Rafael Nadal: How 'Rafa' Is Unique Insight into a Tennis Superstar

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistAugust 10, 2012

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 14:  Rafael Nadal of Spain, the 2010 U.S. Open Champion on stage during an appearance at Niketown on September 14, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for ATP)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal fans have been itching for any news of their hero to make his return to the ATP tour, and ultimately to make a run at the 2012 US Open title.

In the meantime, summer is a great time to read tennis biographies, and Rafa, written with John Carlin is the definitive book about Nadal.  It’s a presentation for the reader to hear his voice and gain insight about his upbringing and thoughts as a tennis champion.

Thoughts while Playing Roger Federer

Rafa is a simple, straightforward read. It has only 250 pages and is divided into nine chapters. Each chapter has two sections. The first section is narrated by Nadal with first-person accounts, primarily focused on the thoughts and feelings he can offer. The second section is Carlin’s third-person, more objective reporting to give the book greater balance and external perspectives.

The book begins the eve of Nadal’s 2008 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer. It offers some of the curious details to his preparation and mindset, and instantly strips the armor away from the intimidating presence Nadal displays at his matches.

In particular, Nadal narrates how he responds to adversity on several game-changing points.

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There are stream-of-consciousness comments Nadal utters in playing against Federer. He shows how his game plan, confidence and belief must be mentally stronger than Federer to defeat him.

For example, the following excerpt from pages 73-74 explains his belief after trailing 4-1 in the second set of that Wimbledon match:

“He cannot sustain this level either in this set or the next three or four sets…

This was a setback for him. He took it badly, lost his concentration, left that zone of brilliance he had entered, and I broke him again.”

Nadal is also willing to reveal his own failures or missed opportunities. He walks the reader through key points of their fourth set tiebreaker, including his sin of thinking he had already won the match on his second match point opportunity, as explained on page 138.

“I thought I deserved to be where I was and that I was on the brink of conquering Wimbledon. Dumb. Really dumb. It was one of the very, very few moments in my entire career with which I thought I’d won, before I’d won. The emotions got the better of me…”

Later in the book, Nadal shares highlights and adversity in his 2010 US Open final victory against Novak Djokovic, and expresses his admiration and respect for Djokovic’s talent.

Mallorcan Upbringing

Nadal’s introverted character is inextricably bound to his family and support system. Carlin and Nadal share his close relationship to his parents, sister and tennis team. Former No. 1 player Carlos Moya, a fellow Mallorcan, also adds views on what makes Nadal special.

Mallorcan culture and habits are very much a part of Nadal’s personality, and help readers see more of his connection to the island as a haven from the rest of the world.

There are memorable anecdotes of Nadal’s devotion to tennis, and especially the decision he made at ten years old of why he surrendered himself to the single-minded pursuit of becoming a tennis champion.

Did you know that Nadal loves to eat bread with olive oil, and has cravings for olives and Nutella hazelnut chocolate?

Uncle Toni

The reader gets a heavy dose of Uncle Toni and his lifetime role in helping to develop Nadal. On the one hand, his tactics and training are admirable. He helped nurture Nadal’s work ethic, and placed a premium on him becoming a humble and well-behaved young man.

But many readers will also object to Uncle Toni’s methods, and feel he could be too harsh or even borderline cruel. On the lighter side, Toni insisted Rafa sweep the courts and arrive on time, but Toni was often late to sessions.

Another more heavy-handed lesson was a time young Nadal arrived to a match without his water on a very hot day. Toni would not provide him with one, insisting that Nadal take more responsibility.

Rafa also shares how he and Toni butted heads after his second round match at the 2010 US Open on page 217.

Toni: “OK. I just tell you what I think, and if you don’t like it, I’m off home and you can go find yourself another coach.”

Rafa: “Look, you always say the same thing. And usually I agree with you. But this time—this time—I believe you are wrong.”

Toni: “Fine, if this is the way things are going to be, I can’t see any pleasure in being your coach any longer.”

Of course they patched things up soon after in the locker room.

Career Consequences

Rafa shares his breakthrough in defeating Andy Roddick in the second match for the 2004 Davis Cup tie, the championship he would help Spain win against the U.S.

Rafa’s greatest career crisis is also detailed with his story about the tarsal scaphoid bone in his left foot that could have ended his career in winter 2005. It’s a poignant episode and a reminder of how injuries can derail an athlete’s career.

On the emotional and mental side, the separation of Rafa’s parents following the 2009 Australian Open had a major effect on his decline that year. Readers can gain a greater understanding of this impact to Rafa and how his support system has buoyed him through tough times.

Some details on Rafa’s knee injections are shared.

Read It

Rafa is a terrific book for the Nadal fan looking to hear Rafa’s voice. The first person insights are more memorable even though it feels more like Rafa speaking in English rather than having his Spanish translated to English. Carlin did an adequate job, but at times it would be nice to get more of Rafa unplugged rather than edited and prioritized.

It’s a book with better internal details than other autobiographies, such as Pete Sampras’s A Champion’s Mind. However, it does not have the deep and bare monologues of the more story-driven Andre Agassi book, Open.

For a more subjective and detailed version of the 2008 Wimbledon final, and of the lives of Federer and Nadal, L. Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius is a superior and more important book.

But Rafa is a fine read and succeeds in the way it was intended. The reader gains Nadal’s story in his own words, however imperfect. On a scale of 1-10, Rafa measures up to a very solid 8.5.

It’s almost as good as Nutella on a slice of fresh European bread.

Click here for reader commentary to Novak Djokovic's recent struggles

Click here for the ongoing debate on how many more Slams Roger Federer will win

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