By Jai Arjun Singh
Last year, I was watching a pre-match interview with Rafael Nadal on television, in the company of a friend who is emphatically not an admirer of the Spaniard. Nadal had already been in the top two of the rankings for the last five years and was about to play someone ranked many places below him.
"Very dangerous player, no?" he was saying in his endearingly ungrammatical English, "Is very difficult for me. I must play my best to have chances. It is the true."
"What a con artist," my friend remarked dryly. "He sandbags exactly the way you used to do during our school exams."
Sandbagging means lowering expectations for your performance, so that when you do well it comes as a pleasant surprise — and conversely, if you do poorly, the disappointment isn't too great. Many people who dislike Nadal accuse him of calculatedly underselling himself to take the pressure off his shoulders and escape the burden of being a tournament "favourite".
Listening to him now, my friend remembered how I would often come out of an exam hall looking downcast – before eventually scoring among the highest marks in the class. Back in those days, my classmates quickly learnt to roll their eyes whenever I said I hadn't prepared enough for a test, or that one hadn't gone off well.
But I wasn't lying – it was how I really felt at the time. I haven't achieved anything in Nadal's league, of course, but I do have a sense of what it's like to be honestly, and perpetually, under-confident about one's chances – and so, it's easier for me to believe that his stance isn't one of false humility.
It's difficult to gauge exactly how one forms a connection with a particular sportsperson; fandom is a thick brew made up of many secret ingredients. But this shared under-confidence is perhaps one reason why I have been a longtime fan of Nadal – and why I relate to him more than I do to his great rival Roger Federer, who walks on to every court as if victory is his natural privilege.
There are, of course, other divisive aspects to Nadal's personality. I often have arguments with friends who hate his "defence-oriented baseline game." or his various behavioural tics (eg carefully arranging his water bottles to face a particular direction during every changeover in a match). Or sometimes it just boils down to the fact that he has long been a nemesis for their favourite, Federer.
The internet discussions between Nadal fanboys and Nadal-haters can be ulcer-inducing too. One group will claim that Nadal is an ill-mannered brute who makes aggressive gestures such as fist-pumps to intimidate his opponents. The other will insist that aggression is purely self-motivating – directed at himself, not at anyone else – and point out that he is consistently well-behaved on and off the court. The former will decry his game as tedious and ugly, built on forcing errors from his opponents, and the anti-thesis of Federer's beautiful, crisp shot-making; the latter will point out that no one converts defence into offence as effectively as Nadal and in any case this is a sport we're talking about, not ballet. Sometimes it's hard to believe they are discussing the same person.
It's these polarised perceptions of Nadal that add interest to his autobiography Rafa: My Story, written in collaboration with journalist-author John Carlin.
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