Rafael Nadal

Having already won 3 consecutive French Open titles and featured in two Wimbledon finals by the age of 21, Rafael Nadal is gunning to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time. He holds the Open Era record for the longest winning streak in men’s tennis for any surface, with 81 back to back wins on clay. He has also finished the years 2005, 2006 and 2007 ranked number 2 in the world behind Roger Federer.

The Early Years

Rafael Nadal Parera, or ‘Rafa’ as he is affectionately known by his fans, was born in Mallorca, Spain, on the 3rd of June 1986. He started playing tennis at the age of 4, under the watchful eyes of his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal. As a child he was equally gifted in tennis and football, by the age of 12 he chose to pursue tennis over football.

Nadal turned pro in 2001. He made headlines at the age of 14, when he beat former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash in an exhibition match. Such was his progress that he played just one Grand Slam at junior level – at Wimbledon in 2002, where he made the semi-finals. The same year he became the ninth player in the Open Era to win an ATP match before their sixteenth birthday, when he beat Ramon Delgado.

Soon after, he broke into the world top 50 rankings, with two Challenger titles to his name. That same year, he also became the youngest player to reach the 3rd round at Wimbledon since Boris Becker in 1984. However, due to a stress fracture in his ankle, Nadal had to miss the 2004 French Open.

The Breakthrough

With impressive runs at the Australian Open and during the clay court season Nadal broke into the world top 5 rankings in 2005. Being a hot favourite for the French Open title, Nadal lived up to expectations, when he beat Federer in the semi-final, and Mariano Puerta in the final. Next to Mats Wilander, he is the only other person to win at Roland Garros on their first appearance.

In July that year, he became only the third teenager to be ranked number 2 in the world, behind Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg. He then went on to win two more titles on hard courts. His tally for 2005 was 11 ATP titles, 4 Masters Series titles and 79 wins, second only to Roger Federer’s 81 wins. Playing for Spain that year, he became the youngest player ever to win the Davis Cup on his first try.

French domination

As of June 2007, Nadal is unbeaten at the French Open. He has won there in 2005, 2006 and 2007; beating Roger Federer in the 2006 and 2007 finals. He is the first player since Bjorn Borg to win 3 French Open titles in 3 consecutive years. His style of play is well suited for the slow, red clay at Roland Garros, explaining his domination at this tournament.

Nadal Vs Federer

Roger Federer has been the most outstanding player of this generation, and arguably of all time. However, Nadal is one of a handful of players who have a winning record against him. As of October 2007, they have met 13 times, with Nadal winning on 8 of those occasions, being the only player to have beaten Federer twice in a Grand Slam final. He has also been responsible for denying Federer the opportunity of winning a career Grand Slam, defeating him in the 2006 and 2007 French Open finals. Federer has repaid this ‘favour’ by beating Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals.

They share the record for being the only pair of players who have appeared in both, the French Open and Wimbledon finals for two consecutive years. Due to their dominance on clay and grass, it is impossible to determine who the better player is. In an attempt to find the answer, the ‘Battle of Surfaces’ match was held in May, 2007; it was played on a special half clay-half grass surface. Nadal won this contest in 3 sets. Their rivalry is fast gaining legendary status as, with contrasting styles of play, their battles on court are a feast for fans.

Style of Play

Rafael Nadal is naturally right handed, but under the guidance of Toni Nadal, he was coached to play with his left hand (a vital factor in his matches with Federer). With an extreme western forehand grip and a double handed backhand, his game is truly representative of modern tennis.

He plays with a vast amount of topspin. This causes his shots to be heavy and high bouncing, making it very difficult to counter on surfaces such as the red clay at Roland Garros. Combining his shots with lightning foot speed and the endurance of a marathon runner, Nadal usually comes out on top when matches go the distance. He returns ball after ball, wearing the opponent down and then pouncing on the short ball.

Due to his extreme forehand grip and baseline game, Nadal was never considered a threat on grass courts. He has proved critics wrong by making two Wimbledon finals. He is also quite capable at net with crisp volleys and is a regular doubles player, being ranked as high as 28 in the world in 2005.

Nadal is also responsible for starting a fashion craze in wearing sleeveless t-shirts and three quarter trousers on the tennis court. Combining his unique style with his tremendous fighting spirit, he is a crowd favourite all over the world. His attributes of discipline, modesty and simplicity off court have also won him many fans.

Outside tennis

Nadal’s father owns his own restaurant and glass and windows business. He has one younger sister, Maria Isabel. Nadal comes from a sporting family, with one of his uncles being a former Spanish international footballer and his other uncle being his coach. Nadal is also associated with the Fundación Iberostar, which is a charitable organization. In his spare time he likes playing games on his PSP, football, golf and fishing. With youth on his side, Nadal is leading the list of young challengers fighting to end Roger Federer’s domination of this decade.

He said

I am afraid of a lot of things. A dog. I could be afraid of a dog that’s upset, for example. And on the tennis courts, maybe on the outside I look fearless, but on the inside, I’m scared. There’s not one player in the world who isn’t nervous before matches. Especially important matches.

I always wanted to be honest to myself and those who had faith in me.

They said

It could get into my mind. I could start thinking, ‘I can’t play against this guy, his game doesn’t suit me’. I could start accepting the fact that I have been losing against him, but that would be a bad thing for me to do. – Roger Federer on his rival Nadal

He has never broken a racket in anger. It would be showing a lack of respect to people who actually have to buy the equipment to play the sport. – Uncle Toni Nadal on his nephew.

He is like a beast, an animal, on the court. He’s very strong and he’s very well prepared. – Guillermo Coria after his loss to Nadal at Monte Carlo.