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Rafa - My Story

DEUCE Magazine

Nadal© Getty ImagesWhen Rafael Nadal lost to Roger Federer for the second successive year, 6–7(7), 6–4, 6–7(3), 6–2, 2–6 in the 2007 Wimbledon final, he vowed 2008 would be his year.

Read an excerpt from RAFA  by Rafael Nadal and John Carlin, which has recently been published by Hyperion, describing the build-up to the 2008 Wimbledon final.

Nadal autobiography The silence, that’s what strikes you when you play on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. You bounce the ball soundlessly up and down on the soft turf; you toss it up to serve; you hit it and you hear the echo of your own shot. And of every shot after that. Clack, clack; clack, clack. The trimmed grass, the rich history, the ancient stadium, the players dressed in white, the respectful crowds, the venerable tradition — not a billboard advertisement in view — all combine to enclose and cushion you from the outside world. The feeling suits me; the cathedral hush of the Centre Court is good for my game. Because what I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head, to shut everything out of my mind but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing. If I made a mistake on a previous point, forget it; should a thought of victory suggest itself, crush it.

The silence of the Centre Court is broken when a point’s done, if it’s been a good point — because the Wimbledon crowds can tell the difference — by a shock of noise; applause, cheers, people shouting your name. I hear them, but as if from some place far off. I don’t register that there are fifteen thousand people hunched around the arena, tracking every move my opponent and I make. I am so focused I have no sense at all, as I do now reflecting back on the Wimbledon final of 2008 against Roger Federer, the biggest match of my life, that there are millions watching me around the world.  I had always dreamt of playing here at Wimbledon. My uncle Toni, who has been my coach all my life, had drummed into me from an early age that this was the biggest tournament of  them all.

By the time I was fourteen, I was sharing with my friends the fantasy that I’d play here one day and win. So far, though, I’d played and lost, both times against Federer — in the final here the year before, and the year before that. The defeat in 2006 had not been so hard. I went out onto the court that time just pleased and grateful that, having just turned twenty, I’d made it that far. Federer beat me pretty easily, more easily than if I’d gone out with more belief. But my defeat in 2007, which went to five sets, left me utterly destroyed. I knew I could have done better, that it was not my ability or the quality of my game that had failed me, but my head. And I wept after that loss. I cried incessantly for half an hour in the dressing room. Tears of disappointment and self-recrimination. Losing always hurts, but it hurts much more when you had your chance and threw it away. I had beaten myself as much as Federer had beaten me; I had let myself down and I hated that. I had flagged mentally, I had allowed myself to get distracted; I had veered from my game plan. So stupid, so unnecessary. So obviously, so exactly what you must not do in a big game.

My uncle Toni, the toughest of tennis coaches, is usually the last person in the world to offer me consolation; he criticises me even when I win. It is a measure of what a wreck I must have been that he abandoned the habit of a lifetime and told me there was no reason to cry, that there would be more Wimbledons and more Wimbledon finals. I told him he didn’t understand, that this had probably been my last time here, my last chance to win it.

"It's important for me to win, at everything. I have no sense of humour about losing"

I am very, very keenly aware of how short the life of a professional athlete is, and I cannot bear the thought of squandering an opportunity that might never come again. I know I won’t be happy when my career is over, and I want to make the best of it while it lasts. Every single moment counts — that’s why I’ve always trained very hard — but some moments count for more than others, and I had let a big one pass in 2007. I’d missed an opportunity that might never come again; just two or three points here or there, had I been more focused, would have made all the difference. Because victory in tennis turns on the tiniest of margins. I’d lost the last and fifth set 6–2 against Federer, but had I just been a little more clearheaded when I was 4–2 or even 5–2 down, had I seized my four chances to break his serve early on in the set (instead of seizing up, as I did), or had I played as if this were the first set and not the last, I could have won it.

There was nothing Toni could do to ease my grief. Yet he turned out, in the end, to be right. Another chance had come my way. Here I was again, just one year later. I was determined now that I’d learn the lesson from that defeat twelve months earlier, that whatever else gave way this time, my head would not. The best sign that my head was in the right place now was the conviction, for all the nerves, that I would win.

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At dinner with family and friends and team members the night before, at the house we rent when I play at Wimbledon, across the road from the All England Club, mention of the match had been off-limits. I didn’t expressly prohibit them from raising the subject, but they all understood well enough that, whatever else I might have been talking about, I was already beginning to play the match in a space inside my head that, from here on in until the start of play, should remain mine alone. I cooked, as I do most nights during the Wimbledon fortnight. I enjoy it, and my family thinks it’s good for me. Something else to help settle my mind. That night I grilled some fish and served some pasta with shrimps. After dinner I played darts with my uncles Toni and Rafael, as if this were just another evening at home in Manacor, the town on the Spanish island of Mallorca where I have always lived. I won. Rafael claimed later that he’d let me win, so I’d be in a better frame of mind for the final, but I don’t believe him. It’s important for me to win, at everything. I have no sense of humour about losing.

Nadal

At a quarter to one I went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. The subject we had chosen not to talk about was the only one on my mind. I watched films on TV and only dozed off at four in the morning. At nine I was up. It would have been better to have slept a few hours more, but I felt fresh, and Rafael Maymó, my physical therapist, who is always in attendance, said it made no difference — that the excitement and the adrenaline would carry me through, however long the game went on.

For breakfast I had my usual. Some cereal, orange juice, a milk chocolate drink — never coffee — and my favourite from home, bread sprinkled with salt and olive oil. I’d woken up feeling good. Tennis is so much about how you feel on the day. When you get up in the morning, any ordinary morning, sometimes you feel bright and healthy and strong; other days you feel muggy and fragile. That day I felt as alert and nimble and full of energy as I ever had.

"When we wrapped up, I could tell, just from a glance, that Toni was not too happy..."

It was in that mood that at ten thirty I crossed the road for my final training session at Wimbledon’s Court 17, close to the Centre Court. Before I started hitting, I lay down on a bench, as I always do, and Rafael Maymó — who I nickname "Titín" — bent and stretched my knees, massaged my legs, my shoulder, and then gave special attention to my feet. (My left foot is the most vulnerable part of my body, where it hurts most often, most painfully.) The idea is to wake up the muscles and reduce the possibility of injuries. Usually I’d hit balls for an hour in the warm- up before a big match, but this time, because it was drizzling, I left it after twenty-five minutes. I started gently, as always, and gradually increased the pace until I ended up running and hitting with the same intensity as in a match. I trained with more nerves than usual that morning, but also with greater  concentration. Toni was there and so was Titín, and my agent, Carlos Costa, a former professional tennis player, who was there to warm up with me. I was more quiet than usual. We all were. No jokes. No smiles.

When we wrapped up, I could tell, just from a glance, that Toni was not too happy, that he felt I hadn’t been hitting the ball as cleanly as I might have. He looked reproachful — I’ve known that look all my life — and worried. He was right that I hadn’t been at my sharpest just then, but I knew something that he didn’t, and never could, enormously important as he had been in the whole of my tennis career: physically I felt in perfect shape, save for a pain on the sole of my left foot that I’d have to have treated before I went on court, and inside I bore the single- minded conviction that I had it in me to win.

Federer, Nadal Tennis against a rival with whom you’re evenly matched, or whom you have a chance of beating, is all about raising your game when it’s needed. A champion plays at his best not in the opening rounds of a tournament but in the semi- finals and finals against the best opponents, and a great tennis champion plays at his best in a Grand Slam final. I had my fears — I was in a constant battle to contain my nerves — but I fought them down, and the one thought that occupied my brain was that today I’d rise to the occasion.

I was physically fit and in good form. I had played very well a month earlier at the French Open, where I’d beaten Federer in the final, and I’d played some incredible games here on grass. The two last times we’d met here at Wimbledon he’d gone in as the favourite. This year I still felt I wasn’t the favourite. But there was a difference. I didn’t think that Federer was the favourite to win either. I put my chances at fifty-fifty. I also knew that, most probably, the balance of poorly chosen or poorly struck shots would stand at close to fifty-fifty between us by the time it was all over.

That is in the nature of tennis, especially with two players as familiar with each other’s game as Federer and I are. You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis sown up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth, clean shot every time would be a piece of cake. But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one.

Nadal

From the moment the ball is in motion, it comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter, or higher. The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes— shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, ankles, knees — in every shot. And there are so many other factors — the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical. So every time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split-second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split- second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try and hit the shot back. And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds, in continual bursts more than two, three, four hours, and all the time you’re running hard and your nerves are taut; it's when your coordination is right and the tempo is smooth that the good sensations come, that you are better able to manage the biological and mental feat of striking the ball cleanly in the middle of the racket and aiming it true, at speed and under immense mental pressure, time after time. And of one thing I have no doubt: the more you train, the better your feeling.

Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up being world number one. This was the goal I had set myself during my four patient years as number two to Federer, and which I knew I would be very close to reaching if I won this Wimbledon final. 

Excerpted from RAFA by Rafael Nadal and John Carlin. Copyright (c) 2011 Rafael Nadal and John Carlin. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. Buy The Book

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