Rafa, an autobiography of former number one player Rafael Nadal, was published last summer, but considering that its subject has just scored another career triumph, playing on Spain's winning Davis Cup team late last year, this is a good time to revisit Nadal's story.
As sport autobiographies go, Rafa holds up well. This is because its subject seems, on the whole, to be a decent guy. Gestures like his comforting of Polish players on the tour when a plane crash killed a number of their leaders and the respectful way he has conducted himself as he passed his rival Roger Federer in the fight for the top spot in the men’s rankings, point to the fact that Nadal is, in all, a grounded young man despite his international celebrity. Rafa supplies a number of personal and professional details about the star's many pre-match rituals and training habits that will be of interest to his fans.
Anyone who follows tennis already knows about his obsessive positioning of the water bottles during a match, but the Rafa book reveals a whole range of rituals that he goes through including taking a cold shower before big matches.
The first chapter is a moment-by-moment description of how he prepared for his 2008 Wimbledon final with Roger Federer. It includes a funny description of himself and Federer in the locker room before the match. Federer is sitting quietly on a wooden bench. Nadal, with music blasting through his headphones, is sprinting around the small room and doing other violent exercises. It was the contrasting styles of the two players that made their rivalry so great when they were the two top players in the game, before Novak Djokovic came along to spoil the party.
This section of the book also contains a lengthy passage about how hard it is to hit a ball well even for Nadal. He talks about all of the adjustments players need to make to hit even one ball well, never mind the dozens of hits a long rally can consist of. Well, if it seems hard for Nadal, no wonder all of us less-skilled players have trouble.
Another strength of Rafa is its descriptions of Nadal growing up. In addition to cute pictures of him as an infant, it starts off his career progression throughout the junior ranks. It won't shock anyone to learn he was very good, very young.
There has been a lot of ink spilled describing Spaniard Carlos Moya's mentor-like relationship with Nadal. After all, what are the chances you would get two world number ones from a small island like Majorca?
But as Moya makes clear in some passages quoted in Nadal's book, it wasn't like he was doing charity work with the teenaged Nadal when Moya practiced with him. Moya says that even when Nadal was 14 or 15, he was tough to beat. As the older Majorcan puts it, “You didn't want to be a grown man and a top 10 ATP tour professional and lose to a kid.”
Of course, Nadal was not just any kid. Rafa shows how his support team was put in place early and hasn't changed much over the years. He describes his uncle Toni as the toughest tennis coach in the world. His trainer and his agent, former ATP pro Carlos Costa, are prime members of an entourage that enable Nadal to exist in a kind of Borg-like cocoon that allows him to play his best tennis.
In the book Open, readers were given a good look at everything the young Andre Agassi had to give up in order to be a champion. Nadal's sacrifices don't seem to be as harsh, no doubt because instead of getting sent away from home, as his team is family-centered with his uncle calling most of the shots. Still, as he says in the middle of the book, he wishes he could go out of the hotel in New York and just walk around, but he feels, rightly or wrongly, that he would be recognized and mobbed.
Instead, Nadal says that when he is here in the Big Apple, about the only place he goes besides the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is to sponsor events to which he's whisked in and out without being able to get a feel for New York's streets.
One fault of the book is that Carlin doesn't seem clear about the difference between "Slams" and "Grand Slams." He often has Nadal up there with Rod Laver and Don Budge as another Grand Slam winner, when what he means is that the Majorcan has won another one of the Big Four.
It would be interesting to get the kind of personal reaction that Nadal shows readers in this book with co-author John Carlin about his adjustment to the change in the tennis world order that the ascension of Djokovic has caused.
The year 2011 has been a remarkable season for the Serb, and most of his triumphs have come by beating both Nadal and Federer. It would be interesting to hear what Nadal's take is on his two, straight-set losses to Djokovic at home in Madrid and in Rome this year. But Nadal's fans will have to wait for a second book to get these insights. For now, Rafa, will function as a good read and a source of information about how Nadal climbed the ladder to become the number one player in the world.