Thus far in the series on “Hidden Secrets of the Greats,” we discussed Roger Federer and his amazing perfectionism. This issue, we will discuss “The King of Clay,” Rafael Nadal, and try to pick the trait that has led him to the top. You may never be called “The King of Clay,” but you can most certainly improve your game by modeling yourself after Nadal. So let us take a closer look at Nadal’s development and his playing style and see what we can learn.
Some consider Rafa, age 27, to be the greatest player to have ever picked up a racket. “The Matador of Spin” is currently ranked number one in the world and is the proud owner of 13 Grand Slam titles, as well as a Gold Medal from the 2008 Olympics. His style of play is characterized as a behind-the-baseline counter-puncher who imparts incredible top spin. He is aggressive, athletic and fast and uses a lasso-whip follow through. He can hit deep and flat or with topspin. He dominates on clay and his only apparent weakness is his size (6’1”) which makes him more vulnerable to injury.
He was born into a wealthy family who have a history in professional sports. One of his uncles was a soccer pro and the other a tennis pro. As a child, “El Nino” was a talented soccer player, but eventually selected tennis. His family’s wealth and their love prompted them to keep him home rather than be raised and schooled by the Spanish Tennis Federation.
Having researched Nadal’s background, I went to Steve Kaplan of Bethpage Park tennis Center, one of the great analytic minds in the game. When I asked Steve to pick the one trait that best described Nadal, he used the word “ambition.” He said, “No one has continued to elevate his game the way Nadal has. He was always a back court grinder who then reinvented his serve and net play.” And Kaplan is not alone in describing Nadal as a grinder. Most journalists point to his endurance, patience, footwork, variety of shots and his tremendous mental strength.
As I continued to research Nadal’s career, I came across an interesting video of him and Roger Federer. They were doing a commercial for one of Roger’s charity events and were trying to rehearse a one-minute scripted conversation to make it look natural. They both spoke in English and Nadal was maybe 23 at the time. It had to be the sweetest 20 minutes ever recorded on YouTube. Both of them were doing their best to get the lines straight, but throughout, were breaking out in laughter. They had obvious affection for each other. As a psychoanalyst, what I could see was that this 23-year-old was good-hearted and good-natured. None of the vicious competitiveness you might expect from someone who was headed to the top of his sport. This was not a screaming Novak Djokovic or a pouting Jimmy Connors.
I thought back to the stories of Rafa’s childhood, where his parents cared for him enough to keep him home rather than give him up to the Spanish Tennis Federation. He is now known for his amazing ability to remain patient, focused and forgiving, and to work so hard. These traits come from a loving family who did their best to instill these values in him through example and instruction. I do not see any evidence of anger, depression or hyper aggression.
And the benefits of a healthy personality can mean success on the court and great profit off the court. He has lucrative endorsements by Nike, Kia Motors, Armani Jeans and Richard Mille Watches. The corporate world loves mental health and a nice-looking face. And perhaps most tellingly, Rafa is even loyal to his hometown of Mallorca by endorsing Quely Bakery from his hometown.
The value of a good family is crucial to all athletes. Tiger Woods was at the top of his game until his father passed away. When Nadal’s parents announced they were separating it precipitated the worst year of Rafa’s career. All great athletes are genetically gifted. But I would say that the real key to Nadal's enormous success is being imbedded in a loving family. It is worth noting that the opposite unfolded in the case of Sergio Garcia, the golfing phenom from Spain who never fulfilled his potential. His parents are separated and he has a history of becoming embroiled in many controversies, the worst of which was making discriminatory remarks about Tiger Woods in public.
The secret of Nadal is one of great talent grown over the years by the unwavering support of his family. There is simply no way to achieve and maintain greatness without this. The pressure to reach the top must be managed by a solid family and without this all the genetic talent and hard work in the world will eventually crumble and come to naught.
How this relates to you: If you have talent and dream of going pro one day, my recommendation to you is to take in your family support, thank them for what they give to you and tell them how much you appreciate all they do for you. The mother and father will be the ones who taxi the young prodigy about, pay for airfare, pay for entry fees, court time and lessons. And without this type of a support system, no talent in the world will get very far. The trust and mental health that comes from the family’s love is Nadal’s secret weapon.
Dr. Tom Ferraro
For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.