This article by Juan José Mateo appeared in EL PAÍS SEMANAL on Sunday November 30, 2014. The following translation was done by nou.amic for vamosbrigade.com.
Eternal NadalEL PAÍS SEMANAL | 30 NOV 2014 | REPORTAJE
By Juan José Mateo for EL PAÍS SEMANAL
(Translated by nou.amic for http://www.vamosbrigade.com)
Nobody escapes the passage of time, not even child prodigies. Rafael Nadal, the teenager who amazed the world playing in the 2004 Davis Cup final a decade ago, no longer competes in pirate pants or has the long wild hair that whipped him on the shoulders while he devoured his opponents. No. Not at all. Today the Mallorcan is 28 years old, has won 14 Grand Slam tournaments, and knows he has won more matches than he still has left to play. Ready to begin 2015 with his tennis racquet 'sharpened' and the voracious appetite to win he always has, Nadal no longer thinks just of the present.
While he recovers from an appendix operation and treatment with stem-cells to try to solve his back problems, the world number three programmes his return to playing tennis and also analyzes the tomorrow, the future, what his life will be like in a few years time. He sees children, a tennis academy, his role as ambassador for Banco Sabadell, his solidarity projects, the management of his investments. Then, when he thinks about all that, he feels neither fear nor vertigo. On the contrary. He waves his hands to explain that when the time comes, he will have a challenge to face.
"I have many things outside the professional tour that make me happy"
"I've thought all my life about what there was going to be after tennis. It's something that's never caused me any sense of abyss, panic or problem," said the tennis player on his visit to Madrid, where he appeared dressed in a suit, with his old mop of hair under control above ear level and the reflective tone of someone who already has everything analyzed, weighed up and thought out. "Of course, I do have the utmost respect for what might come afterwards," he admitted, because he knows that examples abound of those that have failed in the transition from stadium to home. "I'm not going to say I won't have any problem getting used to life after a career like this, but I'm convinced, very convinced, that I won't, that I have many things in life outside of the professional tour that make me happy. I think I'm going to have many other things that are going to make me happy," he insisted while enumerating his arguments calmly, as if toying with the idea, because he knows he still has career ahead of him, that there are still finals to play and titles to celebrate.
However, that time will come. In some respects, the day after for a politician is like the day after for an athlete. As soon as the former takes his leave of the ministry, the telephone stops ringing, he is no longer invited to the receptions of the most influential, and consequently he feels too large a void, a blow to his self-esteem, disparagement.. and he has a question: "Wasn't I more than this?". The athlete is progressively recognised less and less in the street, he is no longer asked for autographs or contracted for advertising campaigns and, above all, the emotions he felt when competing at the top level in the most famous settings are missing. Expelled from the paradise of the great stadiums where they are the protagonists of the impossible and authors of epic tales every day, many are hard put to make the transition. Some suffer imprisoned in eternal memories, incapable of returning to the past and of living in the present.
This is how it is described by José Luis Beirán, sports pscychologist, former Real Madrid basketball player and Olympic silver medallist with the Spanish team in Los Angeles in 1984: "It's retirement at 30 years old, not at 65. It's a total change from what your life has been since you were a child. Either you or the people around you have to start preparing for it from well beforehand because you live the life of an ordinary person for many more years than you spend as an athlete. Nadal will still be remembered in 50 years time. In a very short time nobody will remember those that are not superstars. And if that person has valued himself on what others think of him based on his results... ," Beirán warns. "You're thought to be more professional if you live only for sport 24 hours a day, if you only think about sport. There's much danger in that. It really tires you. It's a tremedous mental effort. You have to have physical rest but you also need mental rest.. and you rest by doing something else, not by doing nothing."
The psychologist says there is only one solution: to plan, to prepare yourself. You have to act beforehand while you are still active as an athlete, find something that satisfies you as much as the career you will no longer have. That is exactly what the Mallorcan is doing. Nadal, still in his prime, still capable of fighting for all the big titles, as shown by him starting 2015 with the possibility of becoming the tennis player who has won most Grand Slam tournaments ever (he has 14 to Roger Federer's 17), says he has already found the project that will motivate him in the future.
"I have people, like my father, who help me with these things," he said about the vital plans, in which his family is, and will always be, a fundamental pillar. "The academy project is an emotional project with a personal and a collective motivation that rouses my attention," he said about the international tennis centre he is to open in Manacor (Mallorca), his hometown, the foundation stone of which he has just laid. "It allows me to remain connected to the world of sport and to the sport I've played since I was three years old. It'll be in the place where I grew up, where I live and will continue to live. Emotionally, that is important: to create something in Manacor that may become a sports centre that's of international reference," he said. "It motivates me to give Manacor and Mallorca facilities of that level, to create jobs and make it that the people from the town can enjoy it," he argues passionately waving his hands around while he speaks.
"It also motivates me to train young people for the future. You have to be quite clear - and if you're not, you have the wrong idea - that the percentage of people that give themselves fully to tennis from the age of ten and become professional players is 'x'. We're going to try and make that 'x' as high a percentage as possible, but the large majority don't make it, and because of that educating the person comes first, providing them with a solid foundation so as to give them a future with possibilities, training them on a personal level, with schooling, and preparing them to be able to go on to university," reflected Nadal, who has close at hand an example in his friend Tomeu Salvà, a talented tennis player who did not complete the journey to professionalism and who now coaches and trains players. "The day came when competing made Tomeu anxious, nervous and unhappy, and he went in another direction, where he has managed to find happiness. The academy will aim to produce the maximum number of professional players, the maximum performance from the children who are going to be there, but obviously also to prepare them for an alternative future, at university, and with values that help them in their personal life whatever their destination might be."
"It motivates me to give Manacor a tennis centre of reference and to create jobs"
Values. Nadal's inner sanctum. The Mallorcan's concerns go beyond the tennis court. He, who was a teenager with no interest in reading, glued to PlayStation video games and always ready to take part in a game of football, is now an adult who talks about creating employment, establishing a family, giving shape to, running and leaving a legacy and, above all, about values. That is a key concept in the life of the world number three. Today and a decade ago, Nadal is effort, passion, humility, perseverence, excelling himself and giving thanks to life for what it has given him. Today and a decade ago, on the tennis court or through the Rafa Nadal Tour, his circuit for young tennis players, the Mallorcan tries to convey those sentiments by practising them. Speaking is free, he says. Doing has a price, he reminds us.
"Speaking about values is much easier than exemplifying them, acting and making them a reality," he gives his opinion with one eyebrow raised, the most Nadalian gesture there is. "Giving words of advice is much easier than doing it by example," he underlines after walking through the streets in the centre of Madrid dragging his suitcase on his way to the event for the Cerca advertising campaign, in which he appears with journalist John Carlin for the Banco Sabadell, while people encouraged him with their shouts of "Vamos Rafa!" "My father doesn't need to give me much advice, because I just have to see how he behaves every day, what he has done for us, how much effort he makes to make his business function. For many years, year after year, he has battled to excel himself at work," emphasized the tennis player, who applies on the court what he sees at home, an attitude he will probably maintain when it comes time for him to manage his own assets, which include investments in hotels. "My father has managed to do it. He has the biggest glass making company on the Balearic Islands. For me that's an example: to start from nothing and manage to create what he has created. It wasn't a stroke of luck. It was hard work and constantly seeking to improve," he added.
"Every person should do what makes him happy, if he can. Not everybody has the possibility of doing what he/she enjoys. It's important to be happy with what one does, not to do what makes one happy. That is a great virtue," affirmed the tennis player, who is also advised by Carlos Costa, an ex ATP world number 10 and his manager since he was a child. "I've done what I enjoy, which is playing tennis, for many years and I've been happy, but I've also strived from a very young age to obtain what I've achieved. Can I have my father's activity?" he asks himself. "I don't know. What I know for sure is that I will not be sitting on the couch because I like doing things. My passion has been tennis, my father's has been the company, working, because he enjoys himself doing it. The idea is to have an occupation and also enjoy other things. My father also does that now, but he didn't for many years."
When, in time, the day comes: Nadal will become more involved in his academy and in his Foundation's solidarity projects, like the one in India; he will continue to be a figure very much in demand by brands and companies, which see in him a spokesperson able to enter the living room of any house as just another member of the family; he will play a more active part in the player management and organization of events agency he co-owns with Carlos Costa (they have already signed up the Chilean Garín, Roland Garros junior champion); and he will live his love for tennis, golf, football, fishing and the sea in another manner.
Nadal, the ninth highest paid athlete in the world (35.5 million euros in 2014) according to Forbes magazine, imagines a future in which his frenetic activity of today (almost 11 months away from home, tournaments on four continents, constant travelling and practising) will be replaced by a life with just as high a tempo but less travelling. "I don't imagine myself being a personal coach to a player and travelling the world," he says. "I can't see myself being a Stefan Edberg [Roger Federer's coach] or a Boris Becker [Novak Djokovic's coach]....".
That is because the best Spanish tennis player of all time, Prince of Asturias prize winner, holder of an Olympic gold medal for singles, the only Spaniard who has won Wimbledon since Manuel Santana's distant win in 1966, the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open and to complete the Grand Slam, sees himself as a father surrounded by children. "More than two," he informed us, without giving a date for when that might be because he is still competing and his partner/girlfriend also wants to achieve excellence in her professional field. When that day comes, and with it his emancipation (the champion still lives with his parents during the little time he spends in Mallorca), it is more than likely Nadal will keep on seeing his childhood friends and now and then Pedro Riera, or Tormento, as he is nicknamed, the coach with whom he started playing football and with whom he now comments on his cousins' progress at football. He never misses their matches when the season permits.
"They're people I've never lost touch with," says Nadal, whose family have been established in Manacor since the XIVth century. "I'm lucky to have many cousins between the ages of 9 and 12 who play football and, when I can, when I have the free time, I try to go to watch them, because I have a good time. They're good times. When I was kid I used to get much more nervous playing football than playing tennis. Football has always been my great passion. I met Pedro like that, as Pedro Tormento."
Nadal still has battles to fight with Roger Federer, the rival who marked the beginning of his career, the one against whom he played that unforgettable Wimbledon final in 2008 and who denied him the Masters Cup in 2010. The Spaniard still has matches to play against Novak Djokovic, his nemesis, a fierce Serbian player he has spent five years looking out of the corner of his eye at, because they have shared the majority of the big titles between them. The world number three faces the arrival of 2015 spurred on by a trouble-filled 2014, in which winning his ninth Roland Garros was the one glimmer of light in a year overshadowed by his back pain, the problems with his right wrist (3 months sidelined) and appendicitis that gave him a good scare. "I had the operation, luckily: they told me my appendix was again active, that it was about to flare up again," he said. Ready to continue battling at the highest level, the fourteen-time Grand Slam winner knows there is an end to everything, that although he still has a career ahead of him, the racquet is not eternal. It is because of this that, now fully mature, he faces the future head on the same as he looks his two most impressive opponents in the eye: without fear.