Rafael Nadal has redefined the physical presence of a player on court. The power of his strokes and the intensity with which he hits the ball has forced players to re-examine the basic premise of a groundstroke.
With Nadal, it seldom looks like he is hitting the ball to keep it in play, most of the times he seems out to pulverise it. That means relentless pressure on the opponent; it means constant churning of the legs to keep up with the fearsome pace coming their way. It’s not like players haven’t hit the ball hard earlier, the catch in Nadal’s hitting is the tremendous amount of topspin he generates (as much as 4000 rpm) which massively increases his margin for safety while making the ball bounce higher when the opponent looks to tame it.
Nadal was off limits for a one-on-one and stayed closeted within the team for the majority of his time in Delhi. Your correspondent reached out to him time and again through offices that he could not brush aside. After the tie was sealed 5-0 in Spain’s favour, Nadal relented to allow some time before flying out of the country.
Get the right team
Time and again one has seen Nadal brush off a question about the precise nature of his physical schedule, about just what it takes to build a bull of a player akin to him. He kind of explained why to your correspondent:
“You can’t think about Federer, you can’t think about Novak (Djokovic), (Andy) Murray, about me....You can’t think that high. That’s too much pressure. You need to think of real things,” he explains, with a shrug. Nadal believes that it’s about doing things step by step and doing them systematically. “When I was a kid, I never thought of winning one Grand Slam. I (was) just thinking of improving everyday and be (a) better player. That’s the way (in) my opinion.”
He goes on to stress the importance of putting together the right team. “If you have the right people around you, they know how much you need to work, how much you need to rest, how much you need to work on your physical performance.”
If you thought that he got that amazing build from just slogging away in the gym, here’s time for a rethink: “Important to work well on court. That’s the most important thing. On court, you work on the physical performance and off court, you can do crazy things but you need to have fun.” He stresses the fun bit; sport, according to Nadal, can’t be all work, it needs to be more about play. “(It’s) important to have fun, to be happy. You need to do things that make you happy. But at the same time if you have to work, you work 100%...”
It’s all in the legs
But there is one thing that he agrees with: the age-old tennis wisdom that it is all about the legs. “(Legs) is everything. Without good legs you can’t hit the ball well (laughs), that’s for sure.” From strength of limb he instantly switches to strength of mind. “...and without mentality you can’t compete at the highest level. It’s a combination of different things to become a professional tennis player.”
Ask him to put a number on the kind of hours it takes to build legs like his and he refuses to quantify it. “I don’t know,” he says. Prodded, he explains: “(It’s) not something mathematic(al). Not something (that can be calculated for) every day.” Practice stays dynamic; it’s not a static number of hours that you need to notch up. “You need more? Depends on the day. You need less? Depends on the day.” What’s crucial, he believes, is what you do with the time you are out there. “But (the) important thing is when you’re on court — if you’re spending three hours, four, or one — you need to be 100%.”
As to whether the secret to the success of Nadal is the intensity of his practice is a question that he swats away. “(There is) no secret. Everyone has a personal style. That’s my style. Everyone does what’s best for him.”
Nadal is clear that young kids must be kept away from the pressure that can come the way of an aspiring youngster and not be pushed by parents or coaches. “You have to think about do(ing) your job. Do (it) your way and then if then (he) arrives, then (he) arrives.”
The Spaniard is one of the few athletes who keep giving back. “It’s a good thing, a normal thing, no? People who are lucky in life like me -- and lot of more people – (it) is important to give back. For me, it’s important to have the chance to help kids in Spain and India.” The Rafael Nadal Foundation runs an academy in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, which looks to empower underprivileged children through sport.
Nadal is also well known for not mincing words in support of issues other athletes skirt. The one attribute that Indian tennis players would do well to imbibe is his straight talk. “I do and what I say I feel is right. If I feel something is not right, I say and if I feel something is right, I say that’s right.” Kind of simple isn’t it?
Nadal’s connect with India has got stronger since he took budding junior Adil Kalynapur, former Davis Cup player Vishal Uppal’s ward, under his wing on scholarship. “He (Adil) is practising well at Mallorca with my uncle and coaches. He plays so good, no? I practised with him (a) few months ago. He has good potential and needs to work hard as everybody (needs to) when you are a young player. He is doing well so we have confidence.”
The best bit about the interaction with Nadal, no matter the number of hours it took to plan and execute it, was the full-on attention he gave; totally present in that brief amount of time to the queries of a man who had been dogging him. He told your correspondent to wait at a certain place when he would walk by.
While he usually has his ‘crowd face’ on — the one which has him look blank and flit across the faces peering at him – it’s obvious it’s just a mask as he spotted me in a glance and instantly came to a stop. “Okay, let’s go,” he stood with his arms on his waist, ready for the recorder I thrust his way. He had committed; and he delivered. Professionalism, after all, is a lifestyle. It’s not just about being on court.