No man is an island ... except for Nadal

Victor Fraile/Corbis

This story appears in the June 1 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Could it be the language barrier? Is that the reason Americans have a limited understanding of his genius? Maybe we're the lucky ones, then, since the silences might contain the best insight into Rafael Nadal. There is something undeniably magnetic about him, yet he appears ignorant of his charisma. Watch him as he speaks at a press conference or at center court after a match. He is awkward, almost bashful, looking up from under his long, dark hair to wonder why people are laughing at something he didn't intend to be humorous. His facial expression says: I will just keep smiling while I try to figure it out. He doesn't seem to comprehend the defining tenet of his popularity: He exudes pure, unadulterated joy in a way few tennis players ever have.

The notion that he doesn't fully grasp his own celebrity is one of many fascinating paradoxes about Nadal. On the court he is intense, fierce, nearly feral. He doesn't so much play the game as stalk his prey. But on a languid March evening in the California desert, Nadal is the picture of calm. Dressed in a salmon-color polo and shorts, he is slumped on a couch in the players' lounge at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on the eve of his win over Andy Murray in the final of the BNP Paribas Open. When it is suggested that his relentlessness intimidates opponents, crushing their will, the 22-year-old Spaniard seems almost hurt. "No," he says. "I never try to intimidate. Everything I do is for me, not [to affect] the other player." And when the match is over, when he has merely beaten or completely broken an opponent, he is almost apologetic.

The most famous example came after the Australian Open in February, when Roger Federer stood in front of a microphone at center court and cried. The great Federer had been reduced to tears by the mounting frustration of keeping up with this kid, this tireless force of nature. Nadal, who won eight of their first 14 head-to-head matches, had beaten Federer five straight. Between sobs, Federer praised Nadal before saying, "It's killing me."

Nadal, head bowed, clapped uncomfortably. What do you do after you break a man? When Federer couldn't continue, Nadal walked to the microphone and said, "Roger, sorry for today."

The response from the crowd: laughter. A welcome chance to ease the tension, sure, but Nadal wasn't joking. He was sorry. Not for winning but for inflicting so much emotional pain on a man he deeply respects.

"It's important to understand this is only a game," he says, his English clear though heavily accented. "I am lucky: My job is one of my hobbies. We are just hitting a ball, and every week we are in the locker room together. You try your best on the court, but off the court we are not rivals."

Last year's Wimbledon final -- let's just call it the best match ever -- established Nadal as more than a clay specialist. He not only won his fifth Grand Slam but also notched his first away from Roland Garros. By August, Nadal had supplanted Federer as the world's No. 1. This spring, he collected tournament title No. 35, reaching the milestone at a younger age than both Federer and Pete Sampras.

And still Nadal is something of a mystery. He is an international heartthrob in clam diggers. He does everything righthanded -- except play tennis. Asked to describe the moment of winning Wimbledon, Nadal says, "I only remember this." And here he does something unexpected: He closes his eyes and opens his mouth wide in a silent scream of exhilaration, then tosses his head and arms back against the cushions of the couch, re-creating the moment in which he lay on the court, victorious and exhausted.

The reenactment was surprising, but not the economy of the description. He has a savant's ability to distill a problem into its purest elements. Along with warlike intensity and supreme athletic ability, clarity of purpose is one of his defining attributes.

And so this leads back to a 2008 Wimbledon final story. Nadal won the first two sets, Federer the next two. Heading to the final set, it was assumed Nadal's moment had passed, that momentum would carry Federer to his sixth straight Wimbledon title.

A rain delay before the fifth set sent the players to the locker room. There, Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, was met with a burst of his nephew's clarity. "I won the first two sets, so why can't I win another?" Rafa asked. In his mind, he faced the same situation he had faced from the third set on. "What has changed from two sets ago? Every time I am one set away from winning. This is the same: One more set, and I win."

So armed with inarguable logic, he took the court with one goal: make Federer beat him. "My feeling was, Roger can beat me, but I'm not going to have a mistake," Nadal says. "If he beats me, it's because he is playing well, not because I made a mistake." (True to his word, Nadal committed seven unforced errors to Federer's 16 in the fifth set.) He shrugs and adds, "And so I won," as if it's the most obvious thing in the world.

Could it be the walls built around him? Does the notoriously insular world of tennis prohibit a fuller picture? Tennis is protective, but Team Nadal builds barriers meant to be impenetrable. Benito Pérez-Barbadillo, Nadal's publicity man, is the razor wire surrounding Fortress Nadal. He says, "My job is to be the loudspeaker, telling the world about Rafa. But I do not speak for him. He doesn't like that."

Pérez-Barbadillo is a former ATP publicist who has earned the nickname Señor No for his handling of media requests. "I promised you nothing," seems to be his favorite line. An interview with Nadal for this story came after two weeks of wrangling. And while it may be frustrating for those wishing for a more complete image of Nadal, the setup is perfect. Rafa is free to play tennis, enjoy leisure time and regale the throngs with his mere presence.

"Rafa's a sweet kid," an ATP official says. "There's just nothing compelling there. There's been almost nothing revealing written about him."

Nadal is self-conscious about his routines -- fussing with chairs on the sideline, lining up water bottles by label, then drinking from each -- but those can be excused as the natural extension of a game that relies on endless repetition and routine. Nadal seems as normal as an internationally famous 22-year-old can be. He understands the obligation to the press -- "It is my job," he says -- and is open and unhurried during The Mag's interview. Afterward, he plays table tennis with a female writer who is clearly infatuated. He graciously plays at her level for a few points before taking on doubles partner Marc Lopez in a wild, lengthy battle.
Nadal seems even bigger in person; nowhere is his 6'1", 188-pound frame more impressive than at this tiny table. Lopez wins the match, prompting Nadal to toss his paddle and storm off in mock fury, yelling in Spanish, "I am superior!"

Nadal is an unashamed perfectionist, saying, "I have lived my whole life with high intensity." His practice regimen is taxing, just one factor that causes skeptics to wonder about his longevity. But the extra effort has improved his serve and net game, helping to boost him to No. 1. "His serve has gotten a lot better," says James Blake. "He's hitting it bigger and placing it better."

On the evening of his first day in Indian Wells, after 26 hours of travel, three hours of sleep and five hours of golf, Nadal practices for 90 minutes. Witnessed only by the cleanup crew and a few stragglers, he rages across center court in all directions before announcing the session's conclusion by sprawling on his back near the service line.

Walking to the car later, Nadal excuses himself for a detour into one of the volunteer trailers. As he says hello to the mostly elderly female group, Pérez-Barbadillo explains, "That is Rafa, right there. He is educated and polite. His family taught him well."

Nadal grew up on the Spanish island of Majorca, where he still lives with his parents and younger sister. They've lived in the same house for 12 years. As a child he played tennis and soccer, and part-time coach Francisco Roig says, "He could have been a first-division Spanish footballer." At 12, Nadal turned to tennis exclusively. He had a relatively normal upbringing.
Unlike other prodigies, he was not shipped off to a high-priced academy for the privileged and talented, because his parents feared that world would foster an entitlement mentality. Instead he worked with Uncle Toni, who made him practice on poor courts with old tennis balls and subpar rackets to teach young Nadal not to use extraneous elements as excuses.

"Rafa is the same person he has always been," Roig says. "That is a greater achievement than being No. 1 in the world." Nadal maintains interests outside tennis; he can hit a golf ball 350 yards and loves to fish in the Mediterranean. He sees no reason to move out of his family's home, despite raking in an estimated $18 million annually.

"In Majorca, I can be myself," Nadal says. "I go to the supermarket and the cinema, and I am just Rafa. Everyone knows me, and it is no big deal. I can go all day -- no photographs." Hard to believe, considering that he and his girlfriend, Xisca Perello, are favorites of the European paparazzi.

He laughs and insists it is true.

"This is why I don't change," he says. "In my humble opinion, change is stupid. Now people want to know me. But in five or six years, I'll be a regular person. That's the business. If you can't accept that, you're going to have a problem."

Sure, but what about a new house or his own island? He shakes his head and dismisses the idea with a wave of his hypertrophic left arm.

"Why change if you have perfect?"

Could it be the world's longtime infatuation with Federer? When you spend 160 weeks at No. 2, as Nadal did, it's hard not to be subsumed by No. 1, especially when No. 1 is Federer. Until a year ago, he was the greatest player in the history of the game. Thirteen Grand Slams and an average of just six losses a year over a four-year stretch (2004-07) -- Federer's reign was so complete it didn't leave room for anyone else. But Nadal, five years younger, eroded Federer the way he erodes opponents: over time. And the stylistic differences between Roger and Rafa are as legendary as their matches -- one plays with geometric precision while the other bounds, slides and attacks. While Federer inspires poetry, Nadal inspires grunts of appreciation.

To the tennis prude, Nadal is an assault on the sensibilities. To non- and semi-tennis people, he's a reason to watch. He's Jack Sparrow with a racket, stalking the court with brute grace and hitting the ball as if it owed him money. His forehand, with its buggy-whip finish, produces backspin that causes the ball to jump high and fast, creating the illusion that it picks up speed after it bounces. It's why opponents seem to be returning the ball with their backs pressed against a wall.

As Nadal seeks his fifth straight French Open title, the big question is whether he will become the third man, after Rod Laver and Don Budge, to win a calendar-year Slam. Asked to assess his chances, Nadal responds in his humble fashion: He holds his thumb and index finger an inch apart.

His brilliance has also been obscured by his persona. Is it possible to be overshadowed by your own sex appeal? The voyeurism that follows Nadal -- at least in the retirement world of Indian Wells -- is mostly benign. Two women in their 50s are among the hundreds crowded around a practice court. They are fixated on the way Nadal's shirt rises to expose his stomach when he serves.

"That's not normal," one says. "He must have his shirts made that way."

"Fine with me," her friend replies. They laugh.

If you ask the people closest to Nadal for a story that explains him, they don't tell a Wimbledon story or a French Open story or even a story about women ogling him. They talk about a semifinal match in Hamburg in 2007 against Lleyton Hewitt. Nadal had lost to the Aussie previously, and after he lost the first set, Roig sent a text message to a worried group of Nadal's people. The message, in part because it preceded another Nadal comeback, has become their motto.

It read: Don't worry. He is Nadal.

They didn't know what had brought Roig to this conclusion, and they didn't ask. The story was told in the silences in between.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.