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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Image management is obviously a major driving factor when an athlete comes out with a mid-career memoir. After all, Rafa's journey towards becoming a globally popular sportsman wasn't a smooth one. Initially regarded as just a clay-court specialist, it took more than three years of persistently snapping at Federer's ankles for him to finally win his first non-clay Grand Slam – the 2008 Wimbledon – and take over the number one ranking.
His rise to stardom was complicated by the language barrier: Nadal's struggle to express himself in English unfairly contributed to a media portrait of him as a bumpkin, a child of nature who played intuitively but who wasn’t good at articulating things like strategy. Those who understand Spanish have repeatedly pointed out that his interviews in his native tongue are much more nuanced, but in an Anglo-centric world it was easy to cast him in the role of the noble savage – all rippling biceps and raw physicality.
Those who have only heard his spoken English might be bemused by the polished prose in Rafa — the phrase "the cathedral hush of Wimbledon’s Centre Court" appears on the very first page. But as you read on, it becomes possible to think of the writing (which in any case was done by Carlin) as translation.
The memoir finally gives us a glimpse of a different Nadal, a man who contrary to his public profile, has a mind of his own. Its most intriguing sections also offer a clue as to why Nadal, in my friend's words, "sandbags" on occasion.
It's widely known that he still lives with his large joint family in a big house, that he travels everywhere with a very close-knit team, and that his uncle Toni has been his coach since childhood. In fact, Toni has often been given credit for "manufacturing" Rafael Nadal, encouraging him to play with his dominant left hand, putting him through a harsh regimen from an early age. All this has created the dual picture of a boy who grew up in the cocoon of family security, and a laboratory-created tennis player.
So when Nadal expresses his ambivalence about his relationship with Toni, you take notice. His uncle's insistence on humility made him a better player, he says, by teaching him not to take any opponent for granted. This is why Nadal says "When I watch the top players on video, I have the feeling that they're better than me" or "I'm amazed at how good Federer is; surprised that I have ever been able to beat him".
But it also might have instilled a tendency for under-confidence and self-deprecation. "Toni conditioned me to believe from childhood that every match is going to be an uphill battle," he writes, "I am not sure this is always the healthiest frame of mind to enter a match."
This makes it easier to understand his unsmiling intensity on the court, and the impression he sometimes gives of not really enjoying the sport. Being carefree doesn't come easily to someone who lives with the anticipation of losing. (I used to brood and worry for days before an exam, and I'm not convinced that seeing a good result compensated for all the tense days that had preceded it.)
In Rafa, you can see the two sides of Nadal at odds with one another: "Exaggerated and irrational as I tried to convince myself that my status as favourite was (this was the part of my brain talking that Toni had conditioned), another part of me (a madly driven and ambitious one) did retain the conviction that I could win this."
One gets the impression that Rafael Nadal might be trying to create a new image for himself. He may never take the extreme step of sacking Toni and hiring a new coach, but we may well see a new attitude. Perhaps it's time to puncture that sandbag.
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