Born into a family of Sportsmen
Raphael Nadal Parera was born on 3rd June 1986 in Monacor, Majorca, an island of Spain. His parents are Anna Maria Parera and Sebastian Nadal (a local business man who co-owns a local restaurant with 2 of his brother plus a glass and window company). He has a younger sister Maria Isabel. His uncle Miguel Angel Nadal is a retired professional football player who played for FC Barcelona, RCD Mallorca and the Spanish National Team. Raphael Nadal, fondly known as 'Rafa' grew up playing football (soccer) and tennis, showing great skill in both sports.
At the age of 12 after winning the Spanish and European tennis titles in his age group, his father asked him to choose between the two sports, in order to allow enough time for school work. He chose tennis, completely letting go of a promising football career.
Meanwhile, his Uncle Toni, a former professional tennis player, recognizing a natural tennis in his nephew had introduced Raphael to tennis at age 3 and was dedicated to helping him through the years develop his talent and stay in the game. Noticing that Rafa played forehand shots with both hands, Uncle Toni encouraged him to play left-handed so that he would have an advantage over other players who mostly played right-handed. Rafa, however writes right handed. Toni Nadal (fondly known as Uncle Toni) has since remained his coach.
Setting the Stage for Greatness
With several local and national wins under his belt, at 14, the Spanish tennis federation offered Nadal the opportunity to move to Barcelona to continue his tennis development under their guidance, but his family turned down the 'invitation' mainly because his Uncle and Coach Toni believed you can be a good athlete and achieve success on the courts without training in America and other foreign lands … and also so that education would remain unaffected. That left his father with the responsibility of supporting his tennis related activities out of pocket. The young Nadal trained hard and stayed focused.
In 2001 at age 15, he defeated Pat Cash (former grand slam champion) in a clay court exhibition match. His belief in self was rising. In 2002, before his 16th birthday, Rafa went on to win his first ATP match and became the 9th player in the open era to win an ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) match before the age of 16 – he was now ranked the world's number 762. So young, yet so determined, Nadal competed in ATP tournaments, and finished the year 2003 in the top 50 during which he reached the third round of grand slam Wimbledon.
The explosion of a star
In March of 2004, the young Raphael Nadal came face2face for the first time with world No.1 Roger Federer in Miami at the Nasdaq 100 Open on hard courts … Nadal won in straight sets, setting the stage for a tantalizing rivalry that would rock the tennis world for years to come. Needless to say, the attention on this young, fierce, determined virtually unknown tennis star was mounting.
Unfortunately, he was forced to miss the rest of the clay court season that followed that year (including the French Open) because of injuries.
In the beginning of 2005 at the Australian Open, 18 year old Nadal lost at the quarterfinals to Aussie and runner-up Leyton Hewitt. Couple of months later, he was to meet with World No.1 Federer again at the finals in Miami, but would loose. However, these were considered breakthrough tournaments for the young Majorcan.
Then came the red clay season – his favorite surface. Nadal playing hard, playing strategically, leaving his opponents in all kinds of distress, won 24 consecutive matches, to break Andre Agassi's record of consecutive wins for a teenager. With wins in Barcelona, and then in Monte Carlo, and in Rome, he entered the French Open that year at the number 5 position in the world – he was favored to win.
Demolishing his opponents one by one on this big stage as he approached the finals, it was now obvious to the world that Rafa was one of the best players ever to play on red clay. Needless to say, millions of adoring fans cheered him on. Once again, the much anticipated day came when he faced Federer across the net – it was the semifinals. Much to the excitement of many and not so many, amidst cheers and screams, in front of shocked and expectant fans, this young virtually unknown Spaniard walked away with a solid win over Federer, denying the world's number 1 the french crown that year. It was his 19th birthday. Two days later, he beat Mariano Puerta in 4 sets, to win the French Open.
Rafa became the third male ever to win a gram slam on the first try after Mats Wirlander in 1982 and Gustavo Kuerten in 1997; the first teenager to win a grand slam singles title since Pete Sampras won the US Open in 1990 at age 19. Rafa was now the World's number 3 male tennis player.
Although he lost in the early rounds of Wimbledon that year, 16 consecutive match wins after that, 3 tournament titles under his belt, he rose to number 2 in the world by August of 2005 – the only teenager in history since 1973 to do so. Federer remained at number 1.
A young boy, with a big heart – all about mindset
I have had the pleasure of watching Rafa play over the years. I faintly remember the I first times I watched him play I think against Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open several years ago, as a wild card; although he lost, I could tell he was a star in the making – it was obvious this young man had a lot of fire burning in his belly.
Over the years, I have watched him fight his way to the top … he works hard for every single win. I and millions of tennis fans across the world have been drawn to this young athlete because he plays every point like the whole world depended on it. His intensity is truly remarkable. His opponents come in knowing they will have to beat him in a high level performance throughout the match, he just doesn't give up, he doesn't let go. Like all champions I have studied in all fields, he comes in expecting to win, un-intimidated by circumstances or opponents, whoever they are. Despite his young age, he is fearless … at least, so it seems.
As I have watched him and cheered him on, what I have admired over the years is that in an era where very few tennis players have been able to crack the surface of the unconquerable, smooth, greatest tennis player ever to play the game in tennis history (judging from his achievements), Raphael Nadal has been the only one to get under Federer's skin and into his mind. He has brought Federer to tears on several occasions on the biggest of tennis stages. You can tell that the Federer who faces Rafa is always different from the Federer who demolishes opponents on all tennis surfaces. Shocking to see Federer all of a sudden loose confidence and become vulnerable when facing Rafa. Because in his mind, Rafa always believes he is capable of beating the otherwise unbeatable champ.
Rafa has earned his victory and accomplishments through hard work, chasing down balls and beating his opponents with sheer physical strength. He does puts some spins on balls that are truly remarkable. He is like a magician, especially on clay. Watching him play sometimes is like watching a heavy weight championship match … except that the favored is a young boy with a tennis racket and a fearless heart.
Humble and Shy … in the face
of great success
I read an article written about Rafa couple of years ago, where the writer described him as one of the
shyest people he had ever met. Very few spoken words, shy smiles, Rafa has admitted to being uncomfortable talking to people he is not used to.
Despite millions of dollars in price money and endorsements, he still lives in the 5 storey family home in Mallorca he grew up in and dates a girl he met in high school. When he is not playing, he goes fishing and plays football. He is always surrounded by family members, several journalists have attested to how hard it is to get to him because of the protectiveness of a tight knit family circle. His Uncle Toni is a constant figure in the life of this young mega tennis star he recognized and molded from an early age. Meanwhile, decisions regarding his tennis career still remain a family matter.
The King of Clay
Aggressive, tenacious, powerful strokes with spins from angles never
before seen. He chases down every ball and has ohhh'ed and ahhh'ed crowds in countless matches over the years. A true face of resilience, he is a nightmare to all who face him across the net. His intensity is truly remarkable.
After winning the 3rd round in Roland Garros in 2009, Nadal set the record of 31 consecutive wins at the french open, beating Bjorn Borg's record of 28. He came into the French Open that year, not having ever lost a match in Roland Garros since 2005 to defend his title.
But that year in May, this win streak would be broken by a 4 set loss to Swede Robin Soderling in the quarter finals – it was his first loss at Roland Garros after clinching the title for 4 consecutive years. Roger Federer (with Nadal out of the way), would go on to win the tournament for the first time in his career.
Plagued by lower body injuries attributed to a highly physical game, combined with personal problems some say caused by the separation of his parents, Rafa was forced to pull out of several tournaments that year.
2010 came with some challenges for the tennis star. Reaching the quarter finals of the first grand slam of the year – the Australian Open in January, Rafa pulled out 2 sets down to Andy Murray and was ordered by a doctor to rest and rehabilitate his knees. Unable to play, his rankings slide to number 3 in the world. His fans were worried.
Not surprisingly, he did start competing again in March with great determination. In true Nadal style, this year alone, he has already bagged 31 wins, 4 losses, 3 titles, a little over 2.5million in prize money. As expected, Nadal has won most of the clay court tournaments this year, after another win over Federer on the red clay in Madrid a couple of weeks ago, he is now the only player to win all 3 clay court tournaments in a single year and has regained his number two position.
Nadal stands alone as the most successful Open era player with 18 ATP
World Tour Masters events, breaking Agassi's record. Federer on the
other hand, who has stayed at number 1 has raked up 16 of the big ones
(grand slams). However, the 23 year old Nadal has won an impressive 6
Grand Slams, 3 Davis Cup titles for his country (2004, 2008, 2009), 5
masters series titles on hard courts, and an Olympics gold medal (2008).
He holds the most consecutive french titles – 4 – tied with Bjorn Borg.
Loved and respected by fellow players, especially when he is not beating them on the court.
After a recent waxing of the French Pro in Spain this year, Monfils said: "I enjoy connecting with the crowd. I played my game as
well as I could but I was up against the best clay player on the planet
and I lost, so what can you do?"
The Greatest Rivalry in tennis history
Since 2004, Nadal and Federer have played each other in 7 grand slam finals, the only two men in open era (since 1968) to do so. Nadal has won 5 of those 7; 3 on his beloved clay, one on the grass of Wimbledon (2008) and the other in hard courts Australia 2009.
After 160 weeks at number 2, he was able to take over the number 1 title in August 2008, but lost it again in July 2009 to Roger Federer.
Head to head, Nadal leads 14 – 7, with 10 of his 14 over Federer on the clay, 1 on grass and 3 on hard courts. Their rivalry is considered by critics to be the greatest in tennis history … after Sampras and Agassi. This means Nadal wins two out of every 3 matches they play.
Expecting to Win
Clothing sponsored by Nike, endorsements by KIA Motors, Universal DVDs, luxury watchmaker Richard Mille, 6'1" Rafa walks into Roland Garros as the French Open starts today to reclaim his crown. 15 – 0 on clay this season, it is hard to imagine him not winning the tournament.
"I am very happy with everything so far this year. I think I've
returned to my top form and that's the most important thing for me," he
says,"Am I favorite to win Roland Garros? I was last year and I lost." he said recently.
The world watches as the King of Clay, an extremely popular champion pursues his 5th crown in Paris … Nadal fans expectantly, Federer fans (like my sister Afuo in Sweden) anxiously. Once again, they are expected to meet at the finals. It's sports anyway, nothing is certain, especially on the red clay … what we know is, our boy Rafa is going in determined to win, which is what all champions do! The draw places him with highly accomplished players like Novak Djokovic, Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Roddick, all dangerous, with a potential to take him down, but Rafa is up to the challenge.
However, the stage of Roland Garros is set, the terre batue is fresh and we are excited to watch how the drama unfolds. Is the renowned King of Clay going to reclaim his crown from the greatest tennis player ever to live? I am betting on Rafa and I will be cheering for this 23 year old Spaniard with a heart of gold.