Monday, June 4, 2012

RAFA My Story - Rafael Nadal with John Carlin

I read 'Rafa - My Story' the biography of Rafael Nadal (304 pages, Hachette India, Rs. 595) from Rajesh's increasingly interesting collection with great relish in one sitting this morning. Rafael Nadal comes across as the scrapper, the one who won't go away, and this book talks of how the tennis great built himself up to be that - someone he really is not. (In fact there is a whole chapter that addresses this dichotomy titled as Clark Kent and Superman.) Nadal's greatest asset they say is his mind and this book is all about a tennis player who believed that he was not naturally as gifted as Federer, not as well co-ordinated and one who was prone to injuries, fears and self-doubt, who conquered it all in his mind to become a true champion - one you can never write off and one who seems to increasingly become bigger each year.

The book is told interestingly - from two points of view. One of Rafael Nadal himself as he describes the great 2008 Wimbledon final against Federer in a series of chapters - a game which many have described as probably the greatest sporting contest in all history and which McEncroe said was the greatest game of tennis ever played, in great detail, from the locker room to pre-match routines (taking sips from two different bottles, tying his bandana etc) and the match itself. The other point of view is that of John Carlin's as he pieces all the other stories and pieces that make up the entire portrait of Nadal and his success - his tightly knit family, his association with his native town in Mallorca, Spain, his support staff, his childhood, his pillars of support, his injuries and so on.

The resilient Spaniard born on June 3, 1986, comes from a small town called Manorca on the island of Mallorca in Spain which has a population of 80,000. His family is intensely close knit, living in one big building, with his grand parents and uncles and aunts. His father Sebastian Nadal is an astute businessman, his mother a housewife who gave up her perfume business and he has a younger sister Maribel who studies sports medicine. His girl friend Maria Francisca works in an insurance company in Palma. The young Rafael however has some illustrious genes - his grandfather was a famous musician who ran the opera and his uncle Miguel Angelo was a Spanish International and Barcelona player in soccer. The family had fame, wealth and to top it all, an uncle, Toni, who played tennis to a particular level before giving up. It was Toni who took Rafael under his wing and taught him the one thing he felt had failed him in his career - mental toughness and the skill in tennis. Rafael was doing well in his soccer too and there came a time when he had to make a decision to choose between the games. And he chose tennis and the harsh lessons of 'endurance' that his coach and uncle Toni put him through which included picking up more balls, endless hours at practice without any time off, sweeping the courts and so on.

Rafa showed early promise of course as the Under 12 and Under 14 champion for Spain and an ATP victory at 15. But an interesting Davis Cup victory at 18 over a higher ranked Andy Roddick made Nadal believe he could beat players at the highest level. Then followed the French open when he was 19. That paved the way for his legendary rivalry with his friend Roger Federer and their many fantastic duels that continue to date. If Federer ever showed nerves it was against Rafael - and it was the 2007 Wimbledon loss to Federer that Rafel ranks as one of the lowest in his life. But he came back the next year and the 2008 final described in amazing detail was one that Rafael won - two sets ahead and then levelled by Federer and a fifth set that went to 9-7. The tension of the match could be felt through the pages of the book and tears flowed for me at the sheer elation of the win (great sporting events do that to me all the time!).

But the story of the shy, polite, respectful and highly sensitive young man who is easily affected by emotional turmoil around him and how he transforms into a highly combative, almost fearful opponent on the tennis court who seems to only desire to crush the opponent ruthlessly, is what the book is all about. Rafa's team is long term and he believes in continuity - from his agent to therapist, his doctor to his PR man, his sponsor to his friends - they are all there for many years. Rafa's family believes in no big celebrations, always bring him down when they think he is overconfident, and always taught him to respect his racquet as much as the game and what it brings to him. His first coach and uncle Toni instilled much of this almost rustic philosophy that rules Rafa's mind.

But if there is one thing that describes Rafa, it is his endurance and his mental toughness and that is what we must look at. Here I will quote from the book some of the quotes that made an impact on me which probably say it as it is.

When he talks of endurance Rafa speaks with a maturity that belies his age.
"Enduring means accepting. Accepting things as they are and not as you wish them to be; and then looking ahead, and not behind. 
And on the virtue of never giving up he says. 
"I learned that you always have to hang in there, that however remote your chances of winning, you have to push yourself to the very limit of your physical abilities and try your luck."
After the famous victory over Roger Federer to win the Australian Open coming into the final drained after a 5 setter against Verdasco, he says.
"That day in Melbourne I realized more clearly than ever before that the key to this game resides in the mind and if the mind is clear and strong you can overcome almost any onbtacle including pain. Mind can triumph over matter."
 On the effort and sacrifice that goes in he says as a true champion should.
"The fact that I had got to this point was the culmination of long years of sacrifice and dedication all based on the unbreakable premise that there are no shortcuts to sustained success. You can't cheat in elite sports. Talent alone wont get you through. That’s just the first building block, on top of which you must pile relentlessly repetitive work in the gym, work on courts, work studying videos of yourself and your opponents in action, always striving to get fitter, better, cleverer. I made a choice to become  a professional tennis player, and the result of that choice could only be unflagging discipline and a continual desire to improve."
And on the satisfaction he derives and of what differentiates great players and good players he says.
"One lesson I have learned is that if the job I do were easy, I wouldn't derive as much satisfaction from it. The thrill of winning is in direct proportion to the effort I put in beforehand. The difference between a great player and a good player lies in how well you’re prepared."
And an important lesson to all sportsmen.
"If you’re tired, do not show it."
Rafa talks in detail of the fear of winning and on that he says, when on the point of wining the fourth Grand Slam by beating Djokovich at the US Open, he made a couple of errors.
"I tried to push away thoughts of victory that flooded my mind; tried to do what I knew was right, which was to think only of the next point, in isolation from everything else. I felt quite simply afraid."
Coming on the heels of Bob Woolmer's book on cricket, Rafa's story is something that every sportsperson should read - rather anyone who is gunning for excellence should read. In many ways this is the story of how a champion is made, how he built himself piece by piece, how his support staff helped, how his work ethic helped and how he overcame injury and mental fragility to emerge a true champion. Highly recommended reading and certainly one for any library. Thanks is owed to Rajesh for lending me the book too!


Prasanna Kumar said...

Thanks for the review. Very nice, will get hold of the book.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Prasanna. Good investment. One for the shelf.