This article by Juan José Mateo appeared in the print edition of EL PAÍS SEMANAL on Sunday January 12, 2014. (It is now also available online.) The following translation was done by nou.amic for vamosbrigade.com.
RAFA NADAL - IN THE CHAMPION'S MINDNadal's concealed card
He is the definitive competitor, a man capable of passing from the darkness of an injury into the light of the spotlights that come with occupying the top spot in tennis. Rafael Nadal, the winner of 13 Grand Slam titles, is the tennis player who has mastered clay, cement and grass. Before the Australian Open gets under way, the world number one agrees to explain what it is inside that head of his that dominates, wears out and asphyxiates his opponents on the tennis court and at the poker table, his new challenge.
By Juan José Mateo for El País Semanal. Translated by nou.amic for vamosbrigade.com
It is the spark of fire that scares off the monsters of the night. Rafael Nadal, winner of 13 Grand Slam titles in tennis, settles down to celebrate winning his first live poker tournament, the Charity Challenge in Prague, where the European Poker Tour sponsored by PokerStars made a stop this winter. The game was almost five hours long. Step by step, the exercise examined the same abilities that have made the Spaniard a fierce competitor at tennis: capacity for analysis; speed at making decisions; resistance; aggressiveness at key moments. His triumph in this poker game focuses the essence of Nadal's mind to produce a surprising conclusion: the fierce competitor feels something rather like fear. At the moments of maximum tension, his head fills with shadows that threaten to bend his willpower and propel him to failure. Then, a tiny light comes on in the darkness. He calls it "determination", psychologists call it "mental strength", and his opponents at the poker table and on a tennis court, "killer instinct". The shadows in his mind flee in utter terror. Light takes over from darkness. Nadal triumphs.
"There are always doubts in my mind," said the world number one tennis player during the winter, which he used to prepare for the Australian Open that begins on Monday. "I'm not a person who's sure of himself at anything in life. There's hardly anything I'm decisive about. I've never prided myself in that. I find it hard to make decisions... but when I play, at the most important moments, I have the determination to do something," he pointed out with an expression that attempted to describe his willingness to be an active and not a passive participant in those moments of tension. "At times of pressure, at the important moments, my head has responded well most times. Let's put it bluntly. My head has permitted me to play the way I thought I had to play. My head hasn't prevented me from doing what I thought I must do: that's what happens when you are nervous, when the situation gets the better of you."
The situation was complicated at the beginning of 2013: Nadal had not competed for seven months and his career seemed to be in danger due to a partial tear in the patellar ligament and Hoffa's Syndrome in his left knee. Now, at the beginning of 2014, the season is looking promising for Nadal. After winning two Grand Slam tournaments in 2013 (Roland Garros and the US Open), in Melbourne he could equal the mythical Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slam titles. There are many things involved in this incredible story. One... which explains at the same time why Nadal did not say goodbye to professional sport during those months he was injured; why, after that, he was capable of playing with pain in his knees until he took over as world number one; and, finally, why he ended 2013 dominating Daniel Negreanu - the world number one at poker, an extremely intelligent analytical guy with a sharp tongue who has won almost 20 million dollars at cards - on the blue baize of a poker table in Prague... is "Self-control".
"What you avoid by having self-control is losing points and games, giving them away to your opponent for free, giving him them as gifts," says the Mallorcan, who during the poker game in Prague did not fall into the trap of his opponents' friendly provocations. ("You ought to say Vamos!," they joked with him at the table). "That's how you avoid giving away points, games... and losing morale. When you lose your cool, the other thinks you're weaker. Self-control makes you stop giving games away. It's very similar in poker: you don't give away chips because you get bored that you're not getting dealt good cards and just play for the sake of it; or because you've had one hand that's gone badly and you want to get your revenge.. No. You have to analyse things in an overall way. You have to have a cool head. Those that are really good apply that quite a lot," added the Spaniard, who donated the 50,000 euros he won in Prague to The Good Hand Project charity campaign. Then he says: "I don't see Djokovic giving you many gifts."
Novak Djokovic is to tennis what a bomber is to war: a destroyer. He is a granite like competitor, of great talent, capable of being excellent at the decisive moments. However, Nole, his great rival on the tennis court, has made incomprehensible mistakes against Nadal. Just as ex-skier Alberto Tomba collapsed in an surfeit of bluffs and poor choices in the match in Prague, the Serb gave away the semifinal of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games against Nadal by hitting a smash out of court. Just as Ronaldo the ex football player threw away his cards against Nadal because he unconsciously wanted this mental and physical torture (almost five continuous hours of poker!) to end, the player from Belgrade lost a crucial point in the 2013 Roland Garros semifinal with a beginner's error (he touched the net when he was already celebrating winning the point). Just as Fátima Moreira de Melo ended up yielding to Nadal in the last hand of the Czech match because she decided to really speed things up, push, look for the limits to make the rock-like Mallorcan come apart... Djokovic handed the 2013 US Open to Nadal by planting a forehand in the net (4-5, 30-30 in set 3: and it is set point) that would have gone over without any problem against any other opponent, because nobody else would have taken him to his limit. This has a name in psychology; it is called mental asphyxia. Two words to describe what Nadal brings about in his opponents, at tennis or at poker. A real emotional breakdown.
"Creating pressure is one of the most effective strategies in poker," says Leo Magrets, probably the best Spanish woman poker player, who is as familiar with tennis racquets as with cards, as she is a relative of Joan Magrets, director of the International Tennis Federation. "It causes frustration in your rivals: if they're not very strong mentally, they end up making an error caused by the confusion constantly being under pressure causes," she continues. "Both tennis and poker need a strategy. You can have a set style, but you must be ready to change it, because they are both quick games that change and evolve while they are happening, it's necessary to constantly reassess the situation, and the capacity to adapt yourself to your opponent is maybe one of the keys to success in both. Nadal is a fighter, the example par excellence of perseverance and tenacity on court. These qualities transferred to the poker table will be very useful to him," the professional player stressed. "Although tennis and poker share an essential technical basis, mastering that is not sufficient in itself to excel. The psychological part plays a key role. Tennis is one of the sports in which the psychological aspect plays the greatest part. The capacity to fight until the final point, although all looks lost and it seems not worth it; never ever giving up; always being hungry to win... are all qualities that could perfectly be extrapolated to shine at poker, too."
It all began with a magician who could make it rain if defeat seemed imminent, interrupting the match so this did not come to pass. A sorcerer capable of making that child invisible thanks to the complicity of the whole family, who pretended they could not see him. Rafael Nadal's story cannot be understood without Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach. The man who suggested he play left-handed although he is right-handed. The coach who taught him the basic rudiments of the sport and then helped him to polish them (they are still working on that today) until he became the best in the world. The audacious adviser. The coach who found an "obedient" boy and sculpted his mind until he turned that rough diamond into the best 'muscle' this tennis player, like no other will ever be, possesses.
"If you can teach a child to hit a forehand drive, you can also teach him willpower. Willpower is trained," says Toni one winter's morning at the same Manacor club in Mallorca where he started coaching his nephew, to whom he has just said goodbye after an intense session of exercises during which Nadal sweated so much that he was surrounded by a halo of steam, evidence of the cold air coming into contact with his hot skin. "Why do people react in a certain way during wars? Because they have no alternative. If you live in a comfortable way, without worries or much effort, training is more difficult. I don't use outlandish techniques. Why is a rabbit so skilful in the countryside? Because it has to dodge stones, potential hunters, and it becomes skilful. It's the same thing: if the child is the centre of attention, if you solve any little problem he has for him... you have a different reality," the coach strings off his examples. "On the one hand you have Rafa's character, given to obedience, discipline and allowing himself to be guided. When he was a child, he had to listen to me. Just as there are few employees who talk nonsense to their bosses, I think there are few coaches who talk nonsense to their players. The one who pays you runs the show. I'm lucky that in our case it's not like that," concludes Toni, who is not paid by his nephew.
"You work on that from when you're a child, everything can be worked on and trained... but we are assuming that you have to have been born with a talent, some innate mental abilities, because your mind must be ready to be able to train it in all those things," the 13 time Grand Slam champion himself agrees. "Your mind must be prepared to obey. Prepared for when you're told not to throw your racquet, you don't. Prepared for when you're told if you miss don't pull faces, then you don't pull faces. This is an innate talent. The talent of knowing to obey, of having enough humility to listen to the people who are advising you. Depending on how old you are, it depends on your intellectual capacity at each age. When you're 6, you're not very intelligent. When you're 26, you must be intelligent enough to know that whoever is advising you is not trying to prejudice you but to help you, is putting pressure on you to help you. You have to have the intelligence to understand that, even though you don't like what you hear, and to obey."
Nadal always has his ears open. He wants to improve. To him, ceilings are like a red rag to a bull: an incentive to his spirit, something to be tackled. Motivation. The champion listens to Toni on the tennis court. At the poker table - and at the distance a relationship of many years with profound roots implies - he has another adviser: Alfonso Cardalda.
"Rafa's mental capacity surprised me from the start, he has an excellent memory, he can remember situations or hands he played months ago, and that means that when he sits down at a poker table, he can base his analysis of certain plays on past situations," says this professional poker player, who during the Prague tournament, oblivious to the constant coming and going of waiters with drinks for the participants, observed his pupil's decisions with a conspiratorial expression on his face, experiencing his good choices and bad ones as if they were his own. "This helps him a great deal when it comes to taking risks or playing more conservatively... Without a doubt, his mind is an enormous data bank. When you play a poker tournament, mental tiredness often plays a nasty trick on you. You have to be concentrated on your game and that of your opponents for several hours. Rafa has a very well trained mind thanks to top flight competition, which puts him one step ahead of many of his rivals, who, as the hours go by, lose their concentration and make mistakes."
That rally in 2005 when it was 30-15 in the first game of the second set. That 'Ana Kournikova' (combination of Ace & King) with which he lost a poker game. The sliced backhand of his that landed a millimetre out in the 2011 Indian Wells final against Djokovic. Nadal's mind is an organised register of all the sporting combats he has taken part in. "I have the capacity to memorize everything that matters to me." "I've managed to understand that poker is a game in which you have the control, in which strategies come into play, your knowledge of your rival. I memorize, it becomes etched in my mind, because it matters a great deal to me," he says. This capacity to remember, process it and react in hundredths of a second and in terms of past situations is much more than a characteristic of his personality. It is a tool that has enabled him to beat Roger Federer, for many the best tennis player in history (head to head the Spaniard leads 22-10). A lever that has enabled him to reverse the tendency of his confrontations with Djokovic, who had managed to defeat him in seven consecutive finals since 2011 (the Mallorcan leads him 22-17). An instrument that explains his great victories, in public (the tournaments) and in private (over his injuries and pain).
"What best characterises Nadal is the concept of mental toughness developed in the seventies and the years after by the researchers Kobasa, Maddi and their team at the University of Chicago," explains sports psychologist José María Buceta. "It's a personality pattern that characterises many people who perform at a high level in situations of stress. It has three components: commitment (which the person assumes to get as involved as possible in what he has to do, without avoiding it or simply limiting himself to going through the motions),challenge (he views the stressful situation as a challenge that will bring him opportunities, not as a threat) and control (he is aware he controls the situation by focusing on what is up to him, on the strengths he has to work with, on successful past experiences)," explains Buceta, who has experience as the person in charge of psychology at the Football Federation's National School and at Real Madrid. "Nadal's mental strength can be observed in all three of these components. He has always demonstrated it, but especially in the past year. He committed himself to the objective of returning to being the best. He took his come back from injury as a challenge. He focused on his strengths to feel in control."
Control. Another key term in Nadal's career. The Spaniard does not go to the extreme of Björn Borg, a player who was so inexpressive, so worried about what message he sent to his opponents, that they called him The Iceborg. No. It is easy to see Nadal celebrating a point, clenching his fist, roaring out "Vamos!" In any case, the Mallorcan knows the importance of gestures at the times when the hand or the match is going worst for him. In Prague, Negreanu tried to confuse him by giving him advice that was not accompanied by the technical explanation it required (The check was your better option), and his only reply was a smile from Nadal: he already knows that the expressions on your face can give important information in poker, and that is why there are so many players who wear sunglasses, caps, headphones... It is hard to find Nadal bemoaning things at tennis. In both places he follows the example of Tiger Woods, the best golfer of all time, who lines up for his most decisive shots with a look on his face that is in keeping with his nickname. The look of the tiger. "This is very complicated," Nadal sums up. "What's really important is not how I see myself but how the others see me from the outside, what they perceive, what I transmit," he says about his opponents. "Tiger's expression is one of conviction and decision. At tennis and at poker, if I lose, I want to lose doing things along the line of the way I've been taught. Without any magic trick."
"You have to know how to control your emotions well," agrees ex football player Ronaldo, who played poker with Nadal in Prague and soon fell victim of the pressure of an encounter in which none of the participants wanted to be the first to show the white flag, give up and leave the table. "I may have a great burst of adrenaline inside but I maintain the same expression and the same movements in front of the others," the Brazilian continues. "It's not easy. On the football pitch, I was direct, explosive. Here I have to be less of that. This is a game of the mind. You have to study it. I study. I friend has given me books and there are a thousand things to learn: the position the table's in, when to attack, when not to. It's a world of possibilities," he adds. "Poker has got the image of people who get together to drink, smoke, play poker and conspire. That ancient image is really out of date, old hat. Nowadays that has changed. This is a sport of the intellect."
That puts the emphasis right on one of the strong points of Nadal, the titan who came back from a thousand and one injuries; the champion beater; the tennis player of great technical ability who has made a habit of winning on clay, cement and grass, without being concerned about all the taboos and complexes that have always surrounded Spanish tennis players. That is just what the doctor ordered for this lover of competition, who does not know how to play just for the sake of it, the definitive contender, one of the few capable of fighting till the very last ball of the match. As Boris Becker - six-time Grand Slam title winner, Djokovic's new coach and a card lover - said, tennis and poker resemble each other in the following things. The first hand is not the important one, the important hand is the last one. The games are very long. You need much mental resistance, and some physical resistance. A suit made to measure for Nadal.