On a sublimely mild Sunday afternoon earlier this month, worshipful masses from all points on the globe gathered near the Vatican to catch a glimpse of the latest power player in the European firmament. We speak, naturally, of Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal. In the Eternal City for the ATP's Telecom Italia Masters event, Nadal spent part of the afternoon conducting a tennis demonstration on a makeshift court a long forehand from the new residence of Pope Benedict XVI. Ringed by a cordon of security, Nadal was the object of an unceasing blitz of flashbulbs and cheers and shrieks. The attention he received overwhelmed that accorded to his hitting partner, a fellow named Andre Agassi.
If anyone stopped to count, he'd find that the tennis parlor offers up a new Flavor of the Month far more than 12 times a year. No sport dotes on--and then eats--its young quite like tennis. But there's every indication that Nadal, an 18-year-old from the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, has begun a long residence at the top of the sport. ¬øCómo se dice "real deal"?
After playing two lights-out matches to help Spain win the Davis Cup final in December, Nadal has won five titles already in 2005, including the prestigious Rome event. That's more than any other pro except No. 1-ranked Roger Federer, whom Nadal came within two points of beating--on a hard court, no less--last month in Miami. Currently No. 2 in the ATP Champions Race (and No. 5 in the 12-month rankings), Nadal has also won the same number of matches as Federer (41) this year. And, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Nadal is the clear favorite to win the French Open, which will begin on Monday in Paris. "Rafa has everything he needs to win four, five, six Grand Slam events," says Spain's Albert Costa, the 2002 French Open champion. "He is just an unbelievably complete player."
As is often the case with the great ones, Nadal is sui generis. Attempts to compare him to previous players fall flat. Sporting shoulder-length black hair and an incongruous mix of baby fat and ripped muscle, the 6-foot Nadal is a unique physical specimen. He plays lefthanded, something no other Top 10 player has done this decade. He certainly doesn't dress like anyone else (more on this later). And when was the last time you heard a player from Spain, the land of clay-raised dirtballers, assert that his overriding ambition is to win Wimbledon? "People ask, 'Who did you model your game after?'" Nadal says in rapidly improving English. "I never thought like that. I just played the way I was comfortable playing."
Nadal's nonderivative game is a beguiling combination of tenacious offense and defense that compensates for his relatively punchless serve. The power of his baseline drives--especially his vicious forehand--is matched by the strength in his legs, which enables him to tack quickly from one side of the court to the other. During some early-round hatchet work in Rome, Nadal served Russia's Mikhail Youzhny a tasting menu of his skills. On one point Nadal would make a series of brilliant retrievals and eventually induce an error from his frustrated opponent. On another he'd pound the ball deep, deeper and deepest in the court, until the Russian was forced to attempt a go-for-broke shot that entailed far more risk than reward. On a third point Nadal would show off his brute force by simply smoking a mid-rally winner. "Of course you always like to be aggressive," he says, "but it's impossible to do it on every point, so you need other ways to win."
Nadal's greatest gift might be his poise. His first breakthrough came two years ago at age 16 when he played Carlos Moyà, a former world No. 1, who also hails from Mallorca and served as Nadal's older pledge brother when the teenager rushed the ATP fraternity. Unflustered, Nadal won in straight sets. ("He will become the youngest Number 1 ever," Moyà said after the match.) Today, though still scarcely older than most of the ball boys who fetch him towels, Nadal may be the sport's most mentally sound player. Pumping his fists and screaming "¬°Vamos!" (Let's go!), he has the enviable ability to summon his best tennis when it matters most. "That kid," says John McEnroe, "is just fearless."
If Nadal doesn't act like an 18-year-old on the court, he doesn't look like one either. As revealed by the sleeveless shirts he wears during matches, he has a Jamesian (LeBron, not Henry) physique that suggests he spent his early years lugging manhole covers. "Looking at Nadal at 18 and me at 18 from the neck down, you'd think one person was 26 and the other was 12," says Agassi. "You see the evolution of athletes--getting bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive."
As a kid in Manacor, a town of 30,000 on the east side of Mallorca, Nadal "played all the sports," he says. At age five he was introduced to tennis by his uncle Toni, a former competitive player in Spain, and it was soon clear that the kid had all sorts of ability. Declining invitations to train in Barcelona, which has replaced South Florida as the destination of choice for European tennis's hothouse flowers, Rafael stayed in Manacor to train with Toni. By age 12 he was the European champ in his age group. "If it weren't for tennis, Rafa would probably be a soccer star right now," Toni says through an interpreter. "That's how good an athlete he is."
Nadal has athleticism in his bloodlines. Another uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, is a former defender for FC Barcelona, the powerhouse Spanish league soccer club, and three Spanish World Cup teams. Miguel gave his young nephew an up-close look at how a respected professional athlete comports himself, so it's not surprising that Rafael is the rare tennis prodigy who doesn't date a model, drive a sports car or revel in the velvet-rope treatment. Despite his ever-increasing wealth and status, Nadal still retreats between tournaments to quiet Manacor, where he lives with his parents, his sister, his grandmother and Toni's family in a low-rise apartment building. Ask Nadal about the best perk his status has accorded him, and he needs a moment to answer. "At one tournament," he says, "I got to swim in a pool with a dolphin."
There are, however, times when Nadal acts his age--and not just when he answers a reporter's questions while absentmindedly detonating a zit on his left leg. Mostly for kicks, he's played doubles (with his gran amigo and fellow southpaw Feliciano López), a rarity among top players but perhaps not the wisest tactic for someone who ought to be conserving his energy for an upcoming Grand Slam tournament. There is also a fine line between modesty and false modesty; when Nadal claims that, in part because he has never played the French Open, he doesn't consider himself among the top five contenders at Roland Garros, it comes across as disingenuous.
Then there's the matter of his sartorial stylings. The envelope-pushers at Nike have outfitted Nadal in shirts that look as if they were made of Day-Glo orange fabric left over from Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates, complemented by puffy Capri pants that have been likened to a Venetian gondolier's pantaloons. To some observers, anyway, the on-court attire seems destined to reside alongside Agassi's denim tennis shorts, circa 1987, in the tennis wing of the Fashion Faux Pas Museum. But Nadal insists, "I like the outfits I wear," a predictable sentiment given the emolument he receives for sporting them. And Nike representatives maintain that their decision to clad Nadal in something so unconventional is further evidence that he is a singular talent.
Here's perhaps the ultimate sign that Nadal is the Truth: His popularity has started to grate on his colleagues. "All you hear is Nadal, Nadal, Nadal," former world No. 1 Marat Safin, normally affable and easygoing, sniffed to reporters at the Barcelona tournament late last month. "It is wrong for somebody so young. [Spain] has other great players ... but nobody talks about them. Only Nadal. Why is this?"
The strong suspicion here is that by the time Nadal vamos-es through the draw at Roland Garros and vamooses with the title, Safin will have his answer. ‚ñ†