COMMENTARY | Anyone that follows tennis knows there are two distinct faces of Rafael Nadal.
The Rafael Nadal that most are first introduced to is the one on court, accented with a headband and his signature snarl. The face that routinely stares down opponents after a close point, alerting them that the intensity of the clash will only increase from that point forward.
That is "Rafa" Nadal -- a man that comes as close to a gladiator as there's ever been on a tennis court. This fighter steps into every stadium with the intent to whittle down his opponents in a physical struggle that eventually pushes their mental belief into the abyss.
The same man that beat the one many call the "greatest ever" on his home court in the 2008 Wimbledon final -- and in every subsequent Grand Slam encounter, too.
Before and after a match, however, there exists another face of Rafael Nadal. A humble, gracious off-court personality that seems to align with the type of people that catch flies indoors only to release them outdoors -- as opposed to killing them.
This is "Rafael" Nadal -- the man that talks about every opponent as if they've won more Grand Slams than he could ever dream to, despite the fact that almost all trail him by a wide margin. This is the player that's humble in both victory and defeat -- consoling a tearful Roger Federer after winning the 2009 Australian Open, and recently apologizing to Stan Wawrinka for his poor showing at the same venue in 2014.
Rafael Nadal himself has acknowledged that two very different perceptions of him now exist in the world. He has said that "Rafa" Nadal is the international tennis superstar created through the media hype stemming from his success on court.
Then there's "Rafael" Nadal, the true person within. The man that still lives with his parents, loves to fish and spend time at the beach, and truly seems to believe that he "ain't all that."
The soft-spoken personality of Rafael Nadal also seems to have taken a different tact than most other international sports celebrities. One that aligns closely with his family-centric lifestyle.
It's rare to see Nadal pitching expensive toys to millionaires, although of course he's not completely above the fray. Despite being the number one player in the world and currently in his prime, Nadal only receives the third-most endorsement and sponsorship dollars -- Federer and Djokovic are ahead of him.
Given that Rafa's lifestyle and off-court behavior are so similar to the humble personality he presents in interviews and press conferences, one has to wonder where and when the persona with the snarl emerged.
The answer to that question probably isn't very complicated, either -- it's very clearly Toni Nadal, Rafa's uncle and coach. A person that doesn't get nearly enough credit for the astounding success Rafa Nadal experiences in the sport today.
It was Uncle Toni's guidance that produced the snarling, fighter seen winning at least one Slam a year for nine straight years. It was Toni that installed the routine and discipline which has produced the nearly impenetrable mental fortress that is "Rafa."
Throughout their time together, Toni Nadal has consistently preached the same message -- that each title represents only another step in the journey, not the end goal. It was for this reason that Toni Nadal cancelled a victory celebration for Rafa during his junior years, he did not want his nephew to become complacent.
Through a combination of effective tactics and repetition, Toni Nadal has successfully programmed his nephew to believe that at any given moment, on or off court, Nadal is the underdog.
Whether Nadal is up 6-0, 5-0 in a best-of-three, or down two sets in a best-of-five, he is always giving the maximum effort that his body will allow. And it's that fight, that intensity, that snarl, that make him such a formidable opponent.
Sports psychologists around the world are probably pining for interviews with Toni Nadal, and if they aren't, they should be. The player he has helped create is arguably the strongest mental player the game has ever seen.
Nadal has the best ATP winning percentage of any player in the history of the game and also has the best-ever record of any player on a single surface (clay). Taking only one loss in nine tries at the French Open is likely clear enough evidence of that.
Aside from those impressive facts, Nadal is also now in position to threaten Federer's all-time record of 17 majors, an unthinkable possibility when Roger first put that mark down in the history books.
Once Rafael Nadal's career is complete, it's certainly possible that more details will emerge on how exactly Toni Nadal created such an enviable player -- one that wins almost every time he steps on court, but continues to believe he is the underdog against virtually any opponent.
The sport of tennis can only hope that Rafael Nadal's health holds up and he continues to play on the tour for many years to come. However, even after Rafa retires, that tell-all book by Toni Nadal may still be a long way off.
Word is that Toni Nadal's own sons have now entered the game under his close supervision. An ominous sign for any that were hoping to bide their time until Rafa was tucked safely away in retirement.
Intriguingly, that means there may be a couple more snarling Spaniards on the men's professional circuit in the near future. If they too can adopt Rafa's tendency to embrace the underdog mentality, more than a few junior-level records could be poised to fall in the near future.
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. Tweet him @AndrewProchnow.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafael Nadal
- Toni Nadal