Rafael Nadal: The Making of a Champion, Part 1
The "King of Clay" Rafael Nadal was born 3 June 1986 in Manacor, on the Spanish Island of Mallorca.
Rafa’s father Sebastian is a businessman, and his mother Ana Maria Parera once owned a perfume shop, but gave it up to raise Rafa and his younger sister Maria Isabel.
Nadal’s grandfather, also called Rafael, was a musician and is a retired director of the town orchestra.
ANTONIO “TONI” NADAL
Rafa’s uncle and coach Toni, was born 17 February 1960 in Manacor. As a child he swam and excelled at soccer and table tennis, at which he was junior champion of the Balearic Islands. Age 12, he attended the Masters tournament in Barcelona where he watched Ilie Nastase, who became his idol.
Age 14 he began playing tennis seriously and as a senior was ranked in the Top-30 players in Spain. At his father’s request he studied history at university in Barcelona, but dropped out due to his lack of interest. Having qualified as a tennis coach he returned to Mallorca and began teaching.
Rafa's Early Years
LEFT HANDED OR RIGHT?
Rafa first attended the club at Manacor, which is situated across the street where he lived, and hit his first few shots with his uncle, when he was three years old. Age four he began playing there twice a week, usually in a group.
Toni said that initially his nephew found tennis boring, and Rafa himself said that being in a group helped him greatly, as if it had been just he and Toni, he would never have lasted.
In his 2011 autobiography Rafa stated that Toni deliberately picked on him during the sessions, shouting at him rather than the other kids, and making him be the one who picked up the balls and swept the courts afterwards.
At these ages Rafa could play tennis equally well with his left or right hand, and played his groundshots double-handed on both sides. Toni advised Rafa he should play left-handed, as he thought that was his stronger hand. (Rafa eats, throws, plays golf, basketball and darts right-handed, but is left-footed at soccer.)
For the next few years, although Rafa played tennis, he was far more interested in soccer. One of his other uncles, Miguel Angel, the former “Beast of Barcelona” had played professionally for Real Mallorca and Barcelona, and represented the Spanish national side 62 times.
By age seven Rafa was training five times a week, every week, for an hour and a half, and age eight won the Balearic Islands 12-and-under regional title.
Realising Rafa’s potential, and with the family’s financial backing, Toni then began training him more seriously.
Toni said, “He had a very good mentality, and so I thought it was possible, not probable, but possible that he could win a Grand Slam.”
To help develop Rafa’s character, Toni often trained him on bad courts with poor tennis balls often in windy conditions, to teach him that winning or losing isn’t about the quality of the courts, strings, lights, balls or weather conditions, but that it is about attitude, discipline and perspective.
If he saw Rafa’s concentration wandering, Toni would deliberately hit balls at him, not to hurt him but to regain his attention.
When Rafa was 10 Toni told him to use just one hand on the forehand, as in his opinion, very few top players were successful using a two-handed forehand.
“There are no professional players who play with two hands and we’re not going to be the first, so you’ve got to change,” he said to his nephew.
The transition was difficult for Rafa, but Toni helped him make the change, getting him to try it for just 20 minutes per day.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR CHAMPION
When age 11, Rafa won the Spanish 12-and-under national title and was also runner-up in the 14-and-under event, he was forced to make the difficult decision of choosing between tennis and soccer.
Though Rafa had done fantastically at tennis, he had continued playing soccer. His father claims he could indeed have made a good professional player and was an outstanding left-sided forward.
However, age 11, a new soccer coach took over the running of Rafa’s team. Unlike the previous coach who had allowed him to miss training and just play matches, the new coach demanded Rafa took part in all the team’s practice sessions if he were to be included in the team at weekends.
Rafa, who by this time was training four hours a day, and travelling all over Spain and Europe to compete, chose tennis – a decision he has never regretted.
Age 12 Rafa began attending the Balearic Islands training centre 50 kilometres and a one-hour car journey away from Manacor in Palma.
There, he was trained along with his uncle Toni, by Toni Colom, who because Toni Nadal didn’t like flying, became Rafa’s travelling coach for the next four years.
Colom said that he lost count of the number of times he saw Rafa in tears because of how hard his uncle worked him. Sessions would begin with a 40-minute warm up without any water break, and sometimes just one ball would be used for an entire two-hour session!
Though strong physically as a player, Toni Nadal had struggled to be aggressive with his forehand and possessed no big shots.
Along with working on the mental and physical sides, as Rafa improved, he ensured that his nephew developed a good technical, all-round aggressive game, became competent at the net and developed his forehand into a weapon.
His advice from an early age to Rafa was, “First hit the ball hard; then we’ll see about keeping it in.”
In 2000 age 13, Rafa won the 14-and-under Petits As event in Tarbes - the unofficial European junior championships.
His daily schedule at this time was school from nine till noon, then tennis for two hours before lunch. He’d then return to school in the afternoon, before driving with Toni to Palma to play a couple more hours tennis in the evening.
According to Colom, Rafa’s training with his uncle began in the car on the one-hour journey to Palma.
Though this regime may sound harsh and brutal, Toni ensured that Rafa also had fun during these sessions, and that the time they spent together wasn’t all just hard work.
The Humble Hombre
Despite his success Toni ensured that Rafa remained as normal, modest and down to earth as possible, as he believed these qualities to have a tremendous impact on results and motivation.
According to his mother, when Rafa won the 12-and-under Spanish title, the first thing Toni did was to congratulate him. The second thing was to show him a list of the previous 25 champions and ask him how many he’d heard of - Rafa knew only five.
Toni said to his nephew in front of the family, “So the chances of you making it as a pro are one in five. So, Rafael, don’t get too excited about today’s victory. There’s still a long, hard road ahead. And it all depends on you.”
Toni and the family made sure that Rafa knew that many equally talented young players had wasted their potential, and that they didn’t want to see him do the same.
Later in his career, when Rafa won a Mercedes at a tournament, Toni insisted that he put the car in the garage, and drive around in a cheaper sponsor car so that he would remain humble, and with his feet planted firmly on the ground.
Toni believed that things can only be achieved through discipline and hard work, and that there is always room for improvement. The goal he said was to make every day better than the one before.
“Endurance” was a word, which Toni drilled into Rafa from an early age. “If you have to train two hours, you train two hours; if you have to train five, you train five; if you have to repeat an exercise fifty thousand times, you do it.
That’s what separates the champions from the merely talented… the greater the effort, the greater the value,” he said.
Toni said though, that Rafa was always very easy to work with, was disciplined, always displayed exemplary behaviour, never misbehaved on court and has never broken a racquet in his life.
Rafa said, “When I was young my uncle said to me, if you throw your racquet I will stop coaching you. He said that I should treat my racquet with respect because there were people in Africa with very little money who would love a racquet like mine, and that if I make a bad shot, it is my fault - not the racquet’s.
Therefore I should not take out my failings on the racquet.”
Toni and Rafa’s parents were just as concerned with Rafa becoming a good person as great tennis player.
Toni said, “The problem today is that if you ask a father if he’d prefer to see his son become Roland Garros champion rather than a well brought up kid, he’d choose the first option.
The problem is that to win Roland Garros implies that you must have discipline, that you can listen and that you can accept your mistakes.”
Home Is Where the Heart Is
WHERE TO TRAIN YOUR CHAMPION
When Rafa was 14 the Spanish Tennis Federation requested he leave Mallorca to go and train at one of their academies in Barcelona.
Sebastian, fearing that his son’s education would suffer, and Toni who said, “I didn’t want to believe that you had to leave home to go to America or elsewhere to become a great player,” refused, and so the family ended up paying for much of Rafa’s training themselves.
Rafa’s father said, “He was doing very well with Toni and besides where is a boy going to be better off than at home?”
By this time Rafa was able to practice three times a week at Palma with world number one and 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya, who later became Rafa’s mentor and confidant.
Moya said of him, “I could see, by the sheer intensity with which he trained, that he was super-ambitious and desperate to improve. He hit every shot as if his life depended on it.
I’ve never seen anything like it, not even close…What was certain about Rafa was that he was something different.”
When Rafa was aged 10 to 21, the entire Nadal family shared a five-story, family-owned apartment block in Manacor. Rafa’s grandparents lived on the ground floor, Toni and his three children lived on the first floor, and Rafa’s parents lived on the second floor and Rafa and his sister the top floor.
Toni later justified the decision for Rafa not to leave home and said, “Remember Rafa was already one of the top juniors in the world at the time and Carlos Moya had come from the Island. I have always thought, and I continue to think, that if one works hard, one can work hard in many places.
The advantage of staying with his family was big for Rafael. It was a plus, both in terms of his tranquillity and in terms of organisation.”
From my book, “So you want to win Wimbledon? – How to turn the dream into reality” - available from Amazon
And here's Part 2