Rafa: My Story
Rafael Nadal with John Carlin Sphere
Rs 595 pp 304
There are two kinds of tennis players I admire. One is the smooth artist who moves about like an ice-skater, effortlessly stroking winners and punching away volleys. (John McEnroe, Steffi Graf, Roger Federer, Stefan Edberg.) The other is the gritty never-say-die fighter, never easy on the eye but always there to extend the rally by one more shot. (Jimmy Connors, Arantxa-Sanchez Vicario, Rafael Nadal.)
Playing tennis, we can all hope our games are as free-flowingly attractive as that first group. No harm in hoping. But it's probably the second group that offers a more realistic goal. Not all of us can both hit yellow balls with precision and look elegant doing it. But nothing prevents us from giving our all out.
Nadal epitomises that approach to tennis. Even watching him on TV you get a sense of the relentless force he must seem like from the other side of the net. There's a famous point from his match with his fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco at the 2009 Australian Open. Verdasco slices the 17th shot of an already spectacular rally far to Nadal's left, the spin visibly taking it even further left and off the court. A fabulous shot. But Nadal? He gets there right on time: the 18th shot is his hooked winner back into Verdasco's corner. The crowd erupts. Verdasco stands stunned. Nadal roars and pumps his fist.
It's tennis like that which begins to strip meaning from those categories I started this review with. What's inelegant, what's not easy on the eye, about effort like that? In some way I can't quite define, I hoped this book would capture some of that spirit Nadal embodies. Not an impossible task. John McEnroe's autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, is compelling because he gives you a sense of how he marries the demons inside him to his sublime artistry on court, to produce a great champion. Andre Agassi's Open is riveting because you come to understand what drives him.
There's promise that Rafa will do that kind of job too. Early on, we find out that Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni, wants above all to keep him grounded. Nadal wins Spain's under-12 championship and is ecstatic. But Toni reads out the names of the last 25 winners. Only five got anywhere as pros. "You see?" says Toni. "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."
Or take the insight into Nadal's thinking about his two great rivals: "With Federer, the rule is always to keep patiently plugging away, knowing you'll force him sooner or later to make mistakes. With Djokovic it is simply a question of playing at your very best, with maximum intensity and aggression, seeking to retain control of the point, because the moment you let him get the upper hand, he is unstoppable." A nugget for tennis hacks like me: at the rarefied heights these guys travel, there's a difference between those two approaches. For, would Nadal not also have to play at his very best to beat Federer?
And in fact, running like a gossamer thread through the book is the extraordinary Wimbledon final of 2008, in which Nadal did indeed have to play at his very best. And that includes the brutal honesty of an otherwise forgotten point in the match. Nadal serves a double fault and then "let it influence my next serve". Meaning he tosses up "a weak serve, a cautious second serve masquerading as a first serve, a coward's serve." As any great champion would, Federer swiftly punishes this "moment of cowardliness". And yet this is a match that Nadal won! Nugget again: playing your best also means acknowledging the inevitable weak moments and pushing on. Really, there's plenty to think about in this book, for the tennis fan and the serious amateur player. Yet, I'm left feeling just a little empty.
This remains the story of hard work and single-mindedness leading to great success. It's admirable, but this book is almost certainly premature. For all Nadal's glittering prizes, he is still just 25. Even if Djokovic had his number this year, only a fool would write Nadal off. He has the game, the stamina, the resilience, to add plenty more entries to that résumé. But it goes beyond the half-complete résumé too. There's a certain insight that comes from looking back after a career that's done - as Agassi and McEnroe did - that I imagine is impossible when you're still playing.
The post-tennis perspective on their troughs and triumphs, the depths of their introspection, the wrestling with their demons, are what make those two books memorable. That's why, that's how, their tennis becomes a metaphor for their lives. Rafa Nadal should have waited.
Dilip D'Souza writes on tennis and mathematics and is the author of Roadrunner: An Indian Quest In America
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