation to being a family man.”
Yet at the same time, Nadal hasn’t changed. From the start, beneath the tics and rituals, the sleeveless shirts and long hair, there was a young man with an unwavering sense of himself.
Nadal has never moved away from his native island of Mallorca, or the extended family that grounds him there. And he has stuck with the same approach to life that has worked so well for him since he was 17.
What is that approach, and what is its appeal? It can be summed up in a favorite word of Nadal’s: accept. Accept reality. Accept that nothing will be perfect or easy and that struggle and imperfection are normal. Accept what you’re called on to do.
As every tennis fan knows, Nadal’s taskmaster coach, his uncle Toni, drilled this stoical worldview into his head. But Rafa believes that his cooler, calmer, more upbeat father, Sebastian, is his true exemplar. If Toni taught him to accept reality, Sebastian, a successful businessman, showed him how to bend it to his will.
“What defines my father in his work is that he faces problems, finds solutions, gets the job done,” Nadal has said. “And there is where I think I take after him. My godmother says my father is by nature a winner, and that on court I have his character. I think that’s true. I’m the fighter in my ring, as my father is in his.”
Nadal is also willing to mix it up outside of that ring. He’ll accept a lot, but not something he thinks is wrong or unsporting. In the interests of maintaining peace on tour, Rafa could have kept his opinion of his frequent antagonist, Nick Kyrgios, to himself. But he hasn’t been shy about voicing his disapproval when he believes Kyrgios has disrespected the game, or him.
“I like that Rafa’s not a pushover, and he’s not diplomatic just to make friends,” another long-time Nadal fan from the U.S. says. “He’s not afraid of taking responsibility, and facing difficult things, and he knows what he thinks is right and wrong.”
While Nadal feels a sense of responsibility for the way the game is played, he doesn’t consider himself to be heroic. By not seeing himself as special or supernaturally gifted, he avoids the pressures that come with a lofty status.
“I’m a normal and common person,” he told El Espanol a few years ago. “I don’t see myself as a role model of anything. I’m a guy who plays tennis well…I have tried to have the right attitude on and off the court, but I make mistakes like everyone else.”
For many of his fans, though, it’s that sense of commonness, and commonality, that makes Rafa someone worth following in the first place.
“There were floods in Mallorca a couple of years ago, and there was Rafa helping shovel out the water alongside everyone else,” Oddo says. “It’s like, ‘I know who I am, now whose barn needs to be cleared out.’ You get a sense of community from him, and this down-home goodness.”
The wisdom of Nadal’s approach was never more apparent than at Roland Garros this past fall.
The conditions in Paris seemed to be lined up against him: it was too cold, the tournament’s new balls were too heavy, and he had looked awful in a loss to Diego Schwartzman the previous week in Rome, his first tournament since February. But Nadal gathered all of those obstacles together and, like a hurdler staring down the track, used them as motivation.
“What you need is the right energy to accept every single thing, no?” he said the day before play started. “That’s what I am doing. Just stay positive knowing that the conditions are not perfect for me, maybe not perfect for others either, and accept that I going to need my best version to have chances.”
Two weeks later, he had avenged his loss to Schwartzman, cruised past Djokovic, and won his 20th Grand Slam title without dropping a set. Watching him show off his mastery of clay again, the easy way he moves and builds points, it was possible to wonder if we had become so awed by his statistics on the surface that we had ignored the beauty of his game on it.
“There’s a magic on clay that he produces,” says Tsao, who has become a convert to the surface because of Nadal. “The sliding and the fluidity. There’s this personality to Rafa’s game on clay.”
Nadal’s fans and fellow players have learned much from him as both a player and a person. “I think I’m generally happy for Rafa for winning [the US Open] in New York and winning all the other [Slams] that he has and all the Frenches he’s won,” Federer said at the 2019 Laver Cup. “I don’t know. It’s just a massive respect I have for Rafa.” (Getty Images)
Over the last 15 years, Federer has been the world’s most idolized and imitated tennis player—you can see it in every flowing one-handed backhand that Grigor Dimitrov and Stefanos Tsitsipas hit. In 2020, though, two of the game’s fastest-rising stars, Andrey Rublev and Iga Swiatek, were lifelong Rafa fans.
“He was the only player I watched,” said the 19-year-old Swiatek after her run to the Roland Garros title in October. “It’s crazy for me because I watched every year how Rafa lifts this trophy, so it’s crazy that I’m in the same place.”
“For me,” said the 23-year-old Rublev, who sported a Nadal-style sleeveless Nike shirt as a kid, and won five tournaments in 2020, “Rafa is the best athlete in the world when it comes to psychological preparation.”
Now that he stands shoulder to shoulder with Federer in major titles, will Rafa’s influence continue to grow in the uncertain times ahead?
“The only thing that I can guarantee is I gonna be here,” Nadal said in Paris, when he was asked if sees himself as bringing a needed distraction to people’s lives. “Try my best every single day fighting, and trying to give to the people my best every single day, because in some way sport helps the people, no?”
Nadal doesn’t see himself as a role model, but we need to find strength where we can. Seeing him step up to the service line, bounce the ball slowly, gather himself and block everything out of his mind as he prepares to go to work, might make it a little easier for his fans to do the same.