Why Rafael Nadal is the most popular player on tour

Rafael Nadal waves during a practice session at the French Open
Rafael Nadal is a hero and role-model within the locker room - Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

An Argentine tennis pro named Pedro Cachin caused a social-media stir in Madrid last month. First, Cachin lost a tight battle to Rafael Nadal, and then, when the players shook hands at the net, he asked whether he could have one of his idol’s shirts.

Let’s leave aside the rights and wrongs of the online debate, which focused on whether Cachin was being over-deferential or not. There is a broader point here, and that relates to Nadal’s status as a hero and role-model within the locker room.

I’ll give you two more examples. As soon as Nadal made his latest comeback from injury, popping up in Madrid for one last tilt at his home tournament, three Italian players – Sara Errani, Jasmine Paolini and Lucia Bronzetti – all crowded into the stands to watch him.

A couple of days later, social media showed Alize Cornet – the Frenchwoman who scored one of the great Wimbledon upsets over Serena Williams in 2014 – as she was moved to tears by a “good luck” message from Nadal, sent in response to her imminent retirement.

It’s rare that an athlete inspires this level of adulation in his peers. But Nadal, who will make perhaps his final French Open appearance on Monday, is more than just a great champion. He is the ultimate player’s player: the man whose whole-hearted effort, often in the face of a rebellious physique, has struck a chord across the workforce.

Andrea Petkovic, the German former world No 9 who retired two years ago, put it well in a recent blog post. “The reason why Nadal was my favourite player for a long time was that he made tennis look hard, he made it look effortful,” Petkovic wrote.

“Every fibre of his body spoke the language of having once been strained, hardened, poked. Every time he struck a ball you could see that tennis was not only talent but also hard work. After the era of Roger Federer, who made everything look easy, watching Rafa play felt like a reality check. Roger was Disneyland, a fantasy, Rafa was Florida, the reality.”

Petkovic’s piece spoke to one of Nadal’s essential virtues: authenticity. And to the unchanging nature of the little boy who first turned up to training in Manacor with a bowl-cut and a hungry look in his eye.

A far younger-looking Rafael Nadal in 2005
A far younger-looking Nadal in 2005 - Reuters/Albert Gea

Contrast this with his leading rivals. Federer performed a remarkable U-turn in his early 20s, from a tempestuous, racket-smashing teen to the smoothest statesman in the game. Djokovic has been through numerous incarnations: the jape-loving impressionist, the new-agey philosopher, and most recently the anti-hero, finally embracing his outsider status.

But Nadal still feels like the kid who just wanted to compete. See him with his coaches in the player lounge, waiting for his call to court, and he will invariably have a game of Parcheesi (a variant of Ludo) on the go.

He is the earthiest and homeliest of the Big Four, the man who remained on his home island of Majorca while Federer, Djokovic and Murray decamped to Dubai, Monte Carlo and Surrey respectively. And his team has always been shaped by those early years in the island’s capital of Manacor.

Until 2016, Nadal was coached by uncle Toni, the original mentor who had moulded his game and personality, sometimes pushing him harder than his parents were comfortable with.

Rafael Nadal with his Uncle Toni watching on in 2011
Nadal with his Uncle Toni (left) watching on in 2011 - Getty Images/Julian Finney

Then it was Carlos Moya, the former world No 1 he has been sparring with since he was 12. In the background is Titin Maymo, his long-time physio and horse-whisperer, as well as the doubles specialist Marc Lopez, who partnered him to Olympic gold in 2016.

We are talking about a tight-knit group. And yet Nadal is among the most approachable players on the circuit, a man with a spotless reputation among all the everyday folk who make the tennis carousel go round: reporters, stringers, drivers and baristas. Giving a press conference to a packed Roland Garros media centre on Sunday, he paused before his first answer to wave and smile at Linda Christensen, tennis’s long-standing stenographer.

Clearly, Nadal’s celebrity entails some element of luxury. In 2019, I went to interview him at the Plaza Athenee in Paris, a hotel so opulent that a continental breakfast costs almost €60. Yet one suspects that it was his people who had reserved a magnificent suite, full of Louis XIV furniture and hanging tapestries. Nadal would have been just as happy in a coffee shop, and even more so on a golf course or fishing boat.

What I remember from that meeting is not the interview itself – which was part of a junket organised by watch-makers Richard Mille – but the way that Nadal went around the room once his duties were done, shaking hands with the photographers and the hotel staff and thanking everyone for their efforts.

Nadal has always known who he is. And so do the other players, for they see him every day. That’s why he is not just Petkovic’s favourite, but the whole locker room’s. He is the closest thing you will see to a patron saint of tennis pros.

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