Tennis warrior Rafael Nadal opens up in 'Rafa'

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal (Credit: Rafael Nadal/Getty Images)

"Rafa"
Rafael Nadal and John Carlin
$27.99, 272 pages (Hyperion)

To tennis fans, he is 25-year-old Rafa Nadal, the conqueror of mental weakness and winner of 10 Grand Slam titles — six of them in finals that required him to outlast Roger Federer, whom Nadal still calls “the best player in history.”

To those close to him — and to readers of his new memoir “Rafa” (out Tuesday) — he is also the boyish Rafael Nadal, unable to pack his own suitcase, “mad about” olives, with a “fierce taste” for chocolate croissants, and terminally impatient to return home to the Spanish island of Mallorca, where peace and anonymity await.

Co-authored with Barcelona-based British journalist John Carlin, “Rafa” explores the dual character of an athlete the world recognizes but knows little about. In newsprint-colored sections that alternate with Nadal’s narrative chapters, Carlin interviews the close-knit family and team members who sustain this complicated man who yearns for an uncomplicated life.

Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni, is perhaps most responsible for his split personality. Ever since Nadal’s youth, Toni stuck to a hard line of sometimes torturous reverse psychology, telling Rafa repeatedly that he was nothing special and rarely celebrating his wins. The armor Nadal built up against Toni’s intentional unfairness helped forge the “mental prison” that keeps the champion focused during every point. (Much of Nadal’s narration concerns his thinking throughout his classic 2008 Wimbledon victory against Federer.)

The book’s action concludes with Nadal’s triumph against a worn-out Novak Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open final at “Flushing Meadow,” as Nadal calls it. Djokovic has since roared back with an unbeaten run of five finals against Nadal this season, seizing the top ranking and complicating Nadal’s title defense. That story will begin to unfold next week.

‘My own unique version of the Achilles’ heel’

In his new memoir, Rafael Nadal describes facing “tennis death” in 2006, when doctors discovered a congenital deformity in a small bone (known as the “tarsal scaphoid”) in his left foot. The crippling pain made him contemplate retirement and even lose “all appetite for life.” But rather than give up (or undergo “dicey” and “untested” surgery), Nadal and his shoe sponsor, Nike, adjusted his insoles to alleviate the pressure on the bone. The solution enabled him to play through the foot pain, but later caused compensative injuries to his left knee.

Tags: Sports , Rafael Nadal

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